Key issues about Australia's defence and strategic security

This summary covers key issues affecting Australia's strategic security, defence and national security generally, and associated reforms proposed by the Australia Defence Association.


Need for adequate and sustained investment in our defence

  • For much of the 20th Century the amounts Australia spent each year on social security, health, education and defence were roughly approximate. Over the 30 years to the year 2000 this situation changed dramatically.

  • Counting both federal and state spending, each year we now spend about 8.5 times more on social security, about 4.5 times more on health and around 4 times more on education than we invest in our defence. This is not to say that these areas are unimportant ? merely that defence is important too. The best schools and hospitals are not much good if someone with a different view of our place in the world can take them away from us or otherwise affect our use of them by threatening our sovereignty, strategic freedom of action internationally and the international commerce our whole standard of living and way of life depend on.

  • Defence spending is the only one of the above categories that is wholly a federal government responsibility. For many years it was the single largest Commonwealth outlay but is now only fifth. In relative terms, defence spending has declined or remained relatively static for decades, while spending in these other areas continues to rise faster than growth in both general expenditure or GDP. The facts underlying this situation, and its gravity, are unknown or seem counter-intuitive to many Australians because they view investment in our national defence infrastructure from uninformed, complacent, sectionally biased or ideologically-driven  viewpoints.

  • Even when governments recognise they are not investing enough in defence the levels of investment promised are not delivered. The ADA notes, for example, that the gap between the funds promised in several defence white papers since 1987 and the funds actually delivered by 2010 is now at least $145 billion in current-year dollars..

  • Moreover, consistenbt and sustained investment in defence capabilities over the long term would be cheaper and more efficient than the fluctuating levels of funding that have actually occurred. This is primarily because too much funding has to be spent swiftly, even if only eventually, to redress the longer periods of chronic under-investment by rebuilding defence capabilities that should not have been run down in the first place at the cost of ruinous expense over the long term..

  • In a situation where there has clearly been serious underinvestment in our defence capabilities for at least three decades, the ADA believes defence funding needs to be maintained at not less than two per cent of GDP or 8-9 percent of the federal budget whichever is the greater. The Howard government increased defence spending by about three per cent annually in real terms following the strategic shock of Australia's close-run East Timor deployment in 1999. The Rudd government agreed to continue this until 2016 but this did not occur from the 2009/10 budget onwards.

  • Too many Australians do not understand, or deliberately forget, that increases from 2000 to 2010 were essentially only catching up for the preceding three decades of ever-worsening under-investment, and in some cases outright neglect of national defence responsibilities, under governments of all political persuasions.

  • While the problems being experienced in re-equipping the ADF are the result of a number of causes (see below), the bottom line remains that Australia is not allocating enough of its resources to its defence. We are, in effect, gambling with the future of our children and their children.

  • No major additional funds should be committed, however, until the Department of Defence is reformed (see below) and the people of Australia can be confident the money will be spent wisely.

Need for a National Security Council

  • While we welcomed the creation of the post of National Security Adviser in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, the ADA considers that Australia needs a small, statutory, National Security Council to better control and co-ordinate national security issues and initiatives on a whole-of-government basis. The council we propose would have an executive role subordinate to the National Security Committee of Cabinet and accountable to that standing Cabinet committee.

  • This council would combine relevant ministers, senior ADF commanders and senior officials in both executive and consultative roles. Some or all the state premiers or territory chief ministers, or their attorneys-general or police ministers, may be invited to attend on occasion when matters concerning their state or territory are affected.

  • Current inter-departmental structures and processes are too bureaucratic and cumbersome. They are also too subject to confusion in the delivery of information to Cabinet and with integrated collective ministerial direction to departments, the defence force and the law enforcement, intelligence and security agencies. This situation is even worse where joint federal-state action is required.

  • The Office of National Assessments (ONA) has long been an intelligence staff masquerading as an intelligence agency. ONA should be disbanded as a separate agency with its responsibilities and staff becoming the intelligence staff of the National Security Council.

  • The Secretary's Committee on National Security (SCONS) would be revamped and become a sub-committee only of the National Security Council.

  • The ADA does not believe Australia needs a department of homeland security as in the USA. The risk is that this would just create another bureaucratic monstrosity like the Department of Defence and reduce the effectiveness of agencies such as ASIO and the Federal Police, not least by inserting intermediate levels of bureaucracy between agency heads and the responsible Minister.

Thorough reform of ministerial oversight to reduce bureaucracy in the Department of Defence

  • The defence force must always be subject to civil political control. But this does not mean it should be plagued by so much civilian bureaucratic interference in clearly military professional matters. Civil bureaucratic "supervision" is not civil political control and is, in fact, inimical to it. The Department of Defence should exist only to support the ADF and its supervising Ministers.

  • Numerous reviews over decades have found that the structure, culture and practices of, the Department of Defence are fundamentally flawed and require urgent and thorough reform. No other comparable country organises the management of its defence like Australia does – for the excellent reason that this type of structure does not work.

  • The ADA believes that the department in its current form and attitude prevents ministerial ‘grip’, prevents ministers from having sufficient and regular contact with ADF commanders and their staffs, is unnecessarily bureaucratic, has unclear chains of command and authority, and diffuses responsibility and accountability to the extent that major time wasting and bungling is endemic.

  • Moreover, the people we expect to fight with the weapons and equipment we buy for them surely have a right to a fair say in advising governments of what those weapons, etc, need to be. This does not occur enough at present and defence force expertise is not utilised sufficiently in strategic policy, capability development and procurement decisions. The result is too often moral, operational and financial failure.

  • The Department of Defence is simply too big and too complex for any one minister. Or for one and a half ministers or two part-time assistant ministers (as at present).

  • For over a decade the ADA has argued that reform of higher defence responsibilities has to start somewhere and a good place is with greater and more dedicated ministerial supervision. The Rudd government finally accepted the thrust of the ADA's argument and substantially increased (from 2½ to 4) the number of supervising ministers and parliamentary secretaries on assuming office. The Gillard Governbment has unfortunately weakened is structure.

The ADA continues to maintain that there should be three, full-time ministers in the defence portfolio (and that none of them should have responsibilities in other portfolios):

  • a senior Minister for Defence responsible for the overall portfolio, and particularly for:

    • national strategic policy and the strategies to execute it,

    • departmental corporate performance

    • finance, and

    • integrating defence matters into a wider whole-of-government approach to national security;

  • a junior Minister for Defence Science and Procurement responsible for:

    • materiel procurement and sustainment,

    • the Defence Science and Technology Organisation (DSTO),

    • the Defence Materiel Organisation (DMO); and

    • integration of the separate but complementary efforts of the DSTO and DMO;

  • a junior Minister for the Defence Force responsible for:

    • day-to-day operational matters concerning the defence force in Australia and overseas,

    • intelligence support to the ADF and the department,

    • capability development (including Capability Development Group), and

    • personnel, health and administrative support to the defence force.

  • a Parliamentary Secretary for Defence Support would assist the Minister for Defence with his corporate responsibilities such as Defence Support Group.

  • a Parliamentary Secretary for the Defence Force would assist the Minister for the Defence Force with ADF Reserve, cadet and personnel matters.

Three ministers and two parliamentary secretaries would also allow a better career path to groom junior ministers and parliamentary secretaries, some of whom might be expected to eventually return to the portfolio as the senior minister or a junior minister respectively after appointments in other portfolios.

It would also help prevent the frequent situation over recent decades where Prime-Ministers have neglected Defence by either allocating the part-time junior minister position in the Defence portfolio to short-term appointments of capable ministers who are soon promoted. Or, to the opposite extreme, to loyal (party) duds, or marginal seat holders needing extra profile for electoral purposes, who are left there for long periods to the severe detriment of the defence force and the workload of the senior minister.

Let commanders command

  • The ADA considers that the bureaucratic structure and culture that has progressively engulfed the Department of Defence since World War II unnecessarily inhibits defence force commanders in the performance of their statutory and professional duties, their ability to provide quality military advice to Ministers, and in their professional and moral obligations to the men and women under their command.

  • The current structure and culture of the department also impedes effective command and control of operations.

  • Under overall ministerial control and parliamentary oversight we let police and fire service commissioners run their respective services without undue bureaucratic interference but saddle the defence force with a largely unnecessary, overly large and "managerialist" public service bureaucracy.

Robust processes for developing strategic policy

  • The ADA notes that one of the reasons we have such problems in funding and organising our defence is because Australia (and the Department of Defence in particular) does not have intellectually or professionally robust structures and processes for assessing our strategic situation and consequently deriving and implementing defence strategy.

  • Far too often ADF capability development decisions are driven by strategic ‘fads’, narrow ideological imperatives, academic pet theories, party-political 'pork barrelling' and perceived funding constraints, rather than genuine strategic need.

  • These flaws are exacerbated by the 15-25 year frames involved with developing and maintaining defence force capability development and sustainability too often clashing with party-political and bureaucratic perspectives driven by our three-year federal electoral cycle and four-year budgetary cycle.

Integrated national security white paper

  • The ADA has long advocated a holistic approach to national security assessments and planning – as is done in all comparable countries. For example, the production of separate, poorly co-ordinated foreign affairs and defence white papers should be avoided.

  • We should have a co-ordinated series of national security white papers covering all such matters in an integrated and coherent approach.

  • The Rudd government appeared to have accepted ADA arguments in this regard and tentatively moved in this direction. Unfortunately this progress seems to have ended with Mr Rudd's departure from the prime-ministership.

Reform of Public Affairs Responsibilities in the Department of Defence

  • As the imbroglios over the so-called "children overboard", "Abu Ghraib", the ADFA "skype scandal" and many other  incidents demonstrate, the Department of Defence’s structure and approach for handling public affairs has been a disaster for both the ADF and the people of Australia.

  • The organisation, culture and processes of the department's approach are based on several flawed theories of public affairs. Defence's public affairs division is regarded as inept, at best, by the vast majority of professional journalists.

  • The ADA believes that the overly centralised, overly politicised and unduly restrictive approach to defence public affairs  should be ended. The responsibility for most public affairs should be decentralised and returned to ADF commanders at all levels as an integral part of their command and operational responsibilities.