Defence’s strategic reassessment: squaring the circle with tied hands
16 Oct 2019|

Defence’s worst kept secret is now officially public. Defence Minister Linda Reynolds stated at last week’s Sea Power conference in Sydney that the Defence Department is conducting a strategic review. It may not be a white paper per se, but it involves ‘working through a re-assessment of the strategic underpinnings of the 2016 Defence White Paper’ with the outcomes to be considered by government early next year.

The work is necessary because ‘the world itself has changed more quickly than we assessed in 2016 and so too [have] the consequential challenges’. The minister is not alone in reaching this conclusion. The strategic policy community is virtually unanimous in this view, although it’s divided over what to do about it. Admitting that we underestimated the speed of China’s rise is nothing new, although it’s perhaps surprising that this time around it has only taken three years for our analysis of China to be overtaken by events.

Some have suggested a white paper is necessary to address these changes, including ASPI’s executive director, Peter Jennings. But if the reforms recommended by the 2015 first principles review of Defence, such as a strong strategic centre, have been properly implemented (and Defence has repeatedly told the Senate they have been), the department should have a standing capability to do much of the work necessary to assess such changes and respond appropriately. A key element of that new function is an enduring force design capability that continually reviews and adjusts the integrated investment program to meet changing circumstances.

Considering that the periodic public updates (page 11) to Defence’s public integrated investment program promised by the white paper have never been delivered, even a straightforward administrative update that accounted for evolving project schedules and cost estimates would be a substantial task.

But the work Senator Reynolds envisages seems to be more fundamental than that. The navy (and presumably the other parts of Defence) has ‘conducted a deep review into its gaps and opportunities to ensure all options are investigated so the future force with be lethal, it will be sustainable and it will be affordable’. The new force structure plan needs to meet ‘new and rapidly emerging threats’ and incorporate changing technology.

So, it may not be a new white paper, but it sounds like a lot more than a tweak of the existing one. There’s a catch, though—there won’t be ‘any changes to our major capability program’. Future submarines and frigates (and presumably armoured vehicles) are locked in and not part of the capability trade space.

The minister’s statement was echoed in Sydney’s International Convention Centre. Upstairs in the lecture theatres and ballrooms, a stream of defence leaders, academics and commentators noted how rapidly the world was changing and how uncertain our strategic environment had become.

Yet downstairs, the Pacific 2019 tradeshow floor was dominated by the prime contractors selected to deliver the big shipbuilding projects, surrounded by state delegations and small and medium-sized enterprises hoping to get picked up in the megaprojects’ supply chains. A number of participants noted that the sense of urgency and excitement that had characterised previous expositions was gone. The big platforms at the heart of the future force structure have been chosen and the focus is now on delivering them.

It’s hard to argue with the minister’s statement at the conference that the navy will continue to need major platforms, and they will continue to evolve over time to integrate emerging technologies to meet new threats.

Still, as the old saying goes, no matter how good a ship is, it can only be in one place at one time. The current fleet of six submarines regularly gives the navy just one vessel deployed to key operational areas far to our north. But with the current plan, the number of submarines won’t increase from six to seven until around 2034 and won’t get beyond nine (page 18) until around 2050. Sustaining just one surface combatant on operations far offshore in the Middle East has required much of the navy’s effort over the past two decades. The current plan will only increase our 11 major surface combatants by one, in around 2030 at the earliest.

Operating small numbers of high-end platforms that readily integrate with US forces is Defence’s traditional business model. If the government is happy to continue that way, then the overall force structure plan probably only needs a bit of a polish. But since one of the key messages from the strategic uncertainty narrative is that it’s not clear what we can continue to rely on the US for and what we will need to be more self-reliant in, that business model may not be the best one for the future.

A further narrative that got a lot of time at the convention was the white-suiters’ commitment to partnership and greater cooperation. It’s right to look to develop other defence relationships. As the defence force chief Angus Campbell has said, we have never fought alone. Navy personnel are great at public diplomacy, but with over 20 of its vessels already consistently at sea, it’s hard to see how the navy can increase cooperation without more platforms. And to be blunt, cooperation and joint exercises do not mean a commitment to mutual defence.

In short, if the concept of warning time has any meaning, we are well inside it, as Paul Dibb noted. So, how do we get more capability sooner, both in terms of quantity and quality, before the 2030s to meet the risks we will likely face well before then?

Certainly, there were hints in Sydney of how to do this. In the realm of traditional capabilities, there were plenty of missiles that could add more punch to our existing ships and aircraft. Also, here and there on the tradeshow floor were small firms being trickle-fed by Defence’s innovation funds to turn good ideas in emerging technologies into prototypes.

But in contrast to the $2 billion (page 82, figure 5.7) being spent this year on local shipbuilding—likely growing to $3.5–4 billion once the megaprojects start cutting steel—Defence’s innovation funds are only around $150 million a year, less than half a percent of the defence budget. It’s going to take much more than that to transition rapidly to the capabilities of the future such as autonomous systems.

If reconsidering the megaprojects is off the table, how does Defence free up the money and that even scarcer resource—people—necessary to develop and acquire innovative and disruptive capabilities quickly? Squaring that circle is the core challenge for the defence planners conducting the strategic review.