How bold does Labor want to be on Australia’s defence posture?

Australia is to refashion defence policy with a force posture review, not a white paper.

The policy the Labor Party took to the federal election on 21 May was for a ‘defence force posture review’. To deliver as promised, Labor is emphasising the value of a sharp focus on posture over the complexities and choices of a white paper.

In the words of Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Richard Marles, ‘[W]e’re not interested in doing a white paper and devoting all the resources that that would imply.’ He says he’s ordered a start on the new posture review to inform his decisions on ‘a generational reinvestment in the size, capability and structure of the Australian Defence Force’.

Labor’s policy offers this explanation for the review:

Australia cannot rely on a timely warning ahead of a conflict occurring, because of growing regional military capabilities and the speed at which they can be deployed, and therefore Australia cannot assume it can gradually adjust military capability and preparedness in response to emerging challenges.

The need for speed means the review is set to be done with Defence, but not by Defence.

Labor’s policy states that the review will have ‘independent chair(s)’, experts drawn from inside and outside Defence, a call for outside views and ‘an internal panel to collect information required from the Department of Defence’.

The flexibility offered by such a review is that a government can take or leave the ideas offered. By contrast, a white paper is big ‘P’ policy, affirming government commitment and intent.

As Peter Jennings observes, white papers seldom ‘propose genuinely new and different military capabilities. Typically, white papers validate the status quo, replacing like with like.’

A review conducted at arm’s length from Defence, Jennings hopes, could offer ‘fresh consideration of policy settings that have accreted like stalactites and take just about as long to grow into reality’.

Labor claims there’ve been only two fully fledged force posture reviews (both under Labor governments)—the seminal 1986 report delivered by Paul Dibb in 1986, and the 2012 review by two former defence secretaries, Alan Hawke and Ric Smith. Labor says it’ll go back ‘to audit the 2012 review for unimplemented recommendations’. Disregard the politics to add a third document to that list: the 2015 first principles review, Creating one Defence, conducted for a Coalition government.

Labor has the freedom to set the hounds running (and cut to the finish with any decisions) because it accepts the strategic settings and geopolitical understandings bequeathed by the Coalition government.

The new government’s review promise took as its starting point the 2020 defence strategic update outlining ‘the rapidly changing strategic circumstances in our region’.  As Marles bluntly put it while in India last week, ‘China is our biggest security anxiety’, and Australia must ensure it has the defence capability it needs ‘to defend itself in the toughest strategic environment we’ve encountered in over 70 years’.

A repeated talking point from new ministers is that they’ll provide continuity on foreign policy and defence issues while offering ‘a change of tone’. On the strategic settings, though, the tone rhymes.

Marles promises that his review will look with ‘fresh eyes’ at the $270 billion to be spent on new defence capability.

And that brings us to the question that will define the conduct and impact of the review: how bold will Marles and Labor want to be on defence?

In his March national security speech, Labor leader Anthony Albanese promised to deliver ‘a frank assessment of our capabilities and pipeline on arrival in government’, pointing to ‘30 major defence projects that are running a total of 79 years late’.

Albanese said Labor wanted a quick increase in Australia’s strike capabilities by considering Tomahawk missiles for the Collins-class submarines, a review of the Hunter-class frigate project, and upgraded weapons on the Arafura-class offshore patrol vessels or through additional Hobart-class air warfare destroyers.

Beyond getting kit quickly, the boldness question becomes truly cutting when a government says no to or even cancels a capability.

Discarding a defence capability is so hard it almost never happens in Australia. The most notable example was one of the first decisions of Bob Hawke’s Labor government on taking office in 1983, announcing that Australia would not buy a replacement aircraft carrier for HMAS Melbourne.

Much as Albanese might want to emulate Hawke, don’t expect any such Melbourne moments.

Instead, one of the significant capability announcements, in coming months, should be the winner of the multibillion-dollar contract for up to 450 infantry fighting vehicles to replace the army’s 60-year-old M113 armoured personnel carriers.

The army is assuring the new government—and Australia—that the destruction of hundreds of Russian tanks in Ukraine doesn’t signal the end of the need for armoured vehicles in warfare.

The choice is between the Redback, designed by South Korea’s Hanwha, to be built at Geelong in Victoria, and the Lynx KF41, designed by Germany’s Rheinmetall, to be built at Ipswich in Queensland.

The previous government was expected to announce the decision before the election as another demonstration of its strong defence credentials. The failure to announce a choice was more pre-election caution about offending voters in Ipswich or Geelong than any doubts about armour. And, of course, never discount the speed with which decision recommendations emerge from the Defence labyrinth.

An Australian-built infantry fighting vehicle sits close to Labor’s heart, and its commitment to self-reliant sovereign capability via a defence industry development strategy.

If Defence’s recommendation is for the Lynx (built in Ipswich), that will be a character-bracing moment for Marles; his parliamentary seat is Geelong.

Getting the defence posture right always demands hard choices.