A framework for assessing Australia’s defence strategic review

With the release of an unclassified version of the defence strategic review just weeks away, we should give some thought to how to assess this important work. What criteria should we use to judge how well it was done?

Since there’s no current summary of the factors that should drive Australia’s defence capabilities, I’ll start with the most recent one we have: the 1970s concept of a ‘core force’ and expansion base. Although it’s now out of date, the core force still casts a long shadow.

Adopting this approach allows us to see the extent to which strategic factors have changed since the core force days, and to judge the extent to which the Defence Department and the review have recognised this.

In brief, the core force and expansion base concept tied together three elements: credible contingencies, an ability to expand the Australian Defence Force, and governance mechanisms that would ensure that any such expansion would be timely. Since then, the context for all three of these elements has changed radically.

First, contingencies. The old idea was that only lesser contingencies were credible in the short term, and higher levels of contingency only in the longer term, after an extended period of strategic deterioration. As is now widely recognised, the rise of China’s economic and military strength, together with Beijing’s aggressive foreign policies, has rendered that idea invalid.

This is the most important break with the past: the range of contingencies the ADF might face in the short to medium term include those that could require intensive use of high-technology capabilities.

When it comes to readiness for such contingencies, it’s hard to imagine that a government would accept the need for standing forces capable of handling today’s contingencies without at least a degree of preparation. This is because some element of warning would still be expected, and because the additional costs would be significant and best avoided. That implies the need for a clear pathway for Defence to move to higher levels of readiness—for example, through mechanisms to increase levels of training, for both regular and reserve forces.

Sustainability also needs attention. Even with a degree of warning, there would be insufficient time for major expansion of the ADF or for a significant increase in the level of sustainability stocks such as spare parts and advanced munitions. This means that action now to increase the ADF’s levels of sustainability should command priority.

These new demands might best be described as a need for a surge capacity: the ability to move quickly and confidently to higher states of readiness and to sustain higher rates of effort for as long as contingent developments might require. Such a surge would involve not just the ADF but many other parts of Defence and other agencies, such as the policy and intelligence communities. A good summary would be the need for a contingency force with surge capacity.

Now let’s look at force expansion. It is needed for two reasons: in the short term to remedy the deficiencies of today’s force structure, and in the longer term, given that on its current trajectory China is likely to continue to modernise and expand its armed forces and to be in a position to expand further to meet future challenges.

Although force expansion has been an integral part of Defence’s conceptual framework for some 50 years, it has received little policy or analytical attention. In addition, what was achievable in the 1970s is now not so clear; as an example, compare today’s F-35 joint strike fighter with the Mirage jet fighter of the 1970s. Further and importantly, the defence industrial base of Western democracies is now much smaller than it was at the height of the Cold War. Quite simply, the West’s industrial capacity is no longer there. The difficulties of supplying weapon systems and munitions to Ukraine in its defence against Russia illustrate this.

So, significant and timely force expansion as originally envisaged is not a viable concept today. What alternative kind of force expansion might now be feasible?

Three possibilities come to mind. The first is to acquire modern long-range precision missiles in greater numbers. That would entail far shorter procurement times than additional complex and expensive major platforms. The ability to manufacture at least some types of missiles here in Australia would add to our operational resilience, depending on the sourcing of critical components. (Recent government decisions to acquire more missiles are an important step.)

The second possibility is the use of autonomous vehicles. Examples include the air force’s experiments with the Ghost Bat uncrewed jet aircraft and the navy’s experiments with extra-large autonomous undersea vehicles. In both cases, we can presume that the lead times for such platforms, and the costs, would be less than for the crewed versions.

Third is the possibility of less complex equipment that would be quicker and cheaper to build and require less training time. It would also be less capable, which could be controversial. Such equipment might be better matched to the limited time that reservists have for their peace-time military obligations.

Now to governance. It’s difficult to escape the conclusion that Australia’s response to concerns about China has been patchy. On the one hand, the defence strategic update of 2020 was well argued; but in some respects the response has been sluggish. That the defence strategic review was apparently needed reinforces a perception that there are contemporary governance issues—even more so if the review turns out to call for significant change from current plans.

The Australian intelligence community has changed significantly since the early 1970s when the core force concept was first adopted. In 1977, the National Assessment Staff were transferred from what is now the Defence Intelligence Organisation to the new Office of National Assessments; in 2004, the Flood review strengthened ONA’s authority; and the L’Estrange-Merchant review of 2017 led to the further amplification of ONA’s authority and its evolution into the Office of National Intelligence. The 2017 review also led to the consolidation of the defence intelligence agencies under the new position of chief of defence intelligence within the Defence Department. Intelligence arrangements are difficult to judge from the outside, but it’s easy to imagine that, six years on from the most recent intelligence review, it would be timely to be reassured that the Australian intelligence community is well placed to meet today’s demands.

For Defence itself, there’s no unique approach to governance, and practice tends to reflect the priorities and issues of the day. It has changed considerably since the 1970s, including through the Tange reforms of 1973–1976 (defence reorganisation), the Utz review of 1982 (higher defence organisation), the Wrigley review of 1990 (defence force and the community), the 1997 efficiency review and the Peever review of 2015 (first principles review).

These reviews (and others not mentioned) reflected the issues and the strategic context of their times. Some were concerned with ‘doing more with less’. To state the obvious, they were not based on an appreciation of today’s strategic anxieties. All of this raises the question of whether the governance arrangements for national security, in Defence in particular, shouldn’t be further revised and brought up to date. Acquisition procedures are a case in point.

In summary, we should assess the defence strategic review in the following terms:

  • Does it propose a force structure that will meet the demands of today’s potential contingencies?
  • Are the priorities and cost implications clear?
  • Is there a clear and timely path for improving the readiness and sustainability of the ADF and the other contributors to national security?
  • Will proposed modes for force expansion be both timely and effective?
  • What steps should be taken to ensure that governance arrangements are capable of meeting contemporary challenges?