Australia’s complex strike, denial and deterrence calculation
13 Jan 2023|

Every review of Australia’s defence policy and capability is imbued with hope for change. The defence strategic review that’s now in its final months is no exception.

Some announcements have already been made, following delivery of the interim report in late 2022. Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Richard Marles has emphasised strike—or, as he puts it, ‘impactful projection’—backing decisions to purchase the Kongsberg naval strike missile (NSM) and, for the army, HIMARS (the US-produced High Mobility Artillery Rocket System). Defence will also replace and ‘extend’ its fleet of 12 C-130J transport aircraft.

And the government continues to commit itself to AUKUS, even as doubts have been expressed about US capability to deliver nuclear-powered submarines for Australia. The next AUKUS milestone will come in March, when the 18-month consultation period ends (which is also when the defence review is due to report).

Defence should be suffused with a sense of urgency, given Australia’s strategic circumstances. The 2020 defence strategic update recognised that the assumption of a 10-year warning time for major conflict was no longer appropriate, a judgement echoed by Paul Dibb and Richard Brabin-Smith. The outlook over the next decade is already much less forgiving than it was in 2020.

The nature of the choices made in response to the defence review’s recommendations will show how serious the government is about making changes, meeting strategic challenges and realising that sense of urgency.

In the meantime, though, the government’s recent announcement recognises that strategic strike is at the heart of Australia’s effort to shape and deter. The Australian Defence Force’s strike capability needs to be credible, sustainable and available.

With the retirement of the F-111s in 2010, Australia lost a key strike asset, increasing its reliance on an ageing, fragile platform, the Collins-class submarine. New submarines won’t be in service for another 10 to 15 years, well outside the less-than-10-year window of 2020.

I can’t improve on Marcus Hellyer and Andrew Nicholl’s analysis of the options for long-range strike. Their preferred option is the B-21 strategic bomber, arguing that while the cost per aircraft is high—an eye-watering $1 billion—overall a fleet of 12 would be cost-effective when compared with the nuclear-powered submarines. Also, in a sustained conflict, bombers are more likely to be cost-effective than missiles.

Still, missiles are the obvious short-term fix. Marles, it seems, would agree. But there’s an underlying problem: the conflation of area denial and deterrence.

Both the NSM and HIMARS, the acquisitions committed to thus far, are tactical in nature—in strategic terms, they are both short range (up to around 500 kilometres). They are better suited for area denial than for strategic deterrence.

True, area denial can have a strategic effect—if delivery platforms can be positioned, if those positions are sustainable, and if the missiles are directed at—and destroy—the right target. That’s a lot of conditionality.

Positioning ADF platforms for strategic effect implies access, and survivability, across considerable and presumably unfriendly seas and terrain.

Sustainability is tough. The war in Ukraine is demonstrating how quickly the rate of use of munitions rapidly depletes available supply. The NSM alone costs close to $3 million a missile. Extended reliance on missiles is a fast way to burn money, assuming supply is available, and the more capable and longer-range a missile is, the more expensive it is. Ensuring supply will take time—Defence’s guided weapons and explosive ordnance enterprise will take 10 years to reach its ‘sustain’ phase, well outside anticipated windows of need.

Last, there’s the target. Deterrence requires threatening, credibly, something the adversary not simply values, but values enough: ‘Deterrence rests today on the threat of pain and extinction, not just on the threat of military defeat.’

Deterrence may be brought about by military means, but it is essentially a political matter. Subsumption of deterrence into area denial incorrectly implies that deterrence, and by extension strategy, is a military domain, not a political responsibility. It also risks muddying force protection and force projection: both are needed, but they aren’t the same.

It’s not clear that much thinking has gone into what could deter likely or potential adversaries, as opposed to what areas the ADF would like to deny an opponent. In short, the answer to the former is not likely to be a convenient area of ADF operations; more likely it will be deep in unfriendly territory.

So, while any missiles enabling the ADF to act at a distance is a good start—Australia is, after all, starting from a low base and behind the curve—more is needed. That includes a variety of capability options that can be realised in the short, medium and longer term—a mix of missiles, strategic bombers and submarines, to hedge delivery bets as well as help ensure survivability and build credibility.

If Australia is serious about deterrence—defence on its own is immense and most probably unachievable—then the government has to do some deep thinking about purpose, intent and targets. And it will need to build appropriate governance and habits around the application of deterrence. Deterrence’s political equation is not something with which Australian decision-makers have much familiarity, nor can it be simply delegated to military officers.

Time is getting shorter. How the defence review grapples with the political element of deterrence as much as the military capability mix will tell us much about whether the government is prepared to meet the challenges of what Patrick Porter has described as the ‘age of blood and iron’.