Strategic analyst reopens debate about ‘core force’ v ‘Defence of Australia’

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Since its inception, the Defence of Australia concept has been contentious, focused too heavily on the defensive and containing adversaries until a great power could arrive to deliver the killing blow. As the Indo-Pacific has evolved, Australia’s core strategic policy and force structure hasn’t.

Australia’s once insulating ‘tyranny of distance’ is rapidly being replaced by a dangerous ‘predicament of proximity’ to the fastest growing economies and militaries in an increasingly volatile part of the world.

The nation has long had a tough relationship with the ‘tyranny of distance’. On one hand, the nation’s populace has treated it with disdain and hostility, while Australia’s political and strategic leaders have recognised the importance of geographic isolation.

The rise of Indo-Pacific Asia means the ‘tyranny of distance’ has been replaced by a ‘predicament of proximity’. 

China, India, Indonesia, Thailand, Japan and several other regional nations are reshaping the economic and strategic paradigms with an unprecedented period of economic and arms build-up, competing interests and rising animosity towards the post-World War II order Australia is a pivotal part of in the region. 

The growing proliferation of key force projection capabilities, ranging from aircraft carriers, fifth-generation combat aircraft, advanced conventional and nuclear-powered submarines to area-access denial systems and advanced ground forces, high-speed, precision munitions, space and cyber capabilities, is at the core of this paradigm shifting reality.

Additionally, the increasing instability and transactional view of alliances from within the Trump administration, supporting its apparent apprehension to intervene or at least maintain the global rules-based order following the radical shift in US politics, also forces Australia to reassess the strategic calculus.

There has been a growing debate about the shifting nature of the regional dynamics, the rise of asymmetric threats and non-traditional threats to national security and national resilience become increasingly prominent factors in the nation’s long-term economic, political and holistic strategic planning. 

However, it would seem that Australia’s core strategic policy, the Cold War-era ‘Defence of Australia’ policy and its subsequent impact upon force structure and development, hasn’t evolved to account for the rapidly evolving regional and global dynamics. 

Enter US-based strategic analyst Sam Fairall-Lee in his piece for ASPI “‘Defence of Australia’ or ‘Core Force’: We can’t have it both ways”, in which he articulates: “Since the mid-1970s, Australia’s defence strategy has revolved around two key principles. But as our strategic environment changes, those two guiding lights are becoming increasingly incompatible. We can decide to keep one or the other, but keeping both is untenable.

“The first principle – usually described as the ‘Defence of Australia’ doctrine – holds that Australia will focus its defence capability on protecting the continent from the threat of armed attack, primarily by denying the ‘sea-air gap’ to an adversary.

“The second guiding light, the so-called core force concept, came into being with the Whitlam government’s ‘strategic basis’ paper of 1973 and has stubbornly stayed with us ever since. Simply put, because there was no real identifiable risk of an armed attack on the continent, the force structure could be maintained at a minimum ‘core force’ that could be ‘expanded upon in time of need’.”

This breakdown summarises the precarious position Australia increasingly finds itself in and the way in which Australia is struggling to adapt to an increasingly multi-polar and disrupted post-Cold War status quo. 

The Indo-Pacific is Europe circa 1914 or 1938

Across the Indo-Pacific, competing economic, political and strategic interests, designs and ambitions are beginning to clash – driven by an unprecedented economic transformation, propelling once developing nations onto the world stage; the region, the globe and its established powers are having to adjust to a dramatically different global power paradigm.

This is exemplified by everything from the South China Sea to the increasing hostilities between India, Pakistan and China in the Kashmir region of the Himalayas, the Indo-Pacific’s changing paradigm, combined with the growing economic, political and strategic competition between the US and China.

The continued sabre rattling and challenges to regional and global energy supplies travelling via the Persian Gulf and an increasingly resurgent Russia all serve to challenge the global and regional order.

This period of increasing traditional state-based competition is rapidly serving to combine in the shape of the perfect powder keg as nations like Australia, the US and traditional western European allies fail to truly understand, or in some cases comprehend, the ancient enmities that characterise and define the relationships throughout the region. 

Building on his above statements, Fairall-Lee expands, painting a stark, confronting picture of Australia’s inability to meet the core mission of the ‘Defence of Australia’ doctrine, stating: 

“Taken together, these principles have meant that, as regional power dynamics have shifted, our ability to influence the shape of those changes has been even more limited than it otherwise would have been – a far cry from the days of the Far East Strategic Reserve and similar forward-presence initiatives. But we’re also left with a force that’s too small and too limited to stand any realistic chance of achieving its core defensive requirement against the modern Chinese military.”

2 per cent in an era of great power competition

China’s rise is but part of the new regional and global paradigm Australia finds itself increasingly dependent upon – the relative instability of the US, the cornerstone of the post-Second World War economic, political and strategic order, leads to troubling results for Australia. 

Building on this recognition, Fairall-Lee adds, “And the problem is even worse than it appears. Successive governments have become used to the Defence of Australia and core force principles – and the reduced defence spending that goes with them – and parts of the defence establishment (most notably the air force) have used them astutely to justify certain capability procurements over others.

“Defence spending has been on a downward trend since the early 1970s – and especially since the 1987 white paper – while promised capabilities have never eventuated. Even after the current naval expansion is complete, we’ll still fall well short of even the ‘sixteen or seventeen’ major surface combatants promised in the 1987 white paper. Indeed, we’ll have the same number as we did when that paper was written, but with far less of a capability advantage over what our adversaries are fielding.

“Expanding the core force ‘in time of need’ is now also much more difficult than it would have been 40 years ago. Huge increases in the costs of modern military technology and improved pay and conditions for personnel make it a much more expensive proposition, while the increased complexity of military systems lengthens both the lead time for major equipment and the training pipeline for personnel. It’s a wicked problem.”

Standing up capability now before it’s needed

Nevertheless, many within the political, strategic and public policy communities continue to dally around the edges of the debate, largely referring any meaningful conversation, debate or broader discussion to the same basket they forward all challenges Australia faces: the too hard basket. 

It is time for Australia’s policy leaders and public to be reminded that developing Defence capability, particularly in the era of high technology, cannot be done overnight, particularly in the event of conflict with a peer or near-peer competitor – standing up capability now, before it is needed, is far cheaper and safer then being backed into a corner.

By way of reference, Australia at the end of the Second World War had a population of approximately 7.5 million and yet was able to contribute 724,000 Army personnel, 400,000 of which served outside of Australia; 39,650 Naval personnel serving on nearly 350 vessels, including 150 major surface and submarine combatants – supported by nearly 200 auxiliary craft – and nearly 152,000 Air Force personnel operating nearly 6,000 aircraft (then the fourth-largest air force in the world).

It is clear that Australia doesn’t have a money or a population issue, we have a political will issue.

Recognising this, Fairall-Lee states, “Clearly, it’s no longer rational to proceed with both the Defence of Australia and the core force principles; the changes to the strategic environment have made that approach nonsensical. Either we stick with the Defence of Australia doctrine, get serious about building our own anti-access/area-denial capability and abandon the core force idea, or we maintain some version of the core force for continental defence but decide to put something in front of it – a forward presence designed to help shape the regional strategic environment in our favour and keep threats at a distance.”

Your thoughts

The nation is defined by its relationship with the region, with access to the growing economies and to strategic sea lines of communication supporting over 90 per cent of global trade, a result of the cost-effective and reliable nature of sea transport.

Indo-Pacific Asia is at the epicentre of the global maritime trade, with about US$5 trillion worth of trade flowing through the South China Sea and the strategic waterways and choke points of south-east Asia annually.

For Australia, a nation defined by this relationship with traditionally larger yet economically weaker regional neighbours, the growing economic prosperity of the region and corresponding arms build-up, combined with ancient and more recent enmities, competing geopolitical, economic and strategic interests, places the nation at the centre of the 21st century’s “great game”.

Enhancing Australia’s capacity to act as an independent power, incorporating great power-style strategic economic, diplomatic and military capability serves as a powerful symbol of Australia’s sovereignty and evolving responsibilities in supporting and enhancing the security and prosperity of Indo-Pacific Asia. 

Shifting the public discussion away from the default Australian position of “it is all a little too difficult, so let’s not bother” will yield unprecedented economic, diplomatic, political and strategic opportunities for the nation. 

Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on Australia’s future role and position in the Indo-Pacific and what you would like to see from Australia’s political leaders in terms of shaking up the nation’s approach to our regional partners.

Open the debate about the avenues Australia should pursue to support long-term economic growth and development in support of national security in the comments section below, or get in touch with This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Strategic analyst reopens debate about ‘core force’ v ‘Defence of Australia’

Last Updated: 24 January 2020

Published: 24 January 2020

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