Defence of Australia policy

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The Defence of Australia Policy was Australia's dominant defence policy between 1972 and 1997. The policy was focused on the defence of continental Australia against external attack. Under this policy the Australian Defence Force was tailored to defending Australia rather than developing capabilities to operate outside Australian territory.


The Defence of Australia (DOA) policy was adopted after the previous policy of "forward defence" was discredited in the public eye by Australia's involvement in the Vietnam War. The policy was developed during the 1970s and early 1980s before being formalised in the "Dibb Report" of 1986 and the 1987 and 1994 Defence White Papers.


Under DOA the focus of Australian defence planning was to protect Australia's northern maritime approaches (the "air-sea gap") against enemy attack. In line with this goal, the Australian Defence Force (ADF) was restructured to increase its ability to strike at enemy forces from Australian bases. This was achieved by increasing the size and capabilities of the Royal Australian Air Force and Royal Australian Navy at the expense of the Army and the forces which had been used to project Australian power overseas (such as Australia's aircraft carrier, HMAS Melbourne, which was retired without replacement).

Specific force structure changes introduced under the DOA policy included:

It is important to note, however, that the adoption of the DOA policy did not involve Australia adopting a policy of neutrality or completely disbanding its ability to deploy forces overseas. During the DOA era Australia maintained its alliances with the United States and New Zealand and sought to develop stronger defence relationships with South East Asian countries. In addition, the ADF maintained a sizable force of transport aircraft and amphibious ships and an infantry brigade capable of rapidly deploying overseas (the 3rd Brigade). Furthermore, Australian forces continued to be deployed overseas for exercises and peace keeping operations and a small Australian military base was permanently maintained at Butterworth in Malaysia.

Criticisms of the policy[edit]

Most criticisms of the DOA policy focus on the policy's inflexibility. In particular, it is argued that Australia's foreign relations and defence interests require a defence force which is capable of rapidly deploying outside Australia. It is also argued that the DOA force structure was not capable of adequately responding to threats other than a direct attack on Australian soil. Furthermore, it is also argued that the DOA policy is unsuitable for coping with the less stable geopolitical conditions since the end of the Cold War which has seen the Australian Army deployed more often than anticipated under DOA.

To a large extent, the Liberal Party government elected in 1996 embraced these criticisms and has re-oriented Australian defence policy by placing greater emphasis on the ADFs ability to deploy overseas. This does not, however, represent a return to 'forward defence' as it involves Australian expeditionary forces deploying from bases in Australia, and not the permanent stationing of Australian military units overseas. Furthermore, defending Australia from external attack remains the ADF's primary responsibility.

Consequences of East Timor[edit]

The Australian-lead intervention into East Timor in 1999 highlighted the strengths and weaknesses of the Defence of Australia policy. While the enhanced defence infrastructure in northern Australia and high-tech naval and air units played a critical role in the operation, the limited availability of deployable logistical units and infantry constrained the operation, especially in its early days.

While the Australian government has expanded the Army's logistical units in light of this experience, the ADF's force structure remains largely unchanged from that which was developed during the DOA era. A key reason for this is that given the massive distances which need to be covered to protect northern Australia, the units developed for the Defence of Australia are inherently capable of deploying outside Australia i.e. emphasis upon a light and mobile land contingent.


See also[edit]

External links[edit]

  • "Publications". Department of Defence Strategy Executive.  (broken link)