OPINION: Australia's defence strategy suffers from several significant defects. They are not easily addressed but they need to be if defence policy is to meet the new strategic challenges we face.

Our defence strategy lacks coherence, and declaratory policy bears little resemblance to what the Australian Defence Force actu­ally does.

Strategic assumptions that are poorly conceived and highly contestable have been elevated into incontestable dogma.

Among them is the illusion that Australia’s geography provides “immutable” or “abiding” strategic benefits and that superior intelligence can be relied on to provide early warning of emerging threats.

Furthermore, there is a worrying superficiality in official public pronouncements about the consequences of recent shifts in US strategic thinking and force posture.

Australia’s defence white papers are the problem and the keys to the solution, since they represent the authentic, whole-of-government voice on defence policy. They are also the principal means through which that policy is communicated to the electorate, as well as to allies, friends and potential adversaries.

As such, the forthcoming defence white paper provides the first real opportunity for the Abbott government to carry out a much-needed reset of defence strategy.

A crucial first step is a clear and unambiguous statement of Australia’s defence and military strategies and their main objectives.

Defining defence strategy should not be difficult, but whatever form of words is adopted the white paper must recognise its two essential purposes: to shape the regional and international security environment in support of a rules-based, liberal democratic order; and to deter and, if necessary, defeat armed attacks against the country’s territory, people and vital interests.

These objectives require clarification in light of past misconceptions and the turbulence of Australia’s security environment. Shaping presupposes a corresponding capacity and a compelling, achievable vision that unites Australians and matches means with ends.

Maintaining and propagating a rules-based liberal-democratic order will be far more difficult in a world where Pax Americana is fraying at the edges. Although the US is likely to remain the world’s pre-eminent state, in aggregate terms power is seeping away from the Western liberal democracies with which Australia traditionally has been aligned.

In place of Pax Americana is a more fragmented, illiberal world featuring a new cast of players, some of whom possess significant military reach and hold competing visions of the future world and regional orders.

The real task for the ADF is to help protect Australia’s security interests in this emerging world order, or disorder, as the case may be. This will require a new, more proactive defence strategy and some difficult decisions.

The fraying of the American-centric order means we should deepen and broaden our regional defence partnerships within, and beyond, the ANZUS alliance. The best way to adjust to the realities of the US as a security enhancer, rather than a security provider, is by pursuing partnerships with regional states that broadly share our strategic views, even if they do not share our values.

Indonesia is the standout example of an Asian neighbour with which we need to forge a closer, more encompassing defence relationship despite the differences in our values. India, Vietnam and The Philippines also warrant a higher priority.

Future defence co-operation should emphasise improving regional maritime surveillance and response capabilities, information sharing and strategic, “smart power” investments in military education and training that can generate disproportionately large security returns for relatively small outlays.

Instead of the piecemeal approach that has thus far characterised defence engagement with the region, we need to better harness our alliance and non-alliance defence partnerships to the overarching objectives of defence strategy.

Deterring and defeating attacks on the nation’s territory, people and vital interests will be considerably more demanding and costly in an era of declining US power and protean threats.

The US nuclear umbrella and conventional military power is a far less effective deterrent against non-state adversaries and cyber-threats, where the identity and ­location of attackers may be elusive or unprovable.

The 2015 defence white paper should make clear that Australia, as a robust middle power, ought to be capable of independently deterring and defeating peer adversaries by out-thinking and out-fighting them.

However, against more powerful states we would be outmatched. That is why the US alliance remains fundamental to our military strategy and why we must remain invested in its vitality and strength.

But it does not mean an unthinking acceptance of US policy positions or marching in lockstep with the US on strategy and operations without a considered assessment of the implications.

With Australia poised to become a key provider of security ­assets for the US as Washington’s pivot to Asia gains momentum and our strategic interests converge, the government will need to make some important decisions about the future direction of the ­alliance.

A good start would be a clear statement of the purpose and desirable level of closer interoperability with the US military and greater transparency about the associated risk-benefit calculation.

This should be accompanied by an explanation of the reasons for the distinct weighting in our ­defence procurement policy towards buying US systems and technology, and why intelligence co-­operation with the US is a net benefit to our defence capabilities and budget.

Australians also need to know whether other locations and defence installations are destined to become force-multipliers for the US as it rebalances towards a “more geographically distributed, operationally resilient, and politically sustainable force” in Asia.

If the US military presence in Australia is going to expand, what is the strategic justification for a closer defence alignment with the US in the Indo-Pacific?

The forthcoming white paper should also make clear what new investments in infrastructure, technology and military systems will be required to leverage off the more austere, but still powerful, US military.

An interest-based defence strategy is the key to a more versatile, capable and usable ADF.

Australia must be able to deploy and sustain a credible military force anywhere in the world, not just in our own back yard, reflecting our long and positive record of foreign-policy activism, international defence engagement and ranking as the world’s 13th largest economy.

As the 2013 defence white paper acknowledges, the ability to project military hard power a long way from the Australian continent is entirely consistent with territorial defence, our alliance obligations and our established reputation for good global citizenship.

Since threats can arise with little warning and from almost anywhere, it makes no sense to design our defence force to combat a particular kind of threat coming from a specific point on the compass, or to privilege the near over the far.

The future ADF must be able to defend against an array of often interlocked security threats, both near and far, which means dispensing with the erroneous notion that a force designed for one contingency can provide optimal outcomes for all contingencies.

A far better approach is to identify our core defence interests and the generic military capabilities needed to protect them, for it is folly to predict where, and against whom, the future ADF will ­operate.

A key weakness of our military strategy is its failure to reflect the crucial role that space and cyberspace play in modern military ­operations.

Australia should develop and pursue a full-spectrum military strategy in recognition of the need to provide protection against military threats emanating from outer space and cyberspace, as well as from land, sea and air.

Full-spectrum defence is an integrated, five-domain military strategy that exploits Australia’s technological strengths and unique ability to leverage off the still dominant communications, intelligence and space-based capabilities of the US.

Such a strategy would enable Australia to deter and defeat adversaries with far larger military forces as well as incipient and established non-state threats.

Some of the capabilities required to implement this strategy, such as airborne early warning and control aircraft and air warfare destroyers, are already in place or in prospect.

But there has to be greater connectivity and investment across the five domains with a military strategy to match.

For virtually all conceivable future defence contingencies, the ADF will need to draw on a diverse suite of highly capable air, naval and land forces.

Those who support funding for a particular part of the defence force while decrying a core capability for another part fail to understand the ADF must be a balanced force, not a niche force capable of conducting a limited range of tasks.

So we need modern tanks and armoured combat vehicles, as well as ships, submarines and aircraft. And the ADF must be able to fight in all domains, including cities and towns, because our illiberal adversaries may deliberately choose to fight in urban areas as a way of ­negating Australia’s technological and conventional military strengths.

A balanced ADF also means a capacity for theatre-level ballistic-missile defence to combat ad­vances in the range, use and lethality of ballistic missiles in the Indo-Pacific region.

Full-spectrum defence will require a more rigorous approach to defence planning.

A first step is to replace arbitrary defence planning determinants with less prescriptive considerations and principles that can guide defence planners in thinking about the optimum size, balance and capabilities of the desired future force.

Their purpose should be to clarify defence planning assumptions with a view to identifying conceptual weaknesses and illuminating personal and institutional bias.

A vital second step would be the speedy implementation of a comprehensive and contestable strategic risk assessment process that would weigh threats against identified defence vulnerabilities according to an agreed set of risk criteria.

To ensure the system works as intended the government should insist all significant force structure, acquisition and resource decisions must be subject to a full strategic risk assessment.

If they are not, then the obvious question to be asked is: why not? The government must also lead by example, taking a disciplined and strategic approach to defence planning.

This means eschewing the commercial and political opportunism that has led repeatedly to the purchase of defence systems that are ill-suited to Australia’s needs or impose high opportunity costs in other areas of defence.

There is an urgent need to reduce the excessively long time­frames for purchasing, developing and deploying new defence capabilities.

Given the unprecedented rapidity of technological change it is unrealistic to expect most of today’s aircraft, ships, submarines, tanks and their enabling systems to be of much use in high and medium-intensity conflicts beyond 30 years, even with expensive midlife upgrades.

A more sensible approach is to focus on what is really needed for the next 20 years and build greater flexibility into the acquisition process by continuously upgrading defence systems and technology, and undertaking less gold-plating and more automation.

Replacing ageing components and platforms in shorter time­frames will reduce the risk of premature obsolescence, thereby improving the ADF’s operational readiness and combat edge.

We also need to rethink our approach to defence mobilisation.

In the major wars of the past century, embryonic professional militaries were rapidly scaled up by recruiting large numbers of volunteers from civilian life who could be trained to fight in weeks.

Rapid mobilisation and enlargement are far more difficult today because of the complexity of modern warfare and the speed with which new or hybrid threats can emerge, as the Russian intervention in Ukraine and the rise of Islamic State in Iraq underline.

Since 20th century-style mass mobilisation is not a realistic, or desirable, response for 21st-century threats, we have to find alternative ways of adding critical mass and cutting-edge combat and enabling capabilities at short notice.

An unwillingness to rethink planning processes that have passed their use-by date is a recipe for building a defence force that is ill-equipped to protect Australia and its vital interests.

Managing the risks that arise from a demonstrably more volatile, complex and demanding security environment will not be easy, given the erosion of traditional Western pre-eminence in military affairs and a US that is no longer willing, or able, to play the role of global cop.

Australia needs a smarter, ­forward-looking defence strategy that is global as well as regional, that identifies what the ADF needs to do, eliminates the gap between rhetoric and practice, and replaces dogma with a transparent and contestable risk-assessment process.

While the onus is on our defence planners to think more creatively and fearlessly about the strategic choices they present to government, our politicians must play their role too.

Greater engagement and leadership on defence issues would be a good start.

But they must also resist the temptation to play politics with defence policy by interfering with good process, remembering that the next generation of Australians may have to pay the price for today’s poor defence decisions.

Alan Dupont is a non-resident fellow at the Lowy Institute and Professor of International Security at UNSW. This is an edited extract from his just released Lowy analysis, Full Spectrum Defence: Rethinking the Fundamentals of Australian Defence Strategy.

This opinion piece was first published in The Australian.