By Robert Smol
Two months before the release of Challenge and Commitment: A Defence Policy for Canada, Australia put out its own ambitious defence White Paper setting the country on a course of affordable and realizable self-reliance and defence in depth. As attempted here in Canada, the Australian White Paper of 1987 sought to realistically assert effective sovereignty protection over a large territory and coastline through more efficient application of limited defence capability.
“For many years Australians have regarded our nation as un-defendable without overwhelming and unaffordable defence spending,” said Australian Minister for Defence Kim Beazley during a speech to the National Press Club on March 25, 1987. “The White Paper shows that this is not so. We can defend our entire continent 24 hours a day and we can do it affordably.”
While the evolution of Australia’s 1987 White Paper over the last 30 years is beyond the scope of this series, the current operational capability of the Australian Defence Forces (ADF) compared to Canada’s says much about which country has achieved a higher level of self-reliance with respect to national defence.
As with Canada, the Australian 1987 White Paper sought to better define and consolidate the country’s defence commitments at home and with respect to her allies. It recognized that the country was too small (population-wise) and too remote to have any significant influence in international strategic balance. This reality meant that the “international political concerns and interests will always be more far reaching than our defence capabilities.”
What this provided was a more measured and realistic approach to defence planning. Australia came to the conclusion that its priority should rest with consolidating its capability to defend itself against an escalating conflict in the region.
When assessing the possible forms of military pressure against Australia, the 1987 White Paper concluded that, within the country’s “region of primary strategic interest, the capability also exists to mount more conventional but still limited military operations against Australia. These could take the form of increased levels of air and sea harassment, extending to air attacks on northern settlements and off-shore installations and territories, attacks on shipping in proximate areas, mining of northern ports, and more frequent and intensive raids by land forces.”
The answer was self-reliance and defence in depth. According to Minister Beazley’s preface to the 1987 White Paper, “the first aim of defence self-reliance is to give Australia the military capability to prevent an aggressor attacking us successfully in our sea and air approaches, gaining a foothold on any part of our territory, or extracting concessions from Australia through the use or threat of military force.” This approach required a defence in depth of military posture. In the words of Beazley, defence in depth “gives priority to meeting any credible level of threat in Australia’s area of direct military interest. It means that any potential adversaries know that they will be faced with a comprehensive array of military capabilities, both defensive and offensive.”
Unlike Canada’s White Paper, which gave no clear mention as to how the proposed commitments would be financially managed over time, Australia’s 1987 White Paper provided a flexible long-term framework for reaching procurement funding objectives over time. There, spending was organized around a rolling five-year defence program (FYDP) that was meant to provide a framework around which “policies and priorities, their timescales for implementation, and the anticipated resources that Governments provide as a basis for forward planning are reconciled and brought into balance.”
As Minister Beazley stated during his 1987 speech, “a defence posture which required real growth in every year out of the coming decade would be a badly flawed policy for Australia because there is simply no way that the government can guarantee it.”
As with Canada, Australia’s geography demands a robust naval capability for the country’s own defence. Therefore both White Papers provided particular emphasis on maritime force capability. In the case of Australia, its 1987 White Paper made it clear that the ADF “must be able to conduct maritime operations to prevent an adversary from substantial use or exploitation of our maritime approaches.”
For Canada (see Part 2 of series), this was to be met by a commitment to complete the construction of 12 Halifax-class patrol frigates and 10–12 nuclear submarines capable of operating under the ice. A total of 35 EH101 helicopters were also to be acquired for both operational and search and rescue missions. However, of these planned procurement projects, only the Halifax-class frigates were built, entering RCN service in 1992.
While Canada sputtered and flamed out on its naval modernization plans in the 1990s, Australia sailed forward. In terms of submarines, as was the case here in Canada, the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) used Oberon-class submarines in the 1970s and 1980s. However, in 1987 the government approved the purchase of six Collins-class submarines; these boats were enlarged versions of the Swedish Vastergotland class and were built in Australia between 1990 and 2001. In 2016, as Canada continued to struggle with its faltering second-hand submarines acquired from the United Kingdom, Australia entered into a contract with the French firm DCNS (now called Naval Group) for the construction of 12 Shortfin Barracuda 1A submarines. The boats are due to start coming online in a few years.
By way of surface fleet, between 1996 and 2001 Australia acquired eight Anzac-class frigates (FFH) with air defence, surface and undersea warfare, reconnaissance and interdiction roles. In addition, the RAN also commissioned three Adelaide-class guided missile frigates (FFG) between 1984 and 1993.
More recently, Australia launched the first of three Hobart-class guided missile destroyers (DDG) armed with long-range anti-ship missiles, a modern sonar system, decoy and surface-launched torpedoes, as well as various close-in defensive weapon systems. Canada, on the other hand, retired the last of its Iroquois-class destroyers this year with no replacement.
In 2014–2015 the RAN also acquired two Canberra-class amphibious assault ships (LHD) that are capable of landing a force of over 1,000 personnel together with vehicles, equipment and stores.
This in addition to the 15 patrol boats that were commissioned between 2005–2007, and the six mine hunters that launched between 1999–2003.
And while the Canadian government under Jean Chrétien cancelled the acquisition of the EH101 maritime helicopter program in 1993, Australia had already moved forward with its maritime helicopter project. Today, the Australian fleet is supported with 24 MH-60R Seahawks acquired between 2013–2016 as well as 16 older S-70B-2 Seahawks which have been in service since 1989.
Australia is two generations of anti-submarine helicopters ahead of Canada, which continues to fly the CH-124 Sea Kings acquired in 1963. Only recently has the first instalment of the Sea King replacement, the Ch-148 Cyclone, been delivered with the full fleet delivery to be completed in 2025. (The first Cyclone was to have been delivered in 2009, but modifications to the aircraft’s original design and other complications have led to significant delays in the program.)
Both the Canadian and Australian air forces acquired the F-18 aircraft in the mid-1980s. That was then. Today, the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) is well ahead of Canada both in terms of number and capability of its fighter fleet. In addition to its old fleet of 71 F-18 Hornets, the RAAF also currently flies 24 F-18F Super Hornets, which it acquired as an interim aircraft in 2012. Canada’s attempt to acquire 18 F-18 Super Hornets as an interim fighter has been put on hold.
Beginning in 2018 Australia will also acquire the first of 72 F-35A Lightning II multi-role fighters with the final aircraft set to be delivered in 2023. Planned additions could bring the number of F-35s in the fleet up to 100. Meanwhile, Canada has pulled back from its planned purchase of 65 F-35 aircraft and has not, as of yet, brought forward a replacement. For the foreseeable future, we will continue to fly our old fleet of 77 F-18s.
If there is one advantage that the Australians had over Canada it would be that their incentive for projecting their defence needs into the future was not so intimately tied into set Cold War alliances. Instead, their White Paper reflected objective and realistic assessments of the different levels of threats that the country may have to face alone in the future. While the Canadian government promoted the 1987 White Paper as a made-in-Canada defence policy, it nonetheless was the perceived changing of those overseas alliances that gutted this country’s White Paper and the procurement plans that went with it.