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We Discussed Australia’s Obsolete Military Strategy With a Defence Expert

The Government is about to publish their long-term defence strategy and Alan Dupont is worried. We asked the security expert and former diplomat about why Australia is falling behind the times.

by Julian Morgans
Mar 19 2015, 12:00am

HMAS Darwin. Image via Kristopher Wilson


HMAS Darwin showing some conventional military strength. Image via

Every few years the Prime Minister and the Minister for Defence release a White Paper outlining Australia's defence strategy over the next few years.The Gillard Government released the last in 2013 but naturally the Coalition resolved to replace it by 2015. That paper hasn't come out yet, but one of the Nation's top defense experts is already calling bullshit. The problem, according to security strategist, former diplomat and Lowy Institute Nonresident Fellow Alan Dupont, is that Australia's military strategy needs an overhaul, and not just an update. We called him for some details.

VICE: Hi Alan. Let's start with our current defence strategy. Where are we going wrong?
Alan Dupont : First of all, we're still stuck in this old paradigm where we're worried about bad guys attacking us in some black and white documentary situation. But that's just not how challenges will unfold in the future. If there is some sort of military attack it's unlikely to be predictable and it's more likely to be an attack by a non-state entity or terrorist group. And secondly, the role of the military is changing and we need to acknowledge that. In the 21st century the reality is that defence forces do a range of jobs including emergency relief, humanitarian intervention, and peacekeeping, to name a few. So every country needs a defence budget, but my issue is that if there is a defence budget, it needs to be spent on the right strategy.

Can you give me a specific example of a current strategic failure?
Let's take Afghanistan. If you look at the 2013 White Paper it's very much of the view that those kinds of messy, hybrid, irregular conflicts are behind us. In the future we'd have more conventional maritime conflicts in the Western Pacific around China, so we could forget about the lessons learned in Afghanistan. But of course the Afghanistans of the world are still going on and this type of on-land warfare now seem to be the dominant model. This is why it's a bad idea to get locked into White Papers that are written periodically and outdated before their ink dries.


Alan Dupont. Image supplied

So you think white papers are a bad idea?
Well I don't know if white papers are the answer. If we're writing these things every six to seven years they're going to get out of date pretty quickly. We might be better off reviewing our strategy every year. That might be a better approach.

I'm summarising here, but it seems Australia's military just needs to keep up with the times. Why hasn't this already been recognised?
As always, once orthodoxy is entrenched in a bureaucracy as big as defence, it's incredibly hard to change. But the real problem is that few Australian politicians have any kind of defence background or understanding. They're being brought information that they don't have the experience to question and that's why there's been little change.

You talk a lot about the growing threat of cyber warfare. Should Australia scrap it's commitment to submarines and assemble a crack team of hackers?
I don't think it's either or. Submarines fulfil an intelligence role as well as anti-submarine warfare role and we need them. But a team of hackers? Absolutely. And we are putting together people with these capabilities but I don't think there's nearly enough emphasis on it. Just about everything these days depends on satellites. Imagery, identifying targets, and then guiding weapons systems to hit them. If someone brought our satellites down the whole military would come to a grinding halt.

Here's a commonly held belief that I want to put to you: Australia's military could never compete with superpowers like China, so why don't we just ditch defence entirely?
Again, I think that's a very 19th century idea of what defence forces do. They're here for a lot more than protecting the Australian mainland from attack. And I also think that every self-respecting country needs to provide for its people through social welfare, as well as defence. It's a primary obligation.

Finally, can you give me an example of the most recent military development?
I'll give you an example from Ukraine. If you look at how the Russians conducted their military campaign, it was significantly different to how they'd done things before. They claimed they had nothing to do with it; that it was just troops in generic green uniform, all speaking Russian and with the latest equipment. This plausible deniability and the use of cyber attacks to take down opposition communications systems are new characteristics of warfare. And while the fundamentals of warfare haven't changed in 5000 years, the way in which military forces choose to operate has evolved, just like everything else on the planet.

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