Defence strategic update promises real change but more is needed 

Australia’s long-awaited defence strategic update and force structure plan have been released by the prime minister and defence minister. After minimal recital of the continued rightness of the 2016 defence white paper judgements, the government gets frank with the Australian public, saying, ‘Our region is in the midst of the most consequential strategic realignment since the Second World War.’

This change comes from US–China strategic competition, together with China’s assertion of influence and use of coercive activities. Now prominent are ‘grey zone’ activities designed to coerce in ways that stay below the threshold of military conflict—think of China’s militarisation of the South China Sea.

It’s big news to recognise that the region is undergoing a fundamental strategic realignment, because it kills the idea that Australia now has a decade of ‘warning time’ to prepare for credible military conflict. It also tells us that we don’t yet know the outlines of the new international order that will develop. It’s an experiment that’s underway, and Australia has a part in shaping the results.

With further refreshing frankness, the update acknowledges that the 2016 approach of giving equal priority to events around the globe, the region and the near neighbourhood is no longer appropriate. Instead, ‘Australia [intends to] take greater responsibility for its own security.’ That means the military must focus its plans and resources on our near region—which is still a huge expanse, stretching from the northeastern Indian Ocean through Southeast Asia and across the South Pacific—as well as be able to contribute to domestic priorities.

This return to clear priorities for force structure planning is a very welcome recognition of Paul Dibb’s mantra that without them, it’s impossible to build an effective force. And it’s a welcome return to remembering that, because we live in a particular place in the world, geography really does matter.

None of these insights seem to have led to any major changes to the big, slow capability programs at the heart of the 2016 white paper, though. The submarines, frigates, F-35s and large armoured vehicles will all be acquired for the Australian Defence Force as planned.

That’s probably best described as the expected bad news. Not because these platforms won’t be powerful things, but because they are taking so long to get into ADF service, and because they absorb huge amounts of the defence budget, both before they turn up and once they’re in service. If Australia no longer has 10 years’ warning time to prepare for potential major conflict, the fact that much of the new force structure won’t be ready for at least 10 years is simply not good news.

But it was always unlikely that a defence update would have the mandate to change these mega-programs, or that Defence would propose a change so soon after getting government agreement to them. And, even if these things had happened, it was equally unlikely that the government that put so much political capital into long-term ship- and submarine-building industries would step away from these iconic programs.

So, within the constraints of what is politically and organisationally possible, the update has done some very good work. It will start the creation of a more lethal military with the capabilities to strike adversaries at considerably longer ranges, and to sustain military combat for considerably longer periods, than the ADF can do now. This is to be achieved through acquisition of a number of different strike weapons, including the Lockheed Martin long-range anti-ship missile (LRASM), which can be launched from the ADF’s aircraft or naval ships and other surface-to-air missiles. In a few years, this strike power will no doubt include hypersonic missiles able to be launched from land, from ships and, later, from aircraft. The LRASMs will probably turn up first, giving a major lift to the ADF’s offensive strike power.

As important as getting such new offensive weapons into service is the update’s commitment to build the logistics capacity to support high-intensity warfighting for extended periods. This is big new news. Defence has taken the lessons from the pandemic—and US–China strategic and technological competition—to heart in this area. It sees the urgent need to increase Defence’s ability to mobilise and support military operations by fixing vulnerabilities in critical supplies, from fuel to munitions and missiles.

The plans for plugging these gaps are not all that clear in the update, and it’s obviously an area in which much work is to be done now that there’s the political direction. If Defence is smart, it will connect these plans to the new economy the government must create in the post-Covid-19 world. These logistics improvements will also be very useful for contributing to domestic disaster relief, as they will enable Defence to operate effectively when other institutions can’t.

The increase in offensive strike weapons is being complemented by some clever ‘area denial’ capabilities—underseas sensors in our maritime approaches, a further Jindalee over-the-horizon radar system focused out into the Pacific Ocean, and defensive systems like smart sea mines. Modest references to exploration of ‘optionally crewed’ or ‘uncrewed’ undersea systems are as close as the update gets to embracing autonomous systems as essential complementary capabilities to the large, manned, future submarines. An optimist would see these indicators as the start of further real change. It’s at least an admission that technological change is forcing a shift. So this is probably a ‘watch this space’ reference for later government consideration.

All this works with the enhanced cyber capabilities announced yesterday by the prime minister, because cyber is not just a defensive capability focused on protecting Australia’s critical digital systems, it’s also an offensive capability that can be used to disrupt and penetrate adversary systems during times of conflict.

What else is foreshadowed but not clear at this point? The update floats the idea of increasing the size of the ADF and of the public service in Defence, saying a detailed proposal will be considered in 2021. The logic here is compelling. An increasingly active ADF with greater firepower, involved in grey-zone contests in our region, will be bigger than the 2016 white paper envisaged. Operating and supporting this bigger, busier ADF will simply take more people.

The more lethal ADF is to be bought with the fixed funding line the government gave Defence in 2016—a clear signal that it doesn’t see Defence as a source of savings in the tight fiscal environment Australia faces in the next few years. Some things that were planned won’t happen, like the modernisation and replacement of the army’s G-Wagons; those are welcome savings but they don’t involve big numbers.

The commitments to further measures to implement the update’s ambitious and sobering new directions, like increasing in the size of the ADF and introducing the industrial and logistics measures needed to sustain the ADF in high-intensity combat, look destined to require increased defence funding, perhaps as early as the 2021–22 budget.

Overall, the update and force structure plan set a clear direction for Australia’s military that engages with the new world we are living in. It’s good work, and it positions Australia well to resist coercion and be part of deterring conflict. Now the hard work of implementation must begin.