2016 Defence White Paper

Australia’s Ambitious Rebuild

If there was an elephant in the room when Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Defence Minister Marise Payne released their much-anticipated 2016 Defence White Paper at the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra recently, it was certainly China. There was little doubt that the assembled defence chiefs applauded the government’s intention to align strategy, capability and resources to make the Australian Defence Force (ADF) more capable, agile and potent. It was what the government didn’t say about China that had some observers wondering if the Turnbull government fully understands Australia’s strategic environment.

It’s not that Australians see China as an imminent threat, but there is a growing awareness that stability in the Indo-Pacific region could be threatened by regional states in general, and China in particular.

“While it is natural for newly powerful countries to seek greater influence, they also have a responsibility to act in a way that constructively contributes to global stability, security and prosperity,” the White Paper says. “However, some countries and non-state actors have sought to challenge the rules that govern actions in the global commons, such as the high seas, cyberspace and space in some unhelpful ways, leading to uncertainty and tension.”

Defence Minister Marise Payne speaks at the Australian Defence Force Academy at the launch of the 2016 Defence White Paper.
Defence Minister Marise Payne speaks at the Australian Defence Force Academy at the launch of the 2016 Defence White Paper. (Photo: Navy Daily, Australia)

Apparently there was no need to reference China’s land reclamation and militarization efforts in the South China Sea, its large scale cyber theft, its weaponization of space, nor its potential threat to the freedom of maritime navigation in Southeast Asia. The White Paper then proceeded to describe a security environment (see sidebar) that will be greatly influenced by the dominant military power of the United States, particularly in its relationship with China, the stability of countries in the Indo-Pacific region, the continuing threat on a global and regional scale of terrorism, and the persistent threat of cyber crime.

Key Drivers to Australia’s Security Environment
  • The roles of the U.S. and China, and the relationship between them.
  • Challenges to the stability of the rules-based global order.
  • The enduring threat of terrorism emanating from ungoverned parts of Africa, the Middle East and Asia.
  • State fragility, including within ­Australia’s immediate neighbourhood.
  • The pace of military modernization and the development of more capable regional military forces.
  • The emergence of new complex, non-geographic threats, including cyber threats.

Some of this, Defence Minister Payne pointed out, can be mitigated to the benefit of Australia’s security and prosperity by the maintenance of a stable, “rules-based” global order (the utopian world in which everyone follows the rules of international coexistence and cooperation).

Yet, despite concern from some critics that Defence White Paper 2016 is not sufficiently blunt about China, the consensus is that Australia’s defence posture and capability are getting a significant boost from this latest policy review.

Australia has mapped out a 10- to 20-year strategy that will see $195 billion AUD invested in significant capability enhancements for the ADF, with a large percentage going to the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) and the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) to beef up maritime defence and patrol capabilities.

The White Paper commits the Australian government to a defence budget that will increase from $32.3 billion in 2015-16 to $42.2 billion in 2020-21, at which time defence spending will reach 2% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Further increases over the subsequent five years will bring the annual defence to almost $60 billion, a $30 billion increase over the 2015 budget.

Defence Minister Payne noted that the defence strategy and capability plans were independently costed to ensure that they are achievable and affordable. She said the fully costed, 10-year capability investment program brings together all capability-related investments including new weapons, ­platforms, infrastructure, and science and technology.

HMAS Canberra heads into Sydney Harbour after ­completion of exercises off the New South Wales Coast.
HMAS Canberra heads into Sydney Harbour after ­completion of exercises off the New South Wales Coast. (ADF PHOTO: ABIS Bonny Gassner)

“By joining the capability dots to dollar signs, and ramping up defence spending, Defence White Paper 2016 should be recognized as a serious effort to priorize defence funding beyond Australia’s short election cycle,” said Euan Graham, director of the International Security Program at Australia’s Lowy Institute for International Policy. “This is no small commitment by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s government as it goes into an election this year and faces an uncertain economic outlook.”

Indeed, the pairing of capability with cost not only removes the potential criticism that the defence ends are divorced from the means, but also seeks to restore the credibility of Australia’s military capability and posture in the eyes of both allies and adversaries.

Royal Australian Navy
A large portion of the $197 billion earmarked for equipment and capability enhancement will go to maritime operations and anti-submarine warfare forces.

RAN’s first Hobart-class Guided Missile Destroyer.
RAN’s first Hobart-class Guided Missile Destroyer. (ADF PHOTO: CPL Nicci Freeman)

“Modernizing our maritime capabilities will be a key focus for Defence over the next 20 to 30 years,” the White Paper says. “Our maritime forces will become more potent through the acquisition of more capable submarines, ships and aircraft, and better integration of combat and supporting systems across Defence.”

The government has confirmed the funding for 12 new submarines in a project that was initially announced in 2007 and has survived through the 2009 and now the 2016 white papers. The $50 billion program, the most expensive Australian procurement project to date, will see the Navy eventually replace the Collins-class submarine fleet with a “regionally-superior” submarine to be built in Australia at the ASC shipyard in Southern Australia. They will be phased in through a rolling acquisition program to ensure that regional superiority is maintained as technologies evolve over the decades.

Australia’s Strategic Defence Interests/Objectives

  • A secure, resilient Australia: Deter, deny and defeat attacks on or threats to Australia and its national interests, and northern approaches.
  • A secure nearer region: Make effective military contributions to support the security of maritime Southeast Asia and support the ­governments of Papua New Guinea, Timor-Leste and of pacific Island Countries to build and strengthen their security.
  • A stable Indo-Pacific region and a rules-based global order: Contribute military capabilities to coalition operations that support Australia’s interests in a rules-based global order.

Competition for the future submarine contract is fierce between Japan (Mitsubishi and Kawasaki), France (DCNS, which has proposed a diesel-electric version of its 5,000-ton Barracuda nuclear-powered submarine), and Germany (ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems) – all of which have agreed to build the new fleet in Australian shipyards. The final decision will be made within the next six months before the pending federal election.

The Royal Australian Navy also received a funding commitment for its surface vessel replacement program. The Navy will acquire three Hobart-class Air Warfare Destroyers to enter service early in the 2020s. Navantia’s Álvaro de Bazán-class frigate was selected as the winning AWD design in part because it was smaller, cheaper to operate, quicker, and less risky to build because it was an existing design.

The RAN also gets funding for nine new frigates optimized for anti-submarine warfare to replace the ageing Anzac-class frigates in the late 2020s, and 12 new offshore patrol vessels to replace the Armidale-class ships by 2030. Additionally, the existing Huron-class mine hunters will be updated with new technologies to extend their life.

The RAN operates six Collins-class Australian-built diesel-electric submarines. In this photo, HMAS Dechaineux leads Waller and Sheean in formation near Rockingham Western Australia.
The RAN operates six Collins-class Australian-built diesel-electric submarines. In this photo, HMAS Dechaineux leads Waller and Sheean in formation near Rockingham Western Australia. (ADF PHOTO: Royal Australian Navy)

Royal Australian Air Force
The RAAF will see the introduction of 15 Boeing P-8A Poseidon maritime surveillance and response aircraft in the early 2020s to begin replacing its fleet of AP-3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft. These new aircraft will bring increased surveillance range and can engage in offensive operations against submarines and ships.

Australian Growler
Australian Growler (Boeing PHOTO: David Sidman)

Maritime patrol operations will be bolstered by the concurrent introduction of seven high altitude MQ-4C Triton drones (in an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance role), and 24 Seahawk MH-60R naval combat helicopters.

As a member of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Program, Australia will begin receiving its 72 F-35 fighters to begin replacing the RAAF’s 71 classic F-18 Hornets beginning in 2020. The RAAF will also acquire 12 Boeing EA-18G Growler Electronic Attack aircraft, and two additional Airbus KC-30A air-to-air refueling aircraft.

Australia received its first Boeing EA-18G Growler last summer through a foreign military sales agreement with the U.S. Navy, making the RAAF the first air force outside the United States to obtain this advanced airborne electronic attack aircraft. The Growler, a derivative of the F/A-18 Super Hornet, advances the ADF’s Plan Jericho, announced in early 2015, that aims to transform the RAAF into an integrated, networked force able to deliver air power in all operating environments.   

USN Poseidon P-8A takes off from  RAAF Base Pearce, Western Australia.
USN Poseidon P-8A takes off from RAAF Base Pearce, Western Australia. (ADF Photo: Navy Imagery Unit-West)


Australia’s 2016 Defence White Paper by the Numbers
(all $ in AUD)

  • $195 billion to be spent on military equipment and capability over the next five years
  • $32.3 billion to $42.2 billion rise in defence budget over five years
  • $30 billion increase in defence budget by 2025-26
  • $450 billion total 10-year spending on defence to 2025-26
  • 2% of GDP to be spent on Australian defence budget by 2020-21
  • 12 new regionally-superior submarines
  • 3 Hobart-class Air Warfare Destroyers
  • 9 new future frigates for anti-submarine warfare
  • 12 new offshore patrol vessels
  • 15 new Boeing P-8A Poseidon ­maritime patrol aircraft
  • 12 EA-18G Growler Electronic Attack Aircraft
  • 72 F-35A Joint Strike fighters
  • 2 KC-30A air-to-air refuelling aircraft
  • 7 MQ-4C Triton unmanned aircraft
  • $1.6 billion over 10 years for programs to build defence industry skills, drive competitiveness, and build export potential.

Australian Army

The Australian Army will receive only 18% of the new funding set out in the White Paper. The new funding will go toward more firepower, mobility and amphibious capabilities, and soldiers will receive more lethal weapons and improved protection.

Among the big-ticket items proposed for the army are new armed medium-altitude drones, a new generation of armoured recon­naissance and infantry fighting vehicles, new protected mobility vehicles, including 1,100 Australian designed and manufactured Hawkei vehicles, and a new long-range rocket system capable of providing fire support at ranges of up to 300 km.

Hawkei water fording testing.
Hawkei water fording testing

The Army’s capability to carry out amphibious operations are being strengthened through the two Canberra-class large amphibious ships, HMAS Canberra and Adelaide. The Canberra class of ships is capable of transporting more than 1,000 personnel, their weapons, vehicles and stores, and deploying theses forces by helicopter and water craft.

HMAS Canberra marked its first operational deployment during Australia’s humanitarian assistance and disaster relief mission to Fiji in the days following Tropical Cyclone Winston. HMAS Canberra has highly capable medical facilities, including a primary casualty reception facility, as well as an ability to command and control forces ashore. Australia sees humanitarian missions as an important gesture of goodwill in the country’s sphere of influence in the South Pacific.

Workforce & Bases
The Turnbull government will also increase the size of Australia’s Defence Force from 56,200 regular force members to more than 62,000, the largest it has been since 1993.

The government will also introduce a new workforce management model that will facilitate movement between the regular and reserve forces to better meet individual needs.

March 2016 – Soldier from 5th Battalion, Royal Australian ­Regiment, reloads weapon during Exercise Predator’s Gallop.
March 2016 – Soldier from 5th Battalion, Royal Australian ­Regiment, reloads weapon during Exercise Predator’s Gallop. (ADF Photo: SGT Janine Fabre)

The defence civil service, on the other hand, will see a 20% drop from its current 22,000. However, the civilian workforce will be rebalanced with about 1,200 new positions in areas critical to future defence capabilities, areas such as intelligence, cyber security and space-based capabilities.
The White Paper promises upgrades to ADF bases in the west, east and north of Australia, principally in support of the new ships and aircraft to be delivered over the next five to 10 years.

The rebuilding of military bases will address what has been described as more than 20 years of underfunding and neglect by successive governments.

Fleet Divisions on the flight deck of HMAS Adelaide while docked at Fleet Base East.
Fleet Divisions on the flight deck of HMAS Adelaide while docked at Fleet Base East. (ADF Photo: POIS Kelvin Hockey)

The government will, for instance, upgrade naval facilities on Garden Island, near Perth in Western Australia and at Fleet Base East at Sydney in New South Wales. Wharf upgrades and new training and support facilities will support the expanded naval fleet and larger platforms such as the Canberra class vessels.

The RAAF will see its air bases across the country upgraded to support the new F-35 fighters and the P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft. Of note, the government will fund upgrades to the airfield on Cocos Island to accommodate both surveillance and response aircraft. This Indian Ocean airbase will extend the ADF’s reconnaissance range over the eastern Indian Ocean, the South China Sea, and the straits of Southeast Asia.

The drafting of this latest defence white paper began more than two years ago under the previous Liberal government of Tony Abbott, but it was up to current Defence Minister Marise Payne to put the stamp of the new Turnbull government on the final document.

Australian Army Light Amphibious Reconnaissance Craft
Australian Army Light Amphibious Reconnaissance Craft enters the well dock of HMAS Canberra to make its way to Koro Island, Fiji, for a humanitarian mission (ADF Photo: LSIS Helen Frank)

Paul Dibb, emeritus professor of strategic studies at Australian National University and primary author of Australia’s 1987 defence white paper, was quoted in The Australian as saying: “My view is that this is the most comprehensive defence white paper we have had, and its force structure proposals as well as the accompanying investment program reflect the effort senior civilians and military in the Australian Defence Organization have put in during the past 22 months.”

Australia’s media and defence analysts tend to agree that the Turnbull government is on the right track. This new policy, with its focus on close-to-home strategic concerns, and its avoidance if extended international military commitments, is allowing the Australian Defence Force to rebuild and prepare for the future.

Brian Bérubé is an Ottawa-based communications consultant specializing in defence and security issues.