Dependence upon major power allies has dominated Australian security policy. The isolation of Australia from the rest of the "civilized" world caused the first European settlers to regard themselves as a vulnerable outpost of Western society. They naturally sought to strengthen their security by fostering close links with the Empire and encouraging the presence of the Royal Navy. To bolster the Imperial relationship, the Australian colonies willingly deployed military forces to support British commitments in a number of foreign wars. Thus the concept of ensuring the nation's security through an alliance, maintained in part by the deployment in a subsidiary role of Australian forces overseas, became firmly established. The forward defence era was born.
This pattern of close co-operation in Imperial security affairs continued largely unaltered until the paucity of British forces in the Far East during the Second World War prompted Prime Minister Curtin to turn to the United States as the primary guarantor of Australia's security. But while the country's major ally changed, Australia's security strategy remained unaltered. Consequently, during the late 1940s and through the 1950s and 1960s, the United States was viewed as the prime source of Australian security and significant components of the Defence Force were again deployed overseas, to support major allied commitments and to foster the relationship.
However, by the late 1960s, Australia's traditional policy of forward defence was being undermined by the declining regional strength and interest of its traditional major allies. In the decade from 1967 Britain completely withdrew its military presence from the Far East, and the United States withdrew all its forces from Indo-China, all of its combat forces from Thailand, and commenced a phased withdrawal of ground combat forces from South Korea. During this period the United States also began to define more narrowly the form of assistance that would be made available to friends and allies than previously understood by them. In contrast to its continuing concern and involvement in Europe and the Middle East, the United States relegated its security interests in more peripheral theatres, such as South-East Asia, to a much lower level than in the 1960s.
From time to time it is tempting for Australian politicians and others to suggest that nothing important has changed during this period and to publicly exaggerate the value and significance of the security tie with the United States. Undue prominence is sometimes given to the periodic co-ordination of sea and air surveillance with the ANZUS partners or to major joint exercises. But these activities should not disguise the fact that during the past decade United States inclinations and capacities to intervene militarily in South-east Asia and the Western Pacific have declined markedly. While this does not spell the end of ANZUS itself, the altered regional role of the United States effectively removes the essential basis of Australia's long-established strategy of forward defence. In simple terms, Australian security planners can no longer expect United States (or British) forces to become engaged in a variety of regional conflicts alongside, and in support of, Australian military units. Any future Australian commitments to support regional states would most probably need to be undertaken without the direct assistance and joint action of a major power. Clearly this type of deployment would represent a most perilous departure from the pattern of Australia's historical experience. In the absence of major allied support, Australia does not possess the military capacity nor the political will to undertake successfully many types of foreign intervention. The limited scale of the Australian Defence Force heavily restricts its capability to combat regional domestic violence, insurgency or intrastate conflict, either independently or with local support. Consequently it is likely that in the future significant components of the Defence Force will be deployed overseas only in very special circumstances, such as United Nations peacekeeping operations or the emergency evacuation of Australian citizens from a hostile environment.
Because the forward defence concept is no longer viable, Australia's defence policy in the future is likely to be primarily concerned with the development of an independent capacity to secure the nation's immediate environment — the continent itself and its offshore islands and resources. This re-ordering of priorities represents a fundamental shift in policy direction.
During the past decade, there has also been a series of much broader changes in the international strategic environment. The Sino-Soviet split has become more complex; new centres of power have emerged in Japan, China, the Middle East and a more unified Europe; the super-powers have moderated somewhat the ideological character of their differences and engaged in extensive consultations on a wide range of matters; the tension between the industrial and developing countries regarding the distribution of wealth and the terms of trade has increased; and the world generally has become more interdependent — the industrial states have increased their reliance on external sources of raw materials and energy, and the developing states in turn have become increasingly reliant upon external sources of capital and technology.
During this period, a technological revolution has also become obvious in conventional military capacities. New surveillance, long-range targeting, ordnance delivery, precision-guidance and other technologies are being developed that promise unprecedented enhancements of military capabilities. The ground-rules of conventional warfare, of what is possible and impossible on the battlefield, have begun to alter dramatically.
This book argues that, in combination, these developments represent a fundamental transformation of Australia's strategic environment. In the future, Australia's armed forces may not only have to deploy and fight alone, but they may have to do so with very little warning and in a geographical environment that is quite different to the battlefields of the past. In addition, they will require a capacity to combat a much broader range of pressures and threats in the face of technologies, many of which are revolutionary in character.
The demands of this new environment are quite different to those of the past. Australia's security planners therefore are confronted with an urgent requirement to review the traditional policies and concepts inherited from the forward defence era. In the new strategic situation, it is necessary to question what types of contingencies Australia's security system should be prepared to meet, in the context of which geographical environment and within what time-span? What level of independent capacity is required? What should be the priorities in developing capabilities to meet the types of pressures and threats with which Australia may be confronted in the future? And what operational concepts, doctrines, technologies and force structures would most efficiently and economically provide the capabilities desired? The obsolescence of so much of the conventional wisdom in Australian security policy necessitates a thorough rethinking of Australia's defence.