This certainly can`t have been envisaged by the white paper drafting committee in the DOD, who were forced to incorporate this new element into the paper and thus delayed the paper`s release yet again. In early August, concerns among South Australian MPs that they might suddenly be faced with electoral defeat at the next election promoted then PM Abbott to announce a plan for continuous ship building, with the idea that Australia, upon completion of the AWD project, would then branch out into manufacturing frigates to replace the ageing ANZAC class frigates. Not only this, Australia would be increasing its frigate fleet to 8 ships, together with 21 offshore patrol vessels (OPVs, namely corvettes), in addition to completing the construction of its three AWDs and the second of its LHD fleet (New Ship Adelaide, the sister ship to HMAS Canberra, not to mention the offshore build of 2 refuelling ships in Spain and South Korea). All of these vessels were envisaged to be operating by the mid to late 2020s (a plan described as “ambitious” by the navy’s maritime systems chief).
Although this announcement was warmly greeted in South Australia (unlike other defence manufacturing states such as Victoria and Western Australia, who thought too much emphasis was being placed on rescuing federal South Australian seats at the expense of their own industries), the sudden nature of the announcement meant that once again the white paper drafting committee had to go back and revise what was written, and incorporate new costings into the white paper itself, thus delaying the release of the white paper yet again.
Just when everybody thought that the release of the paper was imminent in late August,/early September, along came the change in leadership in the Coalition government. Despite protestations from Kevin Andrews that removing him as Defence Minister would again postpone the white paper release, he was given the boot and replaced by Marise Payne, Australia`s first female Defence Minister. Andrews, for his part, claimed that the paper was already completed and ready to be released, but clearly his removal and the installation of new members to the National Security Council of Cabinet meant that the paper could not be released until it was at least understood by both the Prime Minister and the new Defence Minister, both of whom might hold their own views about defence that differ from their predecessors.
So the expectations right now are that the white paper will be released some time between now to the end of this year. As to the content of the white paper, most analysis claims that the paper will mostly focus on expanding the role of the RAN in order to secure Australia`s vital sea trading routes to Asia and across to the Middle East. What the paper is envisioning is the largest ever build-up of Australian naval power, with a dramatic expansion in fleet capabilities and greater inter-operability with the US Navy to offset the growing capability of China to project its own naval power further into the Pacific and Indian Oceans, not to mention upgrades to naval bases.
Of course, singling out China as a potential threat to the region is not something that the white paper drafting committee wishes to do, certainly not after the experience of the 2009 white paper which specifically named China as a potentially destabiling force in the region. Then again, the committee will not want the next white paper to be as docile as the 2013 white paper was, which essentially avoided any concern about China`s intentions and claimed that economic relations within the region would offset any concerns about conflict. This concern about what China thinks has plagued the debate about Australia`s defence position since at least 2009, and has not done Australia any favours in helping to clarify just what Australia`s strategic interests actually are.
Defence analysts certainly appear to be in two minds about whether Australia needs to produce a white paper at this point in time. With most of the major acquisitions in defence already planned for (namely 72 JSF F-35 aircraft, 8 P-8 Poseidon aircraft, 10 C-27J Spartan short takeoff and landing aircraft, Triton surveillance UAVs (amount as yet unknown, with the possibility of 8 Reaper UAVs also being purchased), 10 C-17 Globemaster II heavy transport aircraft, 12 EA-18 Growler electronic attack aircraft, in additional to the naval acquisitions), it is obvious that Australia is planning to base its defence more on sea and airpower capabilities than land based forces, and a white paper doesn`t necessarily have to spell this out. This is a response to recent trends in the region, and the fact that Australian land forces are substantially smaller than those of other nations in the region, and so much be more specialised in their capabilities (hence the greater emphasis given in recent years to Australia`s special forces in deployments overseas).
Of course, white papers cannot merely be about purchasing of equipment, but are also supposed to outline the nation`s defence posture and how its sees regional and global event impacting upon its defence environment in the future. On this point, analysts are again divided on what should be in the paper and what shouldn`t. Hugh White, the ANU academic who often likes to play devil`s advocate in potential defence scenarios, believes the white paper in its current form is probably far too influenced by Tony Abbott`s thinking, with little thought to how defence procurement might improve Australia’s strategic position and the pointless task of achieving 2% of GDP for defence spending. Nic Stuart of the Canberra Times/SMH believes that the paper probably is in keeping with the conservative mindset of its drafters – i.e., namely that there will be nothing controversial within it, it will merely recite bland statements, and that ultimately it will be forgotten almost as quickly as the 2013 paper was.
Recent statements by Defence Minister Marise Payne essentially reinforce the idea that there will be no major shift in Australia`s defence thinking from the Abbott to the Turnbull government – that Australia will continue to emphasise the pivotal role played by the US in the region, that China`s rise is welcome but not at the expense of the status quo and the peaceful resolution of disputes. On that point at least the white paper won`t need to be re-drafted. On questions of other defence relations, particularly the nascent relations shared between Australia and Japan and Australia and India, it`s a bit harder to tell at this stage, seeing that neither Malcolm Turnbull nor Payne have yet to visit either country. However the increased ties between both countries gives the impression that they would welcome further defence ties with either state, at the very least as part of a strategy of `hedging` against any possibility of conflict in the region.