Defence White Paper


Australia has just published a Defence White Paper, reportedly the most comprehensive ever produced by that country. Take a moment to read it.

Due early next year is the next US Quadrennial Defence Review, which will also make for interesting reading. By law, the Pentagon has to produce one every for years, typically just after a new president is elected. The 2010 QDR is now in preparation and will be released, all being equal, just after New Year.

What grabbed my attention was an Australian Strategic Policy Institute assessment of the paper that notes the White Papers follows in the heals of similar documents issued in 1987, 1994 and 2000. This is an interval of seven years. In between the Australian government has also issued a number of Defence Updates, notably in 2003, 2005 and 2007.

To me it makes sense we do the same about every five years.


“I intend to see to it that any man who sails under a pirate flag or wears a pirate brand gets what he deserves: a short drop and sudden stop.” So said a young Lt (RN) James Norrington in Pirates of Caribbean. In the early 18th Century, the period the movie was set in; those were not just pretty words.

Mackubin Thomas Owens of the US Foreign Policy Research Institute suggests in an analysis entitled “What to do about piracy?” distributed by email suggest some Norrington-style hangings may be in order to suppress again the scourge of piracy.

Owens notes the “elimination of piracy is more a question of will than of resources per se. Piracy (along with the slave trade) was crushed inthe 19th century when the states of Europe, rather than tolerating the practice as they had done in the17th and 18th centuries, decided to take action.”

He adds that what made the actions successful was the determination of Great Britain and others to attack the source of piracy. “The Royal Navy in particular not only captured and sank pirate ships, but also attacked pirate sanctuaries, destroying their bases.”

To adopt such an approach to piracy today would require a return to a distinction in the traditional understanding of international law, one that did not extend legal protections to individuals who do not deserve them. “This distinction was first made by the Romans and subsequently incorporated into international law by way of medieval and early modern European jurisprudence,” in the writings on the law of nations by such authors as Hugo de Groot (“Grotius”), Emer de Vattel and John Locke.

The Romans, Owens says, distinguished between bellum, war against legitimus hostis, a legitimate enemy, and guerra, war against latrunculi: pirates, robbers and brigands – “the common enemies of mankind.”

It is only recently, he adds, that international law has extended legal protection to pirates.

“Unfortunately, we have permitted legalism and moralism to twist our understanding of the ‘rule of law` into something that Grotius, Vattel, Locke, or the Founders [of America] would no longer recognise.

“[People] must understand that if we really wish to root out piracy today, we must be willing to take strong steps. But these steps will require us to change the current mindset, which does not distinguish between war against legitimate enemies and war against “the common enemies of mankind,” which include not only pirates but also terrorists.

Owens also raises an interesting point on risk and cost. According to International Maritime Bureau statistics there were 130 incidents of piracy off the coast of Somalia in 2008. Of these about 50 were successful. By contrast there were between 21 000 (Reuters figure) and 30 000 (US Navy figure) ship movements through the Gulf of Aden, the main pirate hunting ground.

“Providing security teams aboard merchant vessels or arming crews and training them to defend the ship probably exceed the costs of paying ransom for the rare ship taken.” Fifty is indeed a small fraction of 21 000 and even less of 30 000. In practiceit means a ship has less than one chance in 600 of being sucessfully attacked. As a bank used to say: “Makes you think, doesn`t it?”


For the history minded, a reminder that today is the 64th anniversary of the end of World War Two in Europe, VE-Day. A warm salute to all survivors and let all those who gave of their tomorrow for our today never be forgotten. Bless you all.