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Mind the gap: Bridging generations in defence strategy

Defence spending is often presented as a zero-sum game. However, for many just entering the workforce, and whose experience with conflict is tenuous is best, this argument is fallacious.

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Defence Industry
13 November 2023
Elizabeth Heap and Mark Jeffries
10 minutes

Defence spending is often presented as a zero-sum game.

However, for many just entering the workforce, and whose experience with conflict is tenuous is best, this argument is fallacious. Both Defence and the Government need a better pitch than simple 'Guns v Butter' for a generation that views the former as simply inconceivable, and the latter as increasingly unaffordable.

Conversely, for a generation of decision-makers, strategists, Defence officials and - yes - politicians, the Defence Strategic Review (DSR) represents both prudent planning and a modest investment over the next few decades.

The defence commentariat may quibble over details, but most agree the DSR is an eminently sensible document. This generation (and the generation that preceded them) came into their careers where the threat of global annihilation from malign actors was not just an abstract concept but an event bet. The Day After and Threads were not so much cautionary tales as a window into the future.

Strong defence meant an effective deterrent, so of course the cost was ultimately worth it. Schools and hospitals might be nice, but only tanks can protect the Fulda Gap.

The DSR and its ambition of creating an Integrated Force require both immediate and long-term investment; $19 billion has been allocated over the forward estimates, much of which has already been provided for in the Budget.

The future cost is where things get tricky: the price tag on Australia's conceptual nuclear-powered submarine fleet ranges anywhere from $270 billion to $370 billion (plus a reported 50% contingency). Integrated air and missile defence, maritime strike, upgraded basing and enhanced space capabilities (among others) significantly adds to the cost.

Yet the authors and implementers of the DSR ultimately won't be fitting the eye-watering bill of Defence transformation: the cost will be borne largely by Millenials, Gen Y and the newly arrived Gen Alpha. And they, perhaps not surprisingly, have more pressing matters at hand.

Take housing for example: 72% of people aged between 18-35 believe they will never be able to afford their own home. Similarly, Anglicare Australia's Rental Affordability Snapshot found that rental affordability had crashed to an all-time low.

What about education? Indexation on HECS debts is projected to hit over 7% in 2023, and that's before you add in the aggregate cost of increasing university and course fees.

Global warming? Climate change was the most commonly cited issue facing the world, according to a survey of 10,000 young people. Nearly 60% of young people said they felt 'worried' or 'extremely worried'; 56% thought that humanity was 'doomed'.

One in seven children and adolescents aged four to 17 have recently experienced a mental health disorder in Australia.

The DSR's analysis of climate risks, though, is largely perfunctory.

Climate's interaction with security drivers in Australia, the region and globally is not considered beyond an obligatory assessment that it will increase concurrency pressures on Defence - not that it may make some places in Australia inhospitable for ADF capability, food and water security. For example, the word 'climate' appears in the document 17 times. Conversely, the word 'force' appears 220 times, 'military' 51 times and 'preparedness' 37 times.

'Youth', but he way, doesn't rate a single mention.

That's not to say that young people don't care about Defence and national security. They do: young people want to secure Australia and a stable Indo-Pacific. The problem is how to reconcile the massive investment in Defence (projected to be 2.3% of GDP out of 2027) so that the ADF can undertake 'accelerated preparedness' against a nameless adversary - with a collapsing environment, rising inequality, the ballooning cost of living and a rising tide of global authoritarianism and intolerance supercharged by social media and vested interest groups.

Both Defence and the government need to do a much better job of responding to the legitimate concerns of young Australians. This means recasting traditional strategic planning and policy through a much wider lens of contemporary security challenges.

Millennials and Gen Y don't want to see Russian aggression in Ukraine or coercive tactics in the South China Sea. Equally, they want to see government action on gender-based violence or closer engagement with Pacific nations facing extinction due to climate change or building social cohesion and resilience by countering disinformation and strengthening democratic institutions.

This is not only because it is the right thing to do, but because of its strategic necessity. Young Australians will not only carry the financial burden of an enhanced ADF, but they will also be vital to Defence's long-term plan to recruit and retain our best and brightest. Maintaining this support needs to be more consultative and less transactional.

Fortunately, there are precedents for establishing a more inclusive model that can bring young people along for the journey rather than simply expecting them to pony up the bill.

The approach taken by the Youth National Security Strategy (YNSS) is one example. Developed during 2021 and 2022, the YNSS provided a more holistic view of the concerns of young Australians. This process included detailed selection, consultation and policy development over a period of several months.

The YNSS identified four key objectives:

  • safeguard our sovereignty;
  • protect and grow our prosperity;
  • strengthen our social fabric;
  • mitigate our exposure to nature and climate risk.

What is perhaps most surprising is the alignment of the YNSS with established thinking around Australia's national security priorities. Young people care deeply about their future and want to be invested in solutions.

Similarly, in 2018, the Department of the Prime Minister and the Cabinet partnered with Monash University to bring a youth perspective to the design of Australia's second National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security. This included a youth only consultation process - the first time this had occurred in Australia on peace and security policy.

These kinds of participatory policy models provide space for youth voices to engage meaningfully in policy processes that directly impact their lives, nut also provide spaces for government to future-proof its policies.

Both examples provide a clear signal of not only what young people think about defence and security, but how those views can be brought into the national discourse.

The government and Defence should consider proposing a National Action Plan for youth, Peace and Security. It would demonstrate commitment to a generational view of national security beyond the traditional paradigm of capability, preparedness and force posture, and give Defence access to a largely untapped community.

It could build on the successful consultative approaches of previous initiatives, and establish a more inclusive and integrated framework for managing future security challenges.

For a generation that will soon be facing the compounding challenges of global insecurity, climate catastrophe and more, it is the least they are owed.

Elizabeth Heap is a Synergy Group graduate in the Defence, Strategy and Industry team with an academic background in international relations and political science. Synergy Group executive director Mark Jeffries is a former public servant at Defence, Prime Minster and Cabinet and Home AFfirs and specialises in strategic policy development, strategy design and strategic writing.


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