Army has a critical role in defence strategic review’s ‘integrated force’

We tend to look for winners and losers in any Australian government announcement, and the defence strategic review (DSR) is no exception. Reading the headlines about the two-thirds reduction in infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs) and cancellation of a second regiment of self-propelled howitzers, it sounded at first blush like the army had been deprioritised.

But some of those who contributed to writing the DSR—including former Australian Defence Force chief Angus Houston, who co-led the review with former defence minister Stephen Smith, and Peter Dean, who served as senior adviser to Smith and Houston and co-led the review secretariat—have entered the public debate to challenge the view that the army has been gutted or sidelined. On the contrary, Dean says, the army has a critical role in the ‘integrated force’ that the ADF will become, which includes projecting force further into Australia’s northern approaches to deliver deterrence through denial.

Dean’s view gels with Defence Minister Richard Marles’s call at the launch of the DSR for ‘reshaping’ the army to have a ‘more focused mission, with a much more enhanced capability’.

To deliver those enhanced capabilities, Defence will accelerate and expand the acquisition of the army’s landing craft (littoral manoeuvre vessels) and long-range fires, including land-based anti-ship missiles, repurposing funds from the IFV and howitzer programs.

So far, this narrative is familiar, framed in media coverage of the DSR as Australia entering the ‘missile age’ at the expense of armour. But a closer examination of the DSR and information released since its publication reveals a fuller picture.

Far from abandoning armour, the DSR is emphatic on the crucial role of the IFVs, advising that ‘only by concurrently delivering these capabilities—littoral manoeuvre vessels, long-range fires (land-based maritime strike) and infantry fighting vehicles—will Army be able to achieve the strategic and operational effect required of the ADF for National Defence and a strategy of denial’.

While the IFVs are reduced to a single mechanised battalion, that capability will be oriented to littoral manoeuvre, around which the army ‘must be transformed and optimised’. This littoral manoeuvre capability will be provided by sea, land and air, including leveraging the mobility provided by a new suite of helicopters.

The emphasis on littoral manoeuvre reflects the fact that the maritime domain, as Dean put it in his interview with ASPI’s Jennifer Parker, is Australia’s ‘dominant geography’, as an island whose adversaries would project force against us though the archipelago to the north. In this archipelagic environment, land is important for projecting and sustaining military power and influence.

Emphasising the littoral dimension of the maritime domain has important implications for the ADF’s force structure and operations. In the past, coordination between the navy and air force was central to denying the so-called sea–air gap, which underpinned the 1986 Dibb review and 1987 defence white paper, while the army would tackle adversaries that made it to Australian shores. By developing littoral manoeuvre and long-range strike, the DSR gives the army a key role in denying what some analysts have long argued is really a land–sea–air gap in the archipelago to Australia’s north.

To picture the army’s maritime role, analysts like Michael Green at the United States Studies Centre have drawn parallels with the US Marine Corps, which Dean has also studied. But the differences in circumstances are important—not least the fact that the US Marines operate alongside the US Army, with its armour and logistical networks, whereas the Australian Army must cover both roles.

The unclassified version of the DSR understandably doesn’t go into detail on specific contingencies and threats, but for public understanding it’s helpful for analysts to translate abstract concepts like the army’s role in the maritime domain into plausible scenarios. So, let’s consider how the Australian Army could help counter China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy.

One of the ‘missile age’ threats Australia faces is a new generation of Chinese surface warships equipped with large numbers of vertical launch cells that could stay offshore and target Australia or its supply routes. As the DSR notes, ‘the use of military force or coercion against Australia does not require invasion’, and so deterrence through denial requires that we threaten China’s surface fleet at range, including limiting undue Chinese influence on land around Australia’s northern approaches.

But Chinese warships present a hard target, protected by their own air and undersea defences. An integrated ADF, focused on the threat from China, could approach this problem from multiple angles and domains, with the army contributing to the mix of tactical options.

Offensively, the army’s land-based anti-ship missiles provide new strike vectors, exploiting Australia’s vast northern coastline and potentially working from forward locations in the archipelago. The army, including special forces, will also contribute to the ‘integrated targeted capability’ called for in the DSR, supporting strike by the navy or air force and vice versa.

Defensively, as Chief of Army Simon Stuart told an audience in Canberra in March, the army offers ‘persistence’ to the ADF, which improves deterrence by signalling that Australia could withstand a surprise attack. While a potential adversary like the PLA may believe it can pinpoint the Australian navy’s and air force’s relatively small numbers of ships, planes and bases, the same cannot be said for the army assets, which can disperse and conceal. The army also contributes to integrated air and missile defence, improving national resilience.

Technology is important to the army’s transformation, but only in conjunction with people. Addressing the Army on Anzac Day, immediately after the DSR was published, Stuart explained that the character of war is being reshaped by technology, which will require the army to incorporate uncrewed systems, AI and quantum capabilities; but the nature of war will remain ‘a truly human endeavour’, especially on the land and among populations.

As with any transformation, the DSR vision for the army includes capability trade-offs, which carries risk.

Shadow defence minister Andrew Hastie cautioned that the ‘degradation of land power’ undercut the overall strategy of the DSR because long-range fires depend on land forces to protect them. On this point, the DSR foresees enhanced Army Reserve brigades—hopefully freed from natural disaster relief roles—protecting and expanding northern bases, enhancing the survivability of the ADF and visiting forces.

In a similar vein, retired Major General Mick Ryan is among the land warfare experts who have noted that the DSR has little to say about the close fight, which remains integral to war. That’s true, although we know the classified version of the DSR was much longer. And the DSR does say that the army must still prioritise ‘close combat capabilities, including a single armoured combined-arms brigade, able to meet the most demanding land challenges in our region’.

Viewing the DSR in context, the government continues to invest in advanced close combat platforms. After the DSR was published, Defence Industry Minister Pat Conroy confirmed new orders for Abrams main battle tanks, which maintain unique capabilities in high-intensity environments. Equally, Australia remains committed to acquiring Apache armed reconnaissance helicopters, which some analysts had speculated might be trimmed. Hopefully, Hanwha or Rheinmetall would stick to plans to manufacture IFVs in Australia if it wins the contract, which allows for scaling up supply onshore if Australia’s needs change.

In terms of land warfare scenarios, the army must continue to plan for regional stabilisation and assistance missions, such as those in Timor-Leste and Solomon Islands in recent decades, which may become more frequent and complex as climate change drives instability. It would be dangerous to assume that these stabilisation missions and counter-insurgency operations will only be ‘low intensity’, especially for those involved, when measuring intensity in terms of the frequency and scale of engagements. Equally, the army may need to conduct joint operations to defeat technologically advanced land forces, including, for example, if the PLA developed a base close to Australia.

But caveats aside, it’s important to recognise that the DSR will affect Australia’s capacity to fight large-scale land engagements by reducing the army to a single combined-arms brigade. In theory, some of the risks this causes could be mitigated by not asking the ADF to fight certain kinds of wars. By stressing the importance of our northern approaches to Australia’s ‘primary area of military interest’, the DSR indicates that the ADF should be spared the burden of sending expeditionary contingents to US-led coalitions in the Middle East. It also implies that the ADF’s focus would stay closer to home in a Taiwan contingency.

Understandably, some will remain sceptical that this is achievable. At various points throughout its history, the Australian Army has weathered the consequences of being told to prepare for a certain type of conflict and then ordered to fight in very different circumstances. Those making these points should be heard respectfully; for too long, many of those engaged in Australia’s debate on the army have talked past each other.

The acid test will be whether the transformation advocated in the DSR will be properly resourced by the government and embraced by the army. For instance, it’s essential that strike, littoral and close combat forces have the resources to train together—on the field and through simulations. And the logistical challenges in posturing select capabilities in northern Australia can only be overcome through close engagement with northern governments and people, including First Nations communities, as well as US visiting forces.

As Stuart told the army on Anzac Day, he is relying on every soldier to meet the challenges and opportunities of this ‘inflection point’. After all, institutional change, like war, is ultimately a human endeavour.