39 Background Note by Prime Minister's Department to Cabinet Decision No. 1131

Canberra, 23 March 1959

Top Secret

Strategic Basis of Australian Defence Policy (Submission No. 59)2

The discussion of the strategic basis paper centred chiefly around what Cabinet regarded as a new approach to the problem of defence-i.e. the proposal that the forces should be designed primarily with the ability to act independently of allies. It was said that this proposal runs counter to the policies of the last few years and goes back to the much earlier idea of balanced forces capable of operating alone.

[matter omitted]

The general view was that it is not practical to try to develop a defence policy to meet all possible contingencies. The essential task for a country in Australia's position is to decide what is the most probable state of affairs against which preparations are needed, to prepare accordingly, and to accept the risks of the remaining possible situations.

Two other considerations were mentioned. The first was that the Cabinet could not subscribe even so much as in principle to a revision of defence policy without knowing in detail what would be involved in terms of the composition and disposition of the defence forces, the equipment and the cost. None of these matters [was] canvassed in the paper and, although the Minister had made it clear that a submission dealing with these subjects was in preparation, it was impracticable for Cabinet to reach any views in the absence of such a paper.

The other consideration was that Cabinet would, in any case, be unwilling to make a change in defence policy without regard to the general international background. A reshaping of the forces to put them on to an independent basis would be taken to mean some intensification of Australia's defence effort. In view of the fact that an early summit meeting seems possible, Australia would be thought either to be acting in the wrong direction or to have knowledge of some new threat in its own vicinity.

The paper was thought to look too much towards the defence of the mainland, with consequent emphasis on independent forces. It appeared to reject the earlier policy of planning primarily for a role in association with allies. The Cabinet saw no particular reason for this, and was in fact inclined to the view that the present policy of having deliberately incomplete forces was valid.

It did not appear clear to the Cabinet why it should now be contemplated that Australia would have no allies. The consistent decision of the American government not to participate in planning was by no means an indication that it would not observe its commitments in the event of war. On the contrary the American policy ought to be taken, if anything, as adding to their commitments because they are unwilling for policy reasons to assist countries such as Australia by committing forces in advance. There appeared, therefore, to be no change in the foreign policy situation which would require a change in defence policy.

[matter omitted]

[NAA: A1838, TS677/3 part 2]