Joint by Design: The Evolution of the Australian Defence Strategy

By Zsolt Lazar

For many of us, Australia has always been a somewhat mysterious, exotic continent, a great travel destination and a country from which kangaroos and koalas first come to mind. Very few people know that as a reaction to the power shift and the more demanding environmental and strategic uncertainties in the region, its government has been undertaking an impressive defence and security reform that will very likely shape the future and will serve as an example for others to follow.

Destabilizing regional status quo on the one hand, new evolving policies ex post facto on the other hand: these are topics that could not be more contemporary and Robbin Laird unfolds and guides the reader through these matters in his new book in great detail.

The author’s background in this subject area is very promising. Laird is a well-known military and security analyst who worked both for the U.S. government and for several think thanks, including the Institute for Defense Analysis and the Zbigniew Brzezinski-founded Research Institute on International Change. He is also an editor of two defence websites, Second Line of Defense and Defense Information and, since 2018, has been working as a Research Fellow at The Williams Foundation in Canberra, Australia. His book, Joint by Design: the Evolution of the Australian Defence Strategy, was born there.

Laird has met several decision-makers and conducted many interviews; he has visited not only military bases but also attended numerous seminars and workshops in Australia over the past few years. Therefore, the book contains all-inclusive interviews from which readers can gain an in-depth view of how decision-makers think. There are so many details about the different policies that if I did not know that it was written by a defence and security expert, I could easily say that the topic has been approached with the thoroughness and clarity of mind of a historian.

The accuracy of his work is immediately visible. He builds up the story of the development of the new defence strategy brick-by- brick and shows how the Australian Defence Force adapts to new security threats and modern warfare, how it works with its allies and how policymaking process evolves over time. Indeed, the author shares not just the raw facts, but also his and his interviewees’ impressions about the strategy reset and related challenges. Therefore, readers can see the people behind the structured process and complex decisions.

It is a particularly interesting aspect, since policymaking has never been a simple exercise. Thus, the author starts by showing the final result, with the Prime Minister of Australia Scott Morrison’s speech, in which he announces the country’s Defence Strategic Update in 2020. It is a good choice, since the speech frames the subject, explains both the historical and geopolitical background of the initiative and gives a perfect foundation for the following chapters that introduce the way the new strategy was shaped. From these pages, even readers who are less familiar with the subject can see how strategic thinking and policymaking go hand-in-hand and understand the planning, budgeting and reorganizing work that had to be done in practice.

One of the main strengths of the book is that it presents how the key actors’ different perspectives lead to different approaches to addressing the issues related to the more integrated and enhanced defence capabilities. Politicians, top-level decision-makers and high-level military officers were interviewed and provide their first-hand thoughts about the reform, transition and renewal. This is valuable information that otherwise would not be presented in sensationalist daily newspapers and could not be easily accessed by the wider public.

The same applies to the many anecdotes shared by the interviewees, which not only add colour to the story, but more importantly, complement, add depth and (in many cases) lots of technical details to help the reader better understand what the Australian decision-makers were facing during the policymaking procedure. An example, which as an aircraft enthusiast caught my attention, is the spillover effect type of impacts that a fifth-generation aircraft’s integration causes, not only in the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) but also in other military branches. It triggers the modernization of the whole RAAF fleet, enhances its international interoperability capabilities and increases interactivity between ground, air and maritime operations.

The more one reads of examples like this, the more interesting these stories get, not least because technological changes like these have inevitable influence on organizational culture and structure. This is a factor that Laird presents thoroughly. For instance, who would think that even small changes like having the combat squadron next door to the Systems Program Office, or facilitating Navy officers on airborne early warning and control aircraft, could drastically increase the readiness rates and overall effectiveness of the modernization process?

These are innovations that matter. Therefore, it is good to see that the book also reveals that the Australian decision-makers did not neglect the national defence industry and gave priority to the enhancement of the sector’s innovation capability. In the strategic thinking and comprehensive approach, Australia’s Defence Industry Policy Statement is one of the enablers that serves as force multiplier and catalyst for change. One of Laird’s interviewees highlights that with the deepening cooperation with the sector, the Australian Defence Force can have an operationally driven and fifth-generation transformation process.

From these examples, what is probably the most striking to me is that the book precisely shows that the Australian government heavily built on national and international defence and security experts’ opinions during the formation of the new defence strategy. This approach to policy- and decision-making is not so evident in many other countries or organizations, where the military’s organizational culture is somewhat stuck in the twentieth century.

Generally speaking, although the author chose a risky format with the interviews, he is able to build a coherent story and find a way to smoothly transition from one interview to another without losing focus. In fact, in some cases, the interviews are linked with shorter explanations which nicely close the section or prepare the reader for the next. The interviews very effectively contextualize the topic and enrich the reader with a lot of background information. Moreover, besides the wealth of personal comments and additional data, they make this otherwise dry topic very enjoyable and personal.

It is obvious that Laird is not a simple military and security analyst. By reading his book, it turns out that thanks to his editorial work, he is also an experienced narrator with the necessary skillset to tell a complex story in an exciting way. Therefore, overall, it is important to note that Joint by Design: the Evolution of the Australian Defence Strategy is not just an academic book that develops the context and the making of the new defence and security strategy of Australia, but because of the wealth of reports about seminars and quotes from key actors, it is also a very credible source for historians. This is particularly valuable when its main topic is one into which it is very rare to gain such deep and detailed insight.