Peer reviewed analysis from world leading experts

Is Australia’s Defence White Paper achievable?

Reading Time: 5 mins

In Brief

Australia’s new Defence White Paper provides for a massive increase in defence spending, largely to acquire new maritime capabilities. But questions surround whether this plan will be achievable and whether the paper’s long-term strategic outlook is valid.


  • A
  • A
  • A


  • A
  • A
  • A

The Australian Navy is the big winner from the plan, with a commitment to acquire 12 long-range submarines, nine new frigates and 12 offshore patrol vessels. As well as the existing commitment to acquire 72 F-35A Joint Strike Fighters, Air Force capabilities will be boosted by 15 P-8A maritime patrol aircraft, 12 EA-18G Growler electronic attack aircraft and seven Triton surveillance drones. The Army will get new armoured fighting vehicles, a riverine capability and new armed reconnaissance helicopters. Personnel numbers in the Defence Force will be increased by 5000.

To deliver these capabilities, the White Paper provides a new 10-year budget plan with an additional AU$29.9 billion (US$22.7 billion) for defence. Under this plan, the defence budget will grow to AU$42.4 billion (US$32.2 billion) in 2020–21, reaching 2 per cent of Australia’s GDP.

The White Paper acknowledges that the relationship between China and the United States will be the most strategically important factor in the Indo-Pacific region. While the paper purports to look out to 2035, it assumes little change in the current geo-political environment.

It claims that the United States will remain the pre-eminent global military power over this period, even though Figure 1 of the White Paper acknowledges that by 2035, China’s defence spending will be more than that of the United States and will dwarf that of Japan. If this is so, it is difficult to see how the United States will remain the dominant military power in the region, particularly if it maintains its global commitments elsewhere.

Other than some broad statements about competition and cooperation, the paper says little about how the bilateral relationship between China and the United States might be managed. Basic questions are unanswered, including what would happen if the United States is unable to sustain its current rebalancing to Asia.

The White Paper envisages that Australia will deepen its alliance with the United States, and support the critical role of the United States in underpinning security in the region. And it strongly emphasises the importance of interoperability with the United States. Around 60 per cent of Australia’s spending on defence acquisitions is on American equipment.

The White Paper also stresses the need for Australian forces to be able to operate seamlessly with US forces in maritime sub-surface, surface and air environments, as well as across the electromagnetic spectrum. This statement may be interpreted as a nod to the Japanese option for Australia’s new submarines — American systems may be available with that option that are unavailable with the European options.

Increased international defence engagement is a key feature of the White Paper. It includes plans for Australia to sponsor additional exercises with regional defence forces, increase interoperability and have more overseas military students train in Australia. Australia’s overseas defence representation will also be beefed up.

Singapore also gets special attention as Australia’s most advanced defence partner in Southeast Asia. Under the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership signed between the two countries in 2015, expanding defence cooperation will be based on five areas: more exchanges of military and civilian personnel; new training initiatives and greater collaboration on shared challenges, including terrorism and cyber security; greater intelligence and information sharing; expanding science and technology cooperation; and co-development of training areas. Australia will also seek to cooperate with Singapore in multilateral forums to promote regional security cooperation and a rules-based regional order.

The White Paper has already incurred the ire of China for its comments on the East and South China Seas. The paper notes that Australia opposes the use of artificial structures in the South China Sea for military purposes. It also opposes the assertion of territorial claims and maritime rights not in accordance with international law.

But the paper does not see in China as strong a threat as it could have. Rather it commits Australia to continuing the development of defence relations with China through increased personnel exchanges, military exercises and other practical cooperation in areas of mutual interest, such as humanitarian assistance, disaster relief and countering piracy.

It is highly questionable whether the plans in the White Paper are achievable, particularly in view of budgetary pressures mainly produced by the collapse in Australia’s mineral export prices. The current air warfare destroyer project, for example, is running at least AU$500 million (US$379 million) over budget. It is also relevant that none of Australia’s previous Defence White Papers have ever been implemented as planned.

These doubts about the feasibility of the plans laid out in the White Paper lead to suspicions that the paper is more about sending political messages than setting out something achievable. These messages are for domestic and regional audiences. The domestic messages are about jobs, particularly through naval shipbuilding and innovation, a recurrent theme of Prime Minister Turnbull.

Internationally, the White Paper demonstrates to the United States that Australia is pulling its weight in the alliance, while showing China that Australia is concerned about its assertive behaviour. It is also a clear demonstration to Australia’s regional friends and allies of its commitment to help building a more secure region. It may be these messages, rather than any concrete defence plans, that are the key takeaways of Australia’s most recent White Paper.

Sam Bateman is an adviser to the Maritime Security Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University.

This article was first published here by RSIS.

One response to “Is Australia’s Defence White Paper achievable?”

  1. Where are the Australians when China was encircled by the US? China ought to take the Australians with a grain of salt. China should punish the australian gov’t with trade because the Australian gov’t belives that trade and security are independent. They will be in for a wide awakening.

Support Quality Analysis

The East Asia Forum office is based in Australia and EAF acknowledges the First Peoples of this land — in Canberra the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people — and recognises their continuous connection to culture, community and Country.

Article printed from East Asia Forum (

Copyright ©2024 East Asia Forum. All rights reserved.