Note to ASPI: silence is not a winning strategy

Influential think-tanks, at least in Australia, are often thought to be largely neo-liberal or pro-business. Ask a journalist to name one, and bodies like Gerard Henderson’s Sydney Institute or John Roskam’s Institute of Public Affairs are likely to be mentioned.

But, after a speech by Prime Minister John Howard last month, it might be time to anoint a new winner in the think-tank influence stakes: the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, or ASPI.


Howard’s speech on September 25th was delivered as the keynote address at ASPI’s Global Forces 2006 conference. It is the clearest statement yet of a historic shift in Australia’s strategic defence posture.

Howard argued that Australia must change its posture from the Hawke-Keating era policy of the ‘defence of Australia’, towards a much more outward-looking posture. ‘The core of Australia’s security agenda is quite straightforward,’ the Prime Minister stated. ‘It is to protect and defend our people, and our interests, and our way of life.’

No longer will the Australian Defence Force be focused on the defence of Australia’s sea and air approaches. On the contrary, recalling in passing the ‘sacrifices on the Western Front 90 years ago’, Howard argued that ‘geography alone has never determined our strategic horizons.’

John Howard does not make speeches to think-tanks and policy institutes lightly. This most recent speech, delivered as it was to a room full of defence bureaucrats, top brass and strategic analysts, deserves to be taken seriously as a statement of future Australian strategic policy.

It is also a vote of confidence in ASPI itself. This modestly sized organisation, set up with Howard Government funding in 2000 and in fact wholly owned by the Australian tax-payer, has come to wield an increasingly significant influence on Australian defence policy in recent years.

Howard himself hailed the Institute in his speech: ‘When the Institute was conceived a number of years ago,’ the PM began, ‘its very aim, or the aim of the Government, was to create the kind of approach the Institute has brought to an examination of Australia’s strategic challenges.’

And what kind of approach is this?

In some respects the Institute has initiated a laudable scrutiny of Australia’s defence budget, pointing out some of the obvious failures in defence acquisition and inventory. Previous ASPI Director Aldo Borgu also ruffled feathers when he publicly attacked the need for Australia to buy into the Pentagon’s mooted missile defence plans.

Borgu has since left ASPI — to work as a top advisor to Defence Minister Brendan Nelson.
But on the really big issues, ASPI has been a largely uncritical cheerleader for the Howard Government’s strategic ambitions. This is particularly obvious when it comes to Australia’s increasingly aggressive strategic posture, and the hardware we are buying to support this.

A good example is the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. This is the aircraft Australia is buying to replace both the F/A-18 Hornets and our ageing F-111 bombers. At $16 billion for under 100 of them, it will be the single biggest Australian government purchase since Federation, so there’s a lot riding on the success or failure of these planes.

Like most high-technology defence projects these days, the Joint Strike Fighter program (JSF) has run into trouble, especially with software.

The phrase ‘software problems’ rings alarm bells for anyone acquainted with defence acquisition — or indeed aerospace more generally. It is software and wiring issues, for instance, that have led to crippling delays in the production and delivery of the Airbus A-380 super-jumbo project. Indeed, a recent report by the Netherlands Court of Audit which examined the risks of the JSF running late and over-budget, stated that ‘the cost per aircraft still cannot be calculated’. These are not comforting words for a country with a defence acquisition record like Australia’s.

A body like ASPI should be asking questions about whether Australia needs expensive new fighter planes, destroyers and tanks for police actions in East Timor and the Solomons.
Instead, ASPI has been supporting the spending spree on new toys.

The Institute has been a big supporter of the Joint Strike Fighter. In fact, when Air Marshall Angus Houston (then chief of the RAAF, and now chief of the whole ADF) chose to explain and defend Australia’s decision to go ahead with the purchase of the JSF, he used a special occasional paper published by ASPI to do so.

Thanks to Sharyn Raggett

On the biggest ‘strategic challenge’ of all — the war in Iraq – ASPI has been curiously silent.

Whether or not the action in Iraq was justified under international law, there is a growing global consensus that the current occupation is causing more violence than it is preventing, and is actually damaging the strategic interests of the ‘Coalition of the Willing.’ Surely it is time that a body like ASPI, charged with the duty, in Howard’s own words, of leading debate about Australia’s ‘strategic challenges’, faced up to the strategic disaster that is the current action in Iraq.

Other hawkish think-tanks internationally are doing just that. Anthony Cordesman, the highly respected Arleigh Burke Chair of Strategy at the hugely influential Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies, recently published an analysis which stated what most observers already know.

‘Iraq is already in a state of serious civil war,’ Cordesman wrote, ‘and current efforts at political compromise and improving security at best are buying time.’ He went on to state that ‘the US cannot simply ‘stay the course,’ and rely on its existing actions and strategy.’ Worse, he wrote, ‘there are no truly good options that can guarantee success and there are many bad ones.’

Chaired by former Republican Defence Secretary James A. Baker, The Iraq Study Group is not exactly a pack of bleeding hearts either (you might remember Baker from the 1991 Gulf War). The Washington Post has quoted Baker making the sensible, though hardly unequivocal statement that ‘our commission believes that there are alternatives between…stay the course and cut and run.’

Then there are the recent remarks by General Sir Richard Dannatt, the Chief of the British General Staff, who told the Daily Mail that the UK should ‘get ourselves out sometime soon because our presence exacerbates the security problems’. Dannatt’s remarks caused plenty of embarrassment to Tony Blair, who forced the General to hold a press conference to hose the down the controversy, but they were essentially common sense: ‘I don’t say that the difficulties we are experiencing round the world are caused by our presence in Iraq, but undoubtedly our presence in Iraq exacerbates them.’

You won’t find clear-headed analysis of this sort coming from ASPI. In fact, you’ll be hard-pressed to find any comment on the Iraq war from ASPI at all. Then again, with $2.5 million of ASPI’s $3.4 million dollars coming straight from the federal government, perhaps that’s not surprising.

ASPI staff are commonly quoted in the media as knowledgeable, independent experts on Australian defence policy. But given the source of ASPI’s funding, and the revolving door that rotates ASPI experts through Howard government ministries and back into the Institute, the Australian public has the right to ask how well our tax dollars are being spent. Is ASPI a genuine source of independent strategic policy advice, or a mouthpiece for the government?

These are vital questions, for they go to the heart of Australia’s strategic interests. Our nation’s body politic badly needs a more open debate about the War on Terror and whether it is in Australia’s interest to stay in Iraq. If ASPI is unable to engage in that debate for fear of offending government spin doctors, then it’s time we opened new channels of dialogue.

ASPI Director Peter Abigail was emailed and phoned asking his and ASPI’s views on the Iraq war and on the independence of ASPI from government policy, but no reply was received before the publication of this article.

ASPI’s Dr Rod Lyon, the author of a policy brief on the war on Iraq which was published on November 10, 2006, was then emailed. His reply can be found in’s online forum.