Strategic review must drop business-as-usual approach to Australia’s defence
The Strategist. Malcolm Davis. 4 Aug 2022.
The Labor Party’s pre-election promise of a defence force posture review has now taken shape as a much more expansive strategic review encompassing the Australian Defence Force’s structure, posture and investment requirements over the next 10 years and beyond. Listen carefully and you’ll hear the gentle noise of a white paper being prepared.
The review will be headed by two independent leads, former Labor defence minister Stephen Smith and former ADF chief Angus Houston, and will report to the National Security Committee of Cabinet by March next year, alongside the release of the findings of the investigation of alternatives for acquisition of an Australian nuclear submarine capability announced under the 2021 AUKUS agreement.
The terms of reference make it clear that this review will consider not only the posture of ADF units, but also ‘force disposition, preparedness, strategy and associated investments’ required to achieve a force that is fit for purpose in a more adverse strategic environment. It will build on the analysis of trends set out in the 2020 defence strategic update and force structure plan, which in turn were hinted at in the 2016 defence white paper.
The review will first need to ‘outline future strategic challenges facing Australia’. That will demand a robust treatment of the challenge posed by a rising and assertive China. The threats from China are taking the form of not only a much more capable and modernised People’s Liberation Army, but also a more assertive use of grey-zone tactics by Beijing, the application of direct political warfare against Australia, and a creeping expansion of Chinese influence and presence into Australia’s area of direct military interest, including the South Pacific.
Past defence white papers have invariably seen their analysis rapidly overtaken by events. This is certainly what happened with much of the strategic assessment from the 2016 white paper. The accelerating deterioration in our strategic environment, which has been underway since 2015, prompted the 2020 update to go further to address the challenge from China. But that challenge has grown markedly even in the two years since the update’s release.
The evidence is clear, with aggressive PLA actions against Australian ships and aircraft in international waters, and the prospect of a Chinese military presence in the Solomon Islands—not to mention the rising danger of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, perhaps as early as the second half of this decade. The PLA’s ability to project power at long range has also grown. China now has more advanced missile systems, strategic air power and counterspace and cyberwarfare capabilities. It has a bigger and more capable navy, and a large-scale nuclear build-up is underway.
To meet this challenge, the ADF needs to embrace a more forward-orientated posture that emphasises and hardens its capability in northern Australia. The notional sea–air gap in the north, which first appeared as early as the 1986 Dibb report, will have to be seen as a main rear area from which the ADF projects its operational focus—rather than from the south of the continent. That would be a significant shift in force posture, which I first suggested in 2018.
A ‘forward defence in depth’ strategy would involve expanding the ADF’s northern posture as well as building closer defence relations with key Indo-Pacific partners such as Japan, South Korea, India and some of the ASEAN states. It also entails strengthening Australia’s burden-sharing with the United States, including by allowing enhanced access for US forces to defence facilities in northern Australia—a step already suggested in last year’s AUSMIN communiqué.
In terms of force structure, priority needs to be given to expanding, enhancing and accelerating the acquisition of an ADF strike and deterrence capability. The review should not simply reiterate the 2020 force structure plan, and nor should it simply rely on the very long-term acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines to provide enhanced military capability. It needs to recognise the importance of acquiring truly long-range power projection for the ADF. It also needs to contend with that fact that air and naval platforms such as the F-35A Lightning II, F/A-18F Super Hornet and Hobart-class air warfare destroyer are likely to face increasingly greater risks in penetrating deeply inside China’s growing anti-access/area-denial envelope to deliver standoff weapons. Longer range platforms to deliver longer range missiles with precision and speed will be essential.
Ideally, Australia would have forward host-nation support in any crisis, but we can’t assume that’s always going to be available. Projecting strike capabilities directly from northern Australia to hold at risk any maritime threat generated by a major-power adversary like China, well beyond the notional sea–air gap, would dramatically boost the ADF’s ability to deter and respond, as well as to burden-share with key allies. There needs to be a discussion about acquiring in-development B-21 bombers and long-range conventional ballistic missiles that can strike at both land and maritime targets.
Related to this challenge are maximising the weight of fire to generate useful effects and sustaining combat in a possible conflict with China, which could easily become a protracted war. Part of the solution could be a far more ambitious and fast-moving autonomous systems strategy. But combat sustainment is a key weakness for the ADF, with its brittle and boutique platforms and munitions. A force structure that has both mass and endurance will be what’s required in a future war.
Earlier this year, the former government sought to accelerate the guided weapons and explosive ordnance enterprise as part of AUKUS, but so far little has happened beyond the choosing of two large aerospace prime contractors to lead the project. There’s been scant information on what weapons are to be built, how many and how fast, and when those weapons will start flowing. Building small numbers of weapons will be insufficient to meet the demands of high-intensity warfare, a fact so clearly demonstrated in the ongoing war in Ukraine. Nor does Australia have the luxury of time to build small stockpiles slowly.
The review is also tasked with considering funding and investment both for force structure and for preparedness and mobilisation. It’s vital that this is a strategy-led—not fiscally-led—exercise. The review must decide what the threat is and how to meet it in a manner that best protects Australia from emerging long-range capabilities and, in particular, neutralises the risk posed by Chinese military bases in our near region.
Deterring Chinese adventurism—be it against Taiwan, in the South China Sea or across the South Pacific—and responding to the threats posed by Chinese military capabilities must drive the review. This goal must also shape the review’s assessment of force structure requirements and its promotion of the case for a stronger and more robust ADF presence in northern Australia. Then it can work out how much extra spending will be needed to meet these goals. National security and defence will need to come first and the money will need to be found. The alternative is to accept a more insecure future.
A review that advocates a steady-as-she-goes, more-of-the-same approach in the face of a much more adverse security outlook will be a failure. Now is the time for the government to grasp the extent of the challenge posed by a rising China to our nation and our region and respond with responsible and decisive changes to Australian defence policy.