Australia’s defence debate should focus on strategy and force structure, not tactics and tanks
28 Jul 2021|

Keen readers of Australian defence discourse won’t have missed the passions exposed by recent news that the army intends to buy new tanks and armoured engineering vehicles—some critically canvased across these pages, some barracked for on defence industry sites and social media, and unmissably, the Statler and Waldorf routine which entertained in The Australian.

Inevitably, this debate has succumbed to an obstacle which afflicts most Australian military discussions: we’re mired in talking tactics when we need to be thinking strategy.

To debate the specific merits of the weapon system on the Abrams M1A2 SEPv3 main battle tank or deeply argue the general utility of the tank—while fascinating—is to really miss the point.

What’s in real contention is the future force structure and resourcing of the Australian Defence Force over the long term against the government’s new direction in the 2020 defence strategic update. The government has clearly told the ADF that ‘sharper prioritisation is required’ and that its ‘new policy will require force structure and capability adjustments focussing on responding to grey-zone challenges, the possibility of high-intensity conflict and domestic crises’.

But what many in uniform may not yet realise is that the government has unambiguously telegraphed extensive changes to the ADF’s force design. That means hard choices need to be made—such as complete divestment, partial scaling down or transference to the reserve of legacy capabilities—which didn’t manifest in the 2020 force structure plan. Among the three services and the new kid (the Joint Capabilities Group), there will be some winners and potentially many losers.

Why? First off, it’s about money. The ADF can’t be blind to the nation’s fiscal position, which will linger for decades beyond this pandemic. Debt is forecast to peak by mid-2025 at $980.6 billion, or 40.9% of GDP. Australia has modest strategic weight and finite available resources. The government won’t be able to afford romantic investment in legacy ADF capabilities whose value is limited for conditions and adversary trends faced in our region.

Money needs to be found for long-range strike and area-denial effects and increased resilience and self-reliance preparedness.

While specific decisions on these matters are yet to be taken or publicly known, it’s clear that big outlays will be required to achieve the ‘credible deterrence’ envisaged. Even if future governments increase the defence budget in years ahead, it’s an obvious deduction that considerable money will still need to be reprofiled. The Attack-class submarines, the Hunter-class frigates and the F-35 jets have already locked in eye-watering capital and sustainment spends beyond the life span of the 2020 force structure plan. For example, the plan forecasts $9.5–14.2 billion for the army’s heavy armour capabilities out to 2040—and that excludes $18.1–27.1 billion slated for a 40-ton infantry fighting vehicle fleet in Land 400 Phase 3.

Second, the ADF’s force structure lacks coherence for our strategic geography and the behavioural trends exhibited by our potential adversaries. That’s because, as a nation, we haven’t had to make any hard security choices since World War II. It’s true the ADF has several highly sophisticated capabilities that the nation can be proud of—mostly thanks to our alliance with the United States.

But the reality is that we’ve ended up with a boutique force structure where there’s a sprinkle of everything so every service gets to feel a little special. That ensures we don’t have sufficient mass in anything and are underinvested in combat enablers, logistics and materiel holdings. Service biases and traditions are perpetuated without rigorous contestability.

A compounding factor has been our sustained operations in Afghanistan and Iraq against non-existential threats, which have warped our mindset over the past 20 years. We now too often mimic our US military friends rather than develop capabilities, operational concepts and partner relationships specific for our own geography and sovereign purpose.

And, finally, it’s about time. The government has scrapped the assumption that Australia will have 10 years’ strategic warning time of a major conventional attack, starkly noting:

Growing regional military capabilities, and the speed at which they can be deployed, mean Australia can no longer rely on a timely warning ahead of conflict occurring. Reduced warning times mean defence plans can no longer assume Australia will have time to gradually adjust military capability and preparedness in response to emerging challenges.

It’s a clear deduction that the government wants ADF force design to be more agile against real-world imperatives. Thus, the defence enterprise can no longer luxuriate in complacent bureaucratic processes that bear no relevance to the strategic conditions we face. We need to treat some major critical vulnerabilities in the short term (within five years), and quickly, rather than wait for perfection in the long term (10 to 20 years).

That means fielding proven military-off-the-shelf systems now in order to offer credible options to decision-makers and guard against surprise. If we’re reluctant to buy outright, then we should consider expanded leases or trial some options as a hedge.

The clarity in the 2020 defence strategic update allows for simple and clear test criteria to be applied against future force structure options. Military planners would understand these to be ‘essential tasks’, in the lexicon of a staff officer. Service and joint planners ought to be able, in plain language, to cogently argue how their desired capabilities address the following questions:

1. Is the capability fit for purpose in our immediate region—the northeastern Indian Ocean, through maritime and mainland Southeast Asia to Papua New Guinea and the Southwest Pacific?


2. Does it enhance the ADF’s lethality for the sorts of high-intensity operations that are the most likely and highest priority for Australia’s security or enhance the ADF’s self-reliance for delivering deterrent effects?


3. Does it expand the ADF’s ways and means for grey-zone activities?

Taking these criteria into consideration, then, what about the army’s $2.5 billion acquisition of new tanks and armoured engineering vehicles?

Drawing upon extensive US Army experience with earlier variants, the M1A2 SEPv3 will undoubtedly offer the Australian Army a mature and highly potent weapon system that’s well suited for continental land mass manoeuvre. But in Australia’s surrounding littoral and archipelagic environment, how a 73-ton vehicle optimised for close combat will pose dilemmas, yield asymmetries and offset other ADF limitations at range is much less apparent.

Given how many medium- and long-range anti-ship ballistic and cruise missiles are being fielded in our region, going over the beach head with heavy armour doesn’t seem prudent anymore. More confounding is why heavy armour is being prioritised in the short term over addressing major gaps in medium- and long-range area air defence, long-range maritime and land strike, and offensive electronic warfare.

The army’s ‘accelerated warfare’ concept identifies warfare at ranges over hundreds and thousands of kilometres as a new normal. The current ADF, particularly the army, is highly vulnerable and has limited options for force application at range. The prioritisation solution probably sounds logical inside the layers of Canberra’s committees, but not to a strategist or a forward commander.

The government’s orders are clear. Irrespective of opinion and regardless of rank, participants in Australian defence discourse must first consider strategy and not retreat to the comfort of tactics. Should the ADF take the easy road and perpetuate a legacy force structure, it will fail to change at the pace the government demands and, ultimately, risk failing the nation it is entrusted to defend.