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Volume 27: Australia and the United Kingdom, 1960–1975


NAA: A5882, CO1191

Canberra, March 1971

107. Top Secret

The Strategic Basis of Australian Defence Policy–1971


1. Successive reviews of the Strategic Basis of Australian Defence Policy during the past decade (from the 1958 to the 1968 versions) have been carried out against a background of a basically constant threat of communist expansion through South East Asia, and fundamental long term concern for the security of Australia and her Territories from attack and the threat of attack. Although there have been specific variations in the threat, as during the Indonesian Confrontation period, there has been continuing endorsement of regional security, in conjunction with our major allies, as the basis of Australian policy, whilst at the same time appreciation of the need to be able to deter attack on, and in the last resort to defend, Australia and her Territories.

2. Throughout the period, however, there has been recognition that United States presence, policy and commitment to South East Asia are the keystones of our own 'forward defence policy', and in the last review (1968)1 an appreciation that the United States position was changing. Similarly, as far back as 1962, doubts as to the extent of British influence and as to SEATO's practical significance had emerged, and had become substantial by the time of the 1968 review.

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Implications For The Development Of Defence Capability

The Future Strategic Environment–Summary of Findings

159. As at present, no direct threat to the security of Australian territory is foreseen in the 1970s outside the unlikely contingency of general war. But the foregoing review of Australia's strategic environment has identified significant changes which will alter the strategic balance and some trends which will have the potentiality of developing, in a later decade, into a more active threat to Australia's security. Although some countries in the area are consolidating their positions as stable independent states with expanding economies and enlarged military capabilities of their own, they do not, either individually or collectively, have the resources to guarantee the stability and independence of the region. Our major allies, firstly the British, and more recently and importantly the United States, have indicated their intention of reducing their military commitments in South East Asia. At the same time we see the Russian initiatives to increase their influence in the area and an increase in Chinese influence in the area is predicted. A considerable growth in Japanese political influence is also inevitable; how it will be used in the longer term, and whether it will lead to a greater military role remain uncertain.

160. Given the continuance of the nuclear balance between the Great Powers and the continuing unlikelihood of general war, Indonesia is the country from or through which a conventional military threat to the security of Australian territory could most easily be posed. It is very unlikely that any Indonesian Government in this decade would develop a capacity or intention to mount a serious and sustained attack on the Australian mainland. We could expect warning over a period of years of any change of Indonesia's intention or capability.

161. A stable, cohesive and economically developing Indonesia in relations of confidence with Australia, would add considerably to our security, and our national policies backed by credible defence forces must be necessarily directed to the maintenance of an Indonesia well-disposed to Australia.

162. Apart from the Vietnam commitment, which is likely to be effectively terminated as far as combat forces are concerned early in the decade, the likelihood of Australian combat involvement outside Australia is less than we assessed in 1968 and is not great. We must however be seen to be prepared to make a contribution to the security of Thailand and Malaysia/Singapore should the need arise. It is unlikely that Australia would become deeply involved except in conjunction with a major ally.

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The Military Capabilities Requirement–Summary of Findings

167. In addition to the preceding broad requirements, the analysis in earlier sections of this paper revealed requirements for Australian force capabilities in a number of specific situations (references are paragraph numbers). These were:

a. Retention of some forces in Vietnam for so long as the United States have substantial forces involved (41).

b. Maintenance of training teams and civic action teams in Vietnam (42–43).

c. Continued aid to Thailand (47–51).

d. Continued support of the Manila Treaty and the SEATO Organization recognizing the limited practicability of the latter's military plans (56).

e. Association with SEATO counter-insurgency plans should not automatically require plans for deployment of Australian ground combat forces (57).

f. Australia should for this purpose have a capability of deploying air and naval support (which could demand some ground forces also) (58).

g. Against the unlikely contingency of overt communist aggression against a SEATO country, Australia must retain credible forces for deployment alongside United States forces (59).

h. We should be capable of deployment of combat elements to Thailand for SEATO exercises if United States forces do likewise (60).

i. Any deployment with United States forces in the Treaty area is likely to occur ad hoc in the context of United States rather than SEATO plans (61).

j. Since the Australian Force in Malaysia and Singapore is not at present composed or equipped for significant military operations, there should be the capability of reinforcement if this should be necessary (71).

k. Australian forces may be required in Papua/New Guinea in internal troubles in, or in the environs of, Papua/New Guinea for its external defence after independence (91–94).

l. Combat deployment in Fiji is unlikely (102).

m. We should assist in the improvement of Indonesian military capability, for internal security, and for defensive weapons and, to this end, extend selected assistance in technological and defence fields (80).

n. Over the long term it is from or through an Indonesia in hostile hands that Australia could most effectively be attacked by conventional means (76).

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174. There are additional national and international reasons for continuing to build up, for the long term, strongly equipped and self-reliant Australian defence forces in whose capabilities both our allies and countries in our neighbourhood can believe. Our military strength, and our national industrial capability to support and expand that strength, will be amongst the keys to our contribution to the peace and stability of this region of the world. The diplomatic influence we can exercise in attempting to deflect or minimize developments inimical to our political and economic interests will be largely determined by the respect in which we are held, and the contribution it can be clearly seen we might be able to make in many situations, many of them quite unpredictable. One of these situations is the remote possibility that we might have to defend our own territory, at least for a period, without substantial help, or to exercise deterrent diplomacy to best effect before the threat materializes.

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184. The fact that overseas operational involvement is less likely suggests that consideration of capabilities for such involvement should not dominate force development, although our forces must retain the capability to operate in such environments and make an adequate Australian contribution to possible allied operations. Furthermore, the fact that the operational lifetime of major weapons systems authorized in even the early part of this decade will almost certainly fall within the two decades subsequent to that of our present threat assessment, suggests that more emphasis than hitherto should be given to the continuing fundamental obligation of continental defence, particularly in the sense that all alternatives should be tested thoroughly as to their relevance to the defence of Australia itself. The objectives of our defence policy for the current decade and beyond should reflect this appreciation, and our forces should also be capable of development sufficiently rapidly to meet any emerging threat.

[matter omitted]

1 See Document 99.

Last Updated: 26 November 2015
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