An Australian Defence Strategic Review of Limited Ambition

Well-defended? Courtesy of ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo

At a time when Australia’s geostrategic environment is worsening, the outlines of the country’s forthcoming defence review indicate that few changes will be made.

In the late May Australian federal election, the Labor Party ousted the conservative Coalition (formed of the Liberal and National Parties), which had been in power for the past nine years. As promised in its election campaign, the new government quickly commenced a Force Posture Review. This has now morphed into a seemingly more comprehensive Defence Strategic Review to report by March 2023.

The review builds from a key determination of the last government’s 2020 Defence Strategic Update that the long-held assumption of a 10-year warning of ‘the prospect of high-intensity military conflict’ was unsustainable. The Australian Defence Force (ADF) might now be called on to fight at shorter notice – although how short was not defined. Increased military readiness was needed, and this meant adjusting ADF force posture and preparedness in terms of ‘the supply of specialised munitions and logistic requirements, such as fuel, critical to military capability’.

While the update used cautious language, others were more bullish. A senior public servant declared that the drums of war were beating; the Coalition defence minister called for Australians to prepare for war; and a Coalition senator made clarion calls warning war was close. In terms of actions, however, the update kept to the major capital acquisition timelines laid out in the 2016 Defence White Paper. There seemed a clear disconnect between declaring a reduced warning time and simultaneously planning a slow delivery of new ADF warfighting capabilities. An obvious example is the new submarine and frigate programmes not starting to deliver until the late 2030s and beyond.

The new review aims to resolve this cognitive dissonance by undertaking quite specific tasks: outlining the strategic challenge; examining estate, infrastructure, disposition, logistics and security investments; recommending changes in funding priority for current projects; and outlining preparedness and mobilisation needs to 2032–33.

Meeting the review’s tasking requires considering how the ADF might be used in a major conflict

While couched in good bureaucratic speak, it is evident that the review is not being created to change the force structure of the ADF. Moreover, there is no mention of new money – just thinking about existing funding plans being rejigged. The two independent leads chosen clearly reflect this limited ambition, being more in the mould of cautious ‘wise old men’ rather than ‘Young Turks’ dreaming of a revolution in Australian military affairs.

Review Shapers

Meeting the review’s tasking requires considering how the ADF might be used in a major conflict. Historically, the options have been to either defend continental Australia or send expeditionary forces overseas to fight with a great ally. Traditionally, Labor governments favoured the former and Coalition governments the latter. However, in the current geostrategic circumstances, the two options overlap.

Defending Australia would allow US air and naval forces to safely operate into Asia from northern Australian bases, while joining with US forces offshore could leverage ADF strengths in air and maritime warfare to give middle-power Australia more influence than its own forces alone would bring. Accordingly, on his first trip to Washington, new Defence Minister Richard Marles stressed that Australia wanted to move beyond interoperability with the US to being ‘interchangeable’ and able to ‘operate seamlessly at speed’. Being close to the US potentially significantly eases the preparedness and mobilisation problems that the review must solve.

In a globalised world, defence preparedness and mobilisation require reliable access to external resources. After Japan attacked the US in late 1941, Australia became important to US military endeavours and received the considerable logistic support that high-intensity military operations require. In contrast, in the First World War and the early years of the Second World War when the fighting was limited to Europe, Australia seemed too far away and unimportant to support logistically; priority was given to Europe.

Any future Australian defence mobilisation will be much easier if the US military supply chain can be confidently relied upon in times of crisis and war. Of course, confidence cannot replace self-reliance, and there are real risks in assuming such. In this regard, during his US trip, Marles argued strongly for greater engagement between the Australian and US defence industrial bases. This could enhance Australian mobilisation capacities, but there seemed little US appetite for such a step.

Limited Change?

Three aspects stand out at this early stage.

First, there will be considerable continuity from the previous government’s force structure plans. Changes will only be made at the margins, with space created principally by adjusting the major warship, submarine and armoured vehicle megaprojects. To achieve this, the Review’s Terms of Reference call for recommendations for reprioritising elements within the overall investment programme ‘in light of recently announced large-scale projects’. Acting on this intent, the defence minister has ruled out significant changes to Australia’s Hunter-class Type 26 frigate acquisition programme, while the costly AUKUS nuclear attack submarine project apparently sits outside the review’s scope.

Second, continuity means any new acquisitions proposed will probably involve relatively small expenditure spreads fitted in and around the big projects. This suggests smaller-cost, off-the-shelf buys to improve stockholdings of both selected maintenance items and consumables, such as guided weapons. Preparedness will be usefully enhanced, but more for a short conflict than a protracted one – perhaps a topic for a future review?

Third, the review’s guidance and tone assume that the 2020 Strategic Update threat assessment remains current and can be best addressed by infrastructure, estate, disposition, logistics and security improvements. These interdependent beliefs will need to be convincingly confirmed to avoid the review’s findings being criticised as strategically irrelevant at a time when China is firing ballistic missiles over Taiwan. The two ‘wise old men’ may need all the charm they can muster to persuade doubters that limited adjustments to ADF force posture are sufficient in Australia’s worsening geostrategic environment.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Dr Peter Layton

Associate Fellow

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