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For Australians, it’s been 12 months like no other. They’ve been seriously impacted by an intense drought, massive bushfires, floods, cyclones, a global pandemic and China’s ‘wolf warrior’ foreign policies. Against this backdrop of ‘unprecedented’ (the word of the hour) events, the rather delayed Australian Defence Strategic Update has just been released. Its tone deepens the grim outlook.
For some 50 years, the lack of a plausible military threat to Australia has been a constant in public and classified strategic thinking, but no more. The new update now ominously declares ‘a ten-year strategic warning time for a major conventional attack against Australia … is no longer an appropriate basis for defence planning’. The Australian Defence Force (ADF) must now be prepared to meet short-notice crises that carry risks of major interstate war. The only country the update could conceivably be discussing is China.
To meet the China challenge, a new strategy is being embraced that envisages significantly deepening engagement with states in Australia’s immediate region, defined as running from the north-eastern Indian Ocean, across South East Asia and into the South West Pacific. Within this region, the ADF has been set three strategic objectives: to shape the strategic environment, to deter states from taking actions hostile to Australian interests by threatening to impose high costs for doing so, and to be ready to respond with credible military force.
In the near term, the ADF will markedly expand its regional defence diplomacy, cooperative defence activities and capacity building. The operational focus will switch to the region, away from the greater Middle East, and with a declared reduced enthusiasm for distant US-led coalition operations. Indeed, the Strategic Update says little about the US, with Australian agency stressed instead.
Importantly, the ADF will now become involved in countering greyzone activities, those antagonistic actions conducted below the threshold of armed conflict. Recent Australian naval operations in the South China Sea in support of Malaysia suggest this has already begun, and has been noticed by China. For this, the update foreshadows enhancements to special forces, cyber warfare, information operations, and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities.
An assessed increased likelihood of near-term conflict means greater attention to force preparedness. Guided weapon and munition stockholdings will grow in type and size, local munitions manufacturing will be expanded, additional fuel storage will be built, and domestic industry boosted to improve supply chain security and ADF self-reliance.
The main near-term capability acquisition is 200 AGM-158C long-range anti-ship missiles for the F-18F Super Hornet fleet. This new, highly sophisticated weapon entered USN service late last year and is planned to be operational in Australia from 2023.
The update also allocates funding to new projects that will begin in the longer term, from 2026 to 2030. There are some ‘traditional’ projects such as ballistic missile defence and imagery satellites, and more exotic ones such as directed energy weapons for land vehicles and warships. Importantly, there is also the commencement of a cross-ADF robot revolution. A new undersea surveillance system could include unmanned surface and subsurface vehicles. What’s more, unmanned air-to-air refuelling aircraft might be acquired, ‘loyal wingman’ unmanned combat aircraft are forecast and the acquisition of a brigade-size fleet of unmanned ground vehicles is projected. In this, the update raises some issues.
First, Australia is having a middle power moment in embracing an activist regional military strategy. Its success relies on others buying into this approach to managing the geostrategic challenges China presents. Implementing the engagement strategy means Australia will become a somewhat demanding state, seeking more from its allies, partners and friends. In this, the overlooking of economic imperatives may become important. For regional states, China is their largest export customer and important to maintaining economic growth. How Australia’s military engagement strategy fits with this reality is not explored.
There are alternative possible strategies, including becoming a sub-element of the US’s grand competition strategy, accommodating China diplomatically or adopting a ‘fortress Australia’ stance. A failure of the engagement strategy could see such options being further explored.
Second, entering the greyzone arena may be necessary but carries real risks including, as the update notes, possible military miscalculations. In this, the defence minister notes such operations may initially simply widely publicise aggressive actions others are undertaking. The prime minister’s recent media announcement of large-scale cyber attacks across Australian society by a large state actor, backgrounded as China, might be an example.
Third, there are some fundamental problems in the update’s approach. China’s growing assertiveness is not new and arguably began being addressed in the 2009 Defence White Paper. What is new is that crises are becoming concurrent. Australians are well practiced in handling serial disasters, but not ones in parallel.
The update sidesteps the impacts of concurrent crises. Addressing these will probably involve increasing ADF personnel numbers and taking a whole-of-society perspective. To be fair, the update does note humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, the Australia beyond the Defence Department, and that the size and shape of the ADF workforce need review. Such references are only cursory, however, and crucially not integrated into the regional engagement strategy.
The Strategic Update appears a necessary but insufficient answer to the emerging era’s national security issues. Further thinking is needed.
Peter Layton is a visiting fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute, a RUSI Associate Fellow and author of Grand Strategy.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
BANNER IMAGE: Secretary Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper Take a Family Photo With Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne and Australian Defence Minister Linda Reynolds. Courtesy of U.S. Department of State/Flickr