Australia’s strategic policy and force structure: The emerging paradigm shift

Paul Monk

Since 11 September 2001, few phrases have been more common than the claim that the world will never be the same again. But what does that mean? The attacks on the United States on 11 September 2001 were not so much a cause as a symptom of change that had been under way for some time. The impact of the attacks on the heartland of the United States was so great that it led many people to talk impulsively of the world having changed in irrevocable ways, although few had any clear idea of what they themselves meant by this claim.

Well before 9/11, however, it was common knowledge that the world had changed dramatically in a few short years. The watershed year was 1989, but even it came in the midst of a great deal of change. China had, by then, been in the midst of accelerating change for a decade. Japan was being touted as set to overtake the United States as the world’s number one economy. Then, entirely contrary to the expectations of most specialists, to say nothing of the general public, the Communist regimes in Eastern Europe collapsed, all within a few months, at year’s end. The apartheid regime in South Africa quietly dismantled itself. Then the Soviet Union itself imploded.

We were in need of a paradigm shift in Australia before 9/11.

Nor did it end there. The genocide in Rwanda, in which 800,000 people lost their lives; the terrible famine in North Korea in which up to two million people lost their lives; an all but unreported civil war in Zaire, in which four million people have lost their lives; the financial crisis in East and Southeast Asia; the breakout in 1998 by India and Pakistan from what Jaswant Singh called ‘nuclear apartheid’; the collapse of the Suharto regime and the coming of democracy to Indonesia; the reversal of Indonesia’s annexation of East Timor; the decision of the United States to rescind the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty of 1972 … all these and more occurred in the decade before 9/11. Change and crisis were endemic.


Not only were change and crisis endemic, but there were plenty of people arguing that we needed to rethink things and come up with some kind or other of ‘new world order’. The need is fundamental, not superficial: assumptions that have long guided strategic policy thinking are being seriously tested, if not overturned by the changes I’ve just catalogued. This kind of situation requires a paradigm shift, as Thomas Kuhn explained the term in his famous study, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1970).

A paradigm governs the interpretation of whatever data appear on the Over the Horizon Radar, until too many anomalies accumulate for the interpretation to feel right—at least to those with sensitive antennae. They start to re-examine the assumptions they have taken for granted, thinking outside the square, as the classic puzzle has it, until they are able to rework their interpretive frame to account for all the data in a more economical and—partly for that reason—more convincing way.

We were in need of a paradigm shift in Australia before 9/11. All 9/11 did was to highlight certain aspects of the new state of affairs that demanded that we pull back and rethink our strategic policy. Anomalies in the specifically Australian experience of the preceding decade, had been indicating the need for us to rethink our strategic policy assumptions well before 9/11 sounded alarm bells in various quarters.

The specifically Australian paradigm that needs rethinking is, of course, the Defence of Australia (DoA) doctrine, informally developed in the 1970s, and formalised under the Hawke Labor government in the 1980s. Its fundamental assumptions were that the world of the Cold War would endure for the foreseeable future; that in such a world, after the Vietnam War and the apparent retreat of American military power, Australia needed to be circumspect about foreign entanglements, and was better able than in the past to be self-reliant should it face a direct threat to its territorial sovereignty. The unusual geography of Australia meant that we could reasonably expect to detect emerging threats with advanced surveillance systems, and defend ourselves against them with state of the art conventional forces, in the sea-air gap between our northern shores and the islands of Indonesia and Melanesia.

Three of the deep assumptions and anxieties at work here might have benefited from closer critical examination at the time. First was the belief that being remote from both our erstwhile great and powerful friend, Great Britain, and our more recent one, the United States, made us vulnerable to conventional invasion. Second was that this vulnerability consisted in having a huge shoreline open to the north. Third was that a modest expenditure of 2.8 per cent of GDP per annum would enable us to defend this geographic frontier against the threats that might appear over the horizon—at least long enough for the US cavalry to arrive.

The central assumptions of the DoA were question-able from the start.

The most dramatic precedent for all this, still very much in living memory in the 1970s and early 1980s, was the Japanese blitzkrieg through South East Asia in 1942 and the bombing of Darwin. But vaguer anxieties went back much earlier, to concerns about Germans in the South Pacific, pre-Bolshevik Russians in the Pacific and, even earlier, the French in the Pacific. There were also, of course, diffuse anxieties about Indonesia, dating back to the Sukarno era, and Asian Communism, especially the version ascendant in China under Mao Zedong.

By 1986, it would have required quite a lively imagination to conceive of the Japanese having another crack at military domination of South East Asia. Indonesia, under Suharto, was starting to do quite well economically, but was very far from having either the capacity or the inclination to make a lunge at Australia’s northern shores; China was deep into fundamental economic reform, and the first stirrings of a democracy movement that had been challenging the Communist monopoly of political power.

In short, the central assumptions of the DoA were questionable from the start. Yet memories of 1942 and vague unease about Soviet ambitions and Indonesia’s demographic weight seem to have been enough to screen the doctrine from serious questioning. My own surmise is that those who crafted the DoA actually were not anticipating having to fire shots in anger in the sea-air gap. They believed that the Soviet Union and the basic strategic realities of the Cold War, as they understood them, would remain in place for the indefinite future, but that this would not entail a conventional invasion of Australia by a power in, or lodging itself in, the archipelagic screen to our north. Australia could reassure its citizens of their security, keep its defence expenditure within modest limits and avoid the risks of foreign wars, largely because the Communists were not coming—and neither were the Indonesians.

The conservative and uncritical nature of these assumptions seems to be borne out by the fact that the Labor government, for a decade after 1986, allowed defence expenditure to drift down to less than 2 per cent of GDP, and quite deliberately allowed the capabilities of the Army to shrink. But perhaps, also, the disinclination to countenance an actual paradigm shift, from the DoA to something better suited to the new state of affairs, because many people broadly aligned with the DoA preferred to remain behind the secure moat to the north and to avoid the risks of foreign wars, if at all possible.

However, it is precisely here that the anomalies come into play. For throughout the DoA era, between 1986 and 2000, Australian forces were deployed abroad on quite a few occasions, and never once in a manner for which the DoA had prepared them. Neither on the islands to our north nor further abroad have we faced conventional enemies intent on mastering the sea-air gap and attacking or invading Broome, Darwin, or Townsville. We have not had occasion to use capital ships or advanced combat aircraft in anything other than a symbolic role. We have, instead, relied on the Army to work on complex missions in a wide variety of operational theatres dealing with post-Cold War world order concerns. The other services have worked to facilitate and support these operations.

The INTERFET operation marked the beginning of serious questioning of the DoA paradigm.

Until the INTERFET operation in East Timor, in 1999, these operations, starting with the Gulf War in 1990–91, tended to be written off as assimilable anomalies, which is to say exceptions to the DoA strategic policy that did not challenge its fundamental assumptions and did not require that it be reframed—even though there had been ‘an almost total break with everything we were familiar with during the Cold War’, as Paul Dibb wrote in winter 2000. A rather odd thing happened with the East Timor operation. It was cited as evidence that vindicated the DoA, because, so it was alleged, the DoA posited the region to our north, not the further abroad, as our strategic priority and basing the Army in the north had made the deployment easier than it would otherwise have been. This line of argument has been repeated in regard to the Solomons.

This is what happens when a paradigm is challenged: evidence is tugged and pulled in contending directions, bits of it are cast aside altogether, and the assumptions of the old paradigm are stretched and bent to accommodate otherwise inassimilable facts. However, notwithstanding various attempts to assimilate it into the DoA paradigm, the INTERFET operation marked the beginning of a serious questioning of that paradigm—two years or so before 9/11. The questioning took two forms: an informal unease, especially in government quarters, that the operation had been very taxing for the Defence Force; and a formal challenge based on some longer term thinking and critical analysis of the force structure built up under the DoA and its limitations.

The first is common in many policy areas, and anyone with political common sense knows that governments must often muddle through and amend things piecemeal while keeping up appearances. There comes a time, however, when more fundamental thinking is called for. The more formal critique of the DoA suggested that that time had come for Australian strategic policy. The informal unease and the formal critique intersected in the White Paper of 2000 (Department of Defence 2000). It articulated an interim position and mandated some incremental adjustments to force structure priorities in the light of the anomalies of the preceding decade, and especially the East Timor operation. Then came 9/11. The question at that point was not whether the world had changed, but whether we had even begun to think deeply enough about the ways in which it had done so, and the implications these entailed for our strategic assumptions.

Why did 9/11 have such a disproportionate impact? A non-state actor had struck massive blows at the centres of the American economy and its military power. These blows had caught the world’s most powerful military and intelligence establishments entirely off their guard. There were threats of further and even more devastating assaults that might involve weapons of mass destruction, and that would indiscriminately target civilians. And there was no evident way to identify, deter, or strike back decisively against the perpetrators, even though it was clear to all but the paranoid that al Qaeda had done it. The problem was that al Qaeda was a shadowy confederation with global reach, not territorial fixity.


My own immediate response to the events of 9/11 was reflected in an essay called ‘Seven Theses of War’, published ten days later, in which I made a first attempt to reckon with the events and their disturbing implications (Monk 2001a; see also Monk 2001b). It was not, however, until last year, reading Philip Bobbitt’s The Shield of Achilles (2002), that I felt I had discovered at least the rudiments of what was needed for rethinking the truly profound implications of 9/11; which is to say of the deeper and wider changes in the world of which 9/11 had been such a stunning symptom.

Technologies generated in the Long War have undermined the basis of the liberal nation-state.

Bobbitt’s central claim is states evolve over time, not in a teleological manner towards some discernible end of history goal, but in a Darwinian manner, under the pressure of strategic competition. Competition drives not simply revolutions in military affairs but revolutions in constitutional affairs. The consequence is what might be called a pattern of competitive equilibrium, punctuated by epochal wars. Those wars are fought over constitutional issues and end only when the underlying constitutional issues are resolved by the triumph of one kind of state over others. This, in turn, leads to international treaties which generalise the new constitutional paradigm in the form of agreement between states as to what they themselves are, and how they shall behave in regard to one another.

Augsburg (1555), Westphalia (1648), Utrecht (1713), Vienna (1815), Versailles (1919) and Paris (1990) are the treaties Bobbitt cites as epochal in this respect, marking the evolution, within the international states system from princely states, to kingly states, to territorial states, to state-nations, to nation-states and then to the new state form he sees as arising in the wake of what he calls the Long War of the 20th century—market states. That war, from 1914 to 1990, was over what form of nation-state—liberal, fascist or communist—would prevail. It ended only when the liberal state had comprehensively defeated and discredited both of its rivals.

The detail in which he addresses his fantastically complex subject and the originality of his analysis have made Bobbitt’s book required reading for all those concerned with contemporary strategic affairs. His most important general observation is that, having resolved the great constitutional issue of the 20th century that divided them, nation states at the end of the century found themselves increasingly uncertain how to configure, much less deploy their armed forces.

In other words, what we face here is not merely a matter of anomalies in Australia’s specific strategic paradigm, but fundamental problems for the strategic paradigm that has governed the thinking of nation states for a century. Bobbitt’s interpretation of modern history challenges us to rethink what security itself is about; not just for ourselves but in the world at large, as we enter the 21st century. He sees a need for all nation states to reconfigure what their defence forces are designed to do, how they are trained to act and where they fit within a broader architecture of state security.

Bobbitt claims that the technologies generated in the Long War—especially weapons of mass destruction, information technology and global communications—have undermined the basis of the liberal nation-state, even as they helped bring down its fascist and communist rivals. They have done so by creating dangers and pressures against which the nation-state finds it increasingly difficult to defend itself under the terms of the 20th century strategic paradigm of threat, deterrence, and retaliation. Given what is now arising, he argued, writing before 9/11, this whole paradigm would, of necessity, be replaced by a strategic paradigm based on vulnerability, pre-emption, and resilience.

We need an ADF strongly configured for pro-active or pre-emptive complex war-fighting.

Note that Bobbitt did not conceive any of these ideas in response to 9/11, but on the basis of an analysis of the past 500 years which led him to conclusions that just happened to seem extraordinarily well-timed when The Shield of Achilles was published in 2002. His work is like the theoretical physics pursued for years before the outbreak of Hitler’s war in Europe precipitated the Manhattan Project and the making of the atomic bomb in the United States. He was not thinking inside the square, but was thinking long and hard about matters that most of us give little heed to, or see almost entirely in more conventional terms.


How, then, does Australia fit within the far larger picture painted by Bobbitt? For most of our history, we were somewhat inclined to think that we were or could become vulnerable to conventional invasion by a hostile nation state. During the Long War, this occurred once—when Japanese forces lodged themselves in the archipelagic screen to our north. Under the DoA the armed forces were structured to deal with that kind of contingency. Now we need to consider a whole range of vulnerabilities that are not likely to take this form. Under the DoA we considered that our force structure would serve to deter such conventional assault. Now we must consider the possibility that this force structure will be irrelevant to almost all the problems Australia is likely to confront.

Under the DoA we assumed that our forces, if they did not deter a conventional attack, would be useful in retaliating against its perpetrators. Now we must consider the need for pre-emptive action to head off not conventional, but unconventional attacks. Australia also needs to build resilience into its legal, medical, informational, and infrastructural systems in order to guard against disabling attacks by unconventional enemies. In short, we need an ADF strongly configured for pro-active or pre-emptive complex war-fighting and a national security architecture that addresses the need for integrated capacities for monitoring vulnerabilities and buttressing our resilience in the face of unconventional dangers.

Let me conclude with some ideas and proposals for strategically reorienting Australia in the post-liberal new world order.

First, I believe that there has been an epochal shift in the nature of international relations. One consequence of this shift is that, despite much pious genuflecting in the direction of the United Nations as an idea, as a practical reality it is in serious disarray. This means we must we rethink the fundamental architecture of collective security put in place under the old paradigm at the height of the Long War. The shift also has implications closer to home. Although pre-emption was declared discredited after the failure to find WMD in Iraq, it is likely to be an increasingly pressing expedient. Accordingly, we need to develop new understandings with our neighbors, starting with Indonesia, to ensure that it is both feasible and does not cause inter-state conflict.

Major procurement decisions are about to be made: let’s use the opportunity wisely.

Second, I want to challenge the adequacy of the existing DoA architecture, using Bobbitt’s framework. Several elements of existing equipment and planned acquisitions are enormously expensive to purchase and maintain, and address strategic threats that are no longer paramount. For example, assuming that we do not face the threat of an air war over the sea air gap between now and 2020, it is not clear what purpose is served by acquiring 100 Joint Strike Fighters, given that they will cost us some $20 billion and that our defence budget is under unrelenting pressure. Failed state operations in the island archipelago are far more likely to demand our resources than is a naval shoot out with Indonesian or Chinese forces. Indeed, the probability of the latter is vanishingly small. So the case for the JSFs needs to be reconsidered on a risk-weighted basis, not allowed to pass by default on the basis of long-standing but unexamined assumptions about national security. Nor is it clear precisely what purpose is served by investing some six billion dollars or more in Aegis-equipped destroyers. And if the real dangers we are likely to face will not come over the northern horizon, what, other than the Over the Horizon Radar, ought to be the centre-piece of our surveillance of the possible dangers that could confront us?

We need to think through the practical (as compared with conceptual) obstacles that stand in the way of our choosing to expend differently some, or if we were truly bold, all of the $20 billion that the Joint Strike Fighters would cost over the next decade or so. A better spending plan could be a combination of research into unmanned aerial vehicles and substantially enhanced joint special forces for manoeuvre operations in the littoral environment or coalition operations in the further abroad.

To replace the current command and force structure designed to defend the moat, Australia also needs to think carefully about the national security architecture needed to enable robust inter-agency co-ordination in the event of a major incident involving nuclear, biological or chemical weapons, or a sustained terrorist campaign. We need, also, to improve the resilience of critical infrastructure against covert sabotage. Finally, we need to understand the skills and the kind of institutional architecture required to anticipate and address the challenges of the changed world we are now entering, to replace the existing intelligence infrastructure, much of which was originally conceived in terms of the nation-state threats of the Long War.

Some of this work is being done already and some of this thinking is at work in plans for a seamless joint force by 2020. Too much of the thinking, however, remains constricted by the inertial momentum of force structure maintenance and conservative strategic policy assumptions. This inaugural Vernon Sturdee Symposium is dedicated to opening up the debate in these respects. I hope that it will serve that purpose and that the Sturdee Symposium will become a major forum for the continuing reflection on our strategic policy and force structure that will be required in the years ahead. We stand, however, at a crucial juncture where major procurement decisions are on the verge of being made. Unless they are made judiciously, we shall find ourselves locked into what may prove both an unsustainable and an inappropriate force structure for many years to come. We have a rare opportunity to make fundamental adjustments and we should do all we can to ensure that that opportunity is used wisely.


Bobbitt, P. 2002, The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace and the Course of History, Knopf, New York.

Department of Defence 2000, Our Future Defence Force: A Public Discussion Paper, DPS 38459/2000, Defence Publishing Service, Canberra.

Dibb, P. 2000, ‘A Trivial Strategic Age?’ Quadrant, July-August, pp. 11–17.

Kuhn, T. 1970, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, (2nd Edition), University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Monk, P. 2001, ‘Seven Theses of War’, Australian Financial Review, Friday Review, 21 September, pp. 1–2.

Monk, P. 2001, ‘Timely Guide to Islamic Perspective’, Australian Financial Review, Friday Review, 26 October, pp. 6–7.

Paul Monk worked for the Defence Intelligence Organisation on East Asia during the 1990s. Currently he is a Principal at Austhink and a Research Associate at the School of Asian Studies at Latrobe University. This essay is an edited version of an address to the Sturdee Symposium on Australian Grand Strategy at the Royal Military College, Duntroon, Canberra, on 12 April 2005.

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