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100 YEARS OF DEFENCE
From a national security perspective, the Second World War was extremely traumatic. Not only did Australia suffer around 27,000 war dead, it was threatened with invasion and had its northern reaches bombed. Moreover, Australia’s traditional great-power ally, the United Kingdom, was defeated in Asia and soon reassessed its security role in the region.
This led Australia to look to another 'great and powerful friend', the United States. Thus began Australia’s most important defence relationship since the end of the Second World War.
The war’s end brought with it many more challenges and opportunities. Again, using the wartime experience to prepare Australia better for future threats was important, as was coming to terms with the advent of new technology and the arrival of the ‘atomic age’. These considerations were made within the broader debate over the development of a ‘new world order’, which was eventually based on international institutions such as the UN (established in 1945) and the Bretton Woods system (including the foundation of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, established in 1944). The late 1940s also saw the beginning of the end of French, Dutch and British colonies in Asia, which presented Australia with a more complex strategic environment.
This environment was complicated further with the growing fear in Australia of communism. During 1948 communist activity aimed at gaining independence for Malaya caused a State of Emergency to be declared by the British Government, and Australian forces were deployed to counter the threat during 1950. The new Menzies Government (elected in 1949) was so concerned by communism that the Cabinet believed a Third World War was likely within three years. The outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950 heightened these fears; however, as the conflict ground into a stalemate, analysts decided that a ‘Cold War’ was more likely than global conflict. Australia had been quick to support the American-led UN force in Korea (both politically and militarily), and the alliance was cemented with the ANZUS (Australia, New Zealand, United States) Treaty of 1951. Efforts to maintain close ties with Britain continued with the deployment of forces to the Commonwealth Far East Strategic Reserve in the Malayan Emergency of 1955. However, Britain's and Australia’s strategic priorities began to diverge soon after. Britain focused on the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, granted independence to Malaya in 1957 (amid increasing talk of withdrawal from ‘east of Suez’), and began negotiating its entrance to the European Economic Community. Meanwhile, Australian strategy became increasingly focused on South-East Asia, and the strategic concepts of ‘forward defence’ and the ‘containment of communism’.
The late 1950s also saw major changes in Defence, with Shedden retiring after 19 years as Secretary and the Department’s move from Melbourne to Canberra. Furthermore, a Prime Ministerial Directive issued in 1958 gave overall responsibility for defence policy to the Department of Defence. However, the existence of separate Departments of the Navy, the Army, and the Air Force, and the continuing influence on strategic policy from External Affairs and the Prime Minister’s Department, tended to blur the lines of responsibility.
The 1960s brought more challenges, most notably the ‘Confrontation’ between Indonesia and the newly-formed Federation of Malaysia, and the Vietnam war. Australia’s commitment to Vietnam began in May 1962 with the deployment of advisers and Army instructors, and slowly escalated throughout the decade. By the end of the commitment in 1972, around 50,000 Australians had served in Vietnam with 501 killed or missing presumed dead.
The 1960s also saw the seemingly inevitable change in Australia’s major defence relationship, as Britain’s withdrawal from Asia was finally made official with the endorsement of the ‘East of Suez’ policy in July 1967. At the same time, Australia sought to strengthen its ties with the United States through Prime Ministerial visits to Washington and an increased commitment to Vietnam. However, with President Nixon’s Guam Doctrine of "no more Asian entanglements" (announced in July 1969), Australia was expected to assume greater responsibility for regional security. Hence, Australia was compelled to move towards a more self-reliant strategic posture.
As Australia made this change, it became apparent that the Government would need more sustained and systematic advice about the development and employment of its armed forces. The contribution of Sir Arthur Tange (Secretary between 1970 and 1979) is especially notable, as he deliberately set out to attract highly talented people to Defence who would lay the intellectual and conceptual foundations of Australian strategic policy. Tange also pushed for a more fundamental reorganisation of Defence and, when Labor took office in December 1972, one Minister assumed responsibility for the Departments of Defence, Navy, Army and Air. More importantly, in 1973, a single Department of Defence was created by the amalgamation of these departments.
The Whitlam Labor Government (1972-75) made a strong impression on defence and strategic policy, although these were not high priorities for Labor when it came to office. Whitlam oversaw the completion of the withdrawal from Vietnam (which had been initiated by the previous Coalition Government), ended conscription, ratified the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, recognised Communist China, and opposed upgrades to the US base at Diego Garcia (but continued to support ANZUS). These changes required a reassessment of Australia’s strategic policy, a process which was complicated by the Timor crisis of 1974-75.
The return of the Coalition to power in 1975 saw a gradual re-strengthening of the American alliance, although self-reliance was still advocated. Prime Minister Fraser was concerned about the USSR’s strategic intentions in the region, and his suspicions were seemingly vindicated by the invasion of Cambodia by Vietnam (a Soviet ally) and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.
The election of the Hawke Labor Government in March 1983 did not fundamentally alter Australia’s defence policy or strategic direction. The ANZUS treaty remained crucial despite some public opposition to American bases and disagreements between New Zealand and the United States over nuclear weapons. Kim Beazley became Minister for Defence in 1984, with a strong academic background in strategic and international affairs. A year later he commissioned Paul Dibb (a former Director of Defence Intelligence) to write a Defence review, which would be used to inform Labor’s 1987 Defence White Paper, The Defence of Australia.
Robert Ray took over from Beazley in 1990, overseeing Australia’s commitments to the Gulf War, Cambodia, Somalia, Rwanda and Bougainville. With the demise of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, this was another important time in international strategic affairs which would have major implications for Australia’s strategic environment and defence policy. The November 1994 White Paper, Defending Australia, was an attempt to reflect these changes, stressing the end of the Cold War, the growing importance of Asia, and the need for defence self-reliance.
The election of the Howard Coalition Government in 1996 meant further changes for Defence. At the organisational level, the Coalition initiated the Defence Efficiency Review (which aimed to eradicate duplication, improve decision-making processes, and focus spending on the ‘sharp end’ of Defence), the accepted recommendations of which became the Defence Reform Program. At the operational level, the Coalition has continued to oversee the commitment to Bougainville, as well as committing Australian forces to East Timor and the Solomon Islands in support of UN missions. At the strategic level, the Coalition wanted a more flexible and mobile defence force, able to deploy into the region to help Australia’s neighbours and allies. These strategic changes were considered necessary to meet the challenges of post-Cold War instability, and were enshrined in the 2000 White Paper, Defence 2000 – Our Future Defence Force.
Australia enters the 21st century as one of the world’s most secure countries. This has come at a cost, with the loss of nearly 90,000 men and women in the service of their country since Federation. Defence will continue to work to ensure the security of Australia both now and into the future.
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