Defence Policy

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A coherent national defence policy is one of the fundamental sectoral policies within the security and justice sector. Defence policies should be derived from already agreed national security policies and strategies. The  analysis of and consultation on defence policy needs typically results in what is often termed a defence white paper which, once approved by the government, establishes policy directions for the defence sector for the period of its validity. 

'Military subservience to political control applies to existing policy, not to policy debates. The political process requires the unfettered opinions of military leaders, and military leaders who lack the courage to offer such opinions are just as accountable to their people as the politicians who have secured their silence.'

Senator Webb 1999

Defence policy formulation or development is only one step in a group of interdependent activities that collectively define national defence. As well as policy formulation, the defence system has to be able to implement the policies effectively which in turn requires the ability to develop strategies, plan, programme and budget across the sector. As well, there has to be continued political and bureacuratic oversight of defence policies and activities to ensure that the policy settings remain relevant and that the activities contribute to policy ends.A white paper is a political document. Although it will (and should) normally be prepared following detailed analysis of the issues, the final product is a statement of the government's intent and as such might not necessarily conform to strict analytical or evidence-based conclusions, although the policy statements will usually be couched in ends-means terms. The policy's  underlying analysis should always be evidence based.

The graph below sets the basic activities undertaken in a comprehensive defence policy process. Each activity may involve several sub-activities, a variety of actors, and require or produce various inputs or outputs respectively.

RISK: The final output of the process is a Defence Paper, which is a statement of policy directions and decisions. Much of the policy might be new, some of it might be amendments to the current settings. In each case the new policy will have to be implemented. This will involve analysis, planning, programming and the adoption of specific practices related to the policy. Without these activities, the declared policy itself will not be successful.

Although an end point of 'implementation' is shown on the graph, the end point is more apparent than real. As with all other policy areas, defence policy settings should be kept under continual review. Once activities, or force structures, or equipment plans, or forecast budgets diverge significantly from declaratory policy, it is likely that a re-examination of policy settings is needed in which case the process needs to start again.

Even once the policy has been implemented it still needs to be monitored and evaluated to ensure it is meeting the professional and political intent behind it. If specific policy implementation does not work new methods of implementation might be needed, or in the worst case the policy might need to be revised. Inevitably, with the passage of time, policy settings will become irrelevant to the strategic, political, economic, technological or social environment in which case a new policy development round is likely to be necessary.


Jim Rolfe
20 févr. 2013 02:45:03

These are in more or less alphabetical order rahter than in any sense of value:

'It [the bureacuracy] ... tends to overvalue the orderly routine and observance of the system by which it receives information, transmits orders, checks expenditures, [and] files returns...' Mahan 1908

'Military subsevience to political control applies to existing policy, not to policy debates. The political process requires the unfettered opinions of military leaders, and military leaders who lack the courage to offer such opinions are just as accountable to their people as the politicians who have secured their silence.' Webb 1999

'The central idea of an army is known as its doctrine, which to be sound must be based on the principles of war, and which to be effective must be elastic enough to admit of mutation in accordance with change in circumstances...'. Fuller 1926

'The main thing is always to have a plan; if it is not the best plan, it is at least better than no plan at all'. Monash 1918.

'War cannot for a single minute be separated from politics'. Mao 1938

'He, therefore, who aspires for peace should prepare for war'. Flavius 378.

'The hypothesis of every reorganization of an army is, first of all, peace on the outer borders. That means several years of external peace and a state of political calm...Before these conditions are achieved a successsful military reorganization cannot be accomplished. Success cannot be attained while you are in a continual state of war'. von Seekt 1930s

'There must be a clear-cut, long-term relationship established between ... intentions and administrative resources...' Montgomery 1958

'A policy is a temporary creed liable to be changed, but while it holds good it has to be purseud with apostolic zeal'. Gandhi 1922. 

'The basic problems facing the world today are not susceptible to a military solution'. Kennedy 1963

Thammy Evans
19 févr. 2013 11:51:59

Hi Jim

In answer to your comments above.

1. I've added a box - is this where you were thinking it should be?

2. The way to add bibliographic references for books it to add them to the Books category in the Resource Library. I'll work on making these show up in the Other Resources tab in the same way that Papers do.

3. Yes, I've already suggested this to Fraser and he is working on it. I'll see if he can get it done for our in-house launch on Thurs.

Thammy Evans
7 févr. 2013 15:40:41

Hi Jim

Here are the instructions to add resources to these pages:

  • Click on the box(page) where you want the resource to show up.
  • Note the title of the page eg "Formulate Defence Policy"
  • Go to the Resource Library and go to the type of resource you want to upload eg Policy and Research Papers
  • Search to check that the paper does not already exist
  • If it does not, then click the "Add" label and add the document or link you want to add
  • At the bottom of the Edit/New page where you are adding the new resource, under the Activity drop down menu, choose the page name of where you want the resource to appear eg "Formulate Defence Policy"
  • It will now appear in the "Other Resources" tab of the tagged activity page (you might need to click on to a new webpage and then renavigate back to the desired page, or clear your cache in order for the new resource to appear)
  • If the resource is already in the Resource Library, then simply edit the resource, and add another Activity at the bottom of the page by choosing the page name of where you want the resource to appear.
  • Tadaaahhhh


1. Form team

By definition, developing defence policy is a government activity. The policy development team is typically made up of senior  officials, both uniformed and civilian. External advisers may be brought in at stages along the process, especially to provide expertise and conduct specific analysis on a particular issue or area.

The policy team will usually have a core of analysts and writers from:

  • Ministry of Defence
  • Ministry of Finance
  • Armed Forces
  • Ministry of Foreign Affairs
  • Prime Minister's or President's Office
  • National Security Adviser's office

Others agencies will be represented as appropriate to the issues being discussed, including, for example, from:

  • Natural Disaster Agency
  • Ministry of Veterans Affairs
  • Ministry of Labour
  • Ministry of Justice
  • Public Sector Bureau/Local Government
  • Ministry of Interior
  • Ministry of Health
  • Ministry of Agriculture

The core team should expect to be involved in the process full-time for the period of the activity, which could take between six and 18 months depending on the complexity of the issues and the level of analysis required by the government.

Because of the range of disciplines from which the policy development team is likely to be drawn, consideration should be given to developing the group's own common understanding of the concepts being used and the issues being addressed. The ultimate aim is for all members of the policy team not only to be able to contribute within their own area of expertise, but to be able to understand and critique the policy approaches and conclusions of their colleagues.

2. Oversee defence white paper process

The defence policy development team normally involves senior and mid-level officials from a range of government agencies. Because of the importance of the issues, the team will need day-to-day guidance typically at Deputy Secretary/Vice Chief of Defence Staff level (the level below the most senior civilian and military officials), and should report regularly to the Secretary of Defence/Chief of Defence Staff (and perhaps service chiefs and the heads of other core departments). The Minister of Defence and staff from the Minister's office are also likely to require regular briefings and will often give policy direction to officials. 

The detail of the processes of senior oversight will to a large extent be a function of the way the defence system operates in any particular jurisdiction.

3. Define mandate

The policy devedlopment team needs a mandate or terms of reference that defines and legitimises their activities, sets any boundaries or limitations on their investigation, establishes work and reporting processes and sets a timeline and budget. The terms of reference should be issued by the authority directing the white paper (normally the Minister of Defence or the Prime Minister/President, perhaps with Cabinet approval as well) and should have the concurrence of the senior civilian and uniformed officials in the interested agencies.

Typically, the terms of reference will be drafted by the leader of the policy analysis team and be accepted by working level officials across the government before it is sent to the issuing authority for final approval.

As the project continues it might be necessary for the terms of reference to be revised. The need will normally be identified by the leader of the policy team, agreed by senior management and approved by the authority from which the original terms of reference came.

4. Conduct analysis

Policy development may be divided for explanatory purposes into discrete activity areas as shown below. In practice these discrete activities will occur concurrently and in conjunction with each other rather than consecutively and discretely.

Defence policy needs to be firmly grounded in an analysis of the issues affecting the policy and the environment within which it will be implemented. Analysis has three dimensions that collectively define the task: the breadth of the issues to be covered; the  depth of the analysis itself; and the temporal length or timeline against which the analysis is to be conducted. The boundaries for these areas should be defined in the policy team's mandate and should be completely clear not only to the team itself, but also to senior officials responsible for approving the final product.

Breadth means the range of the issues. Questions to be covered include: Is the analysis to be limited to military issues only (the equipment, training and deployment of troops within current policy settings for example); should the analysis be widened to defence issues more generally through analysis of the strategic environment and wider policy issues; or should analysis be set more generally within the wider security sector.

Depth refers to the detail in which the analysis is conducted. Analysis can be superficial or it can attempt to examine second and third order issues related to the factor at hand. Decisions in this area will have direct consequences on the level of analytical resources required for the white paper team.

Length is the period the white paper considers. some countries routinely consider a 30 or more year timeline on the grounds that decisions about equipment taken now will continue to have consequences inside that timeframe. Others restrict themselves to a five year timeline because predictions beyond that period will have very little validity and it will, in this point of view, make more sense to revisit the issue when factors change as they inevitably will.

5. Define policy options

The purpose of the analytical policy development process is to develop policy options. Options should be developed for the detail of each policy area as well as for the overall defence system. Policy options should be realistic, achievable (within defined time frames) and affordable. That is to say, options should not be raised purely as  an extreme to be discarded so that a 'preferred' option becomes the only choice. There are always choices, if only between doing nothing and doing something.

Military subservience to political control applies to existing policy, not to policy debates. The political process requires the unfettered opinions of military leaders, and military leaders who lack the courage to offer such opinions are just as accountable to their people as the politicians who have secured their silence.

Webb 1999.

Policy options  might be at the highest level (adopt a national policy of neutrality, or not), or they might be at a more material level (have a fleet of six submarines or 12). All of the options developed need to have a clear statement of the presumed costs and benefits and the financial implications over the life of each  option should be laid out.

Policy options should be presented to decision-makers in a form that allows them to see what is proposed, what it will cost through the life of the policy, what consequences the policy might have on stakeholders and on other, linked, issues and there should be a summary showing the benefits of the policy, any identified problems (which should be outweighed by the benefits), issues or factors that could disrupt the policy, and what future opportunites might be developed from the proposed policy.

As policies are developed for the component parts of the defence system, the white paper management team need to ensure there is coordination between the proposals to ensure that different policy areas do not conflict.

6. Consult and communicate

Consultation and communication are two sides of the same coin. Consultation involves asking people and groups (whether experts, stakeholders, the interested public, pressure groups, or the public at large) their views on the issues and possible approaches to the issues. Communication is the process of ensuring that all who need to know about the issues, and decisions related to the issues have the information. There are many ways to conduct consultation (see below and in Other Resources). Communication, often tackled as an afterthought, is best conducted with prior planning and professional expertise.

RISK: The greatest mistake with consultation is to conduct it after decisions have been made. Those being consulted can see immediately if this is the case and the outcomes will be counter-productive.

Although the defence white paper is prepared and written by officials with day-to-day responsibility for the issues, defence policy has wider national and international resonance. Defence policies define the country and what it stands for, defence policies are likely to involve some of the most expensive of government programmes, often with no obvious material benefit, and defence policies often polarise citizens in ways that other policies do not. For these reasons, and because not all wisdom resides with officials, wide consultation is likely to lead to policy that is better because it has a wider range of input than if it were limited to official thinking and that is accepted by the population at large because they have had a chance to influence policy direction.

After decisions have been made, they need to be communicated. The final White Paper is a form of communication, but there should be a detailed communication strategy to ensure that the desired message is being sent and received by the community.

If properly done, consultation can be time consuming and expensive. The consultation plan and process needs a dedicated team working closely with the core white paper team to ensure that the results of the consultation are considered by the white paper team. Issues to be considered include the intent of the consultation and its scope. Consultation could be to ensure that experts of the subject have the opportunity to provide their expertise, to give significant stakeholders (domestic and perhaps international) to have an input, or it could involve all citizens being given the opportunity to contribute. 

Consultation should use a range of methods to garner opinion. Background material should be prepared as a lead-in to:

  • focus groups
  • public meetings
  • write-in opportunities
  • social media sites
  • comment on a dedicated web site.

7. Decide on response options

Typically, the analysis process will develop a range of options for the government to consider. The government's task is to determine the options it wants. In making its determination, the government will insert a range of political factors that the analysis will not (and should not) have considered. This is the government's prerogative as, in a democracy, the government is ultimately accountable politically for its decisions.

There must be a clear-cut, long-term relationship established between...intention and administrative resources.

Montogmery 1958

8. Publish the Policy

Once the government has determined the detail of its defence policy directions is typically will publish its conclusions as a Defence White Paper. The White Paper is a political document that typically describes future capabilities, explains the reasons for those decisions and outlines the funding needs for the policy directions. The published White Paper will act as a blueprint for defence policy development until it is overtaken by the pressure of new events.

As well as the published White Paper, a government may choose to have a 'classified' version. This typically does not contradict the public version, but may show some programmes the government does not want made public and may comment on neighbouring states in terms the government would not make in public. The classified White Paper is important because it acts as a source document for continuing policy development in the non-public areas.