National Defence Strategy: preparing slowly to strike far
22 Apr 2024|

The 2024 National Defence Strategy (NDS) reiterates the importance of a strategy of deterrence by denial suggested in the 2023 Defence Strategic Review. It also reiterates air, sea and land capability decisions already made to support a more hemispheric role for the ADF, in particular to counter the risk of coercion from afar in the next decade.  

But it hardly reinforces deterrence by denial in the shorter term—this decade. 

The current emphasis on deterrence by denial actually extends and deepens a theme in defence policy that goes as far back as the 1987 Defence of Australia white paper; the idea was then called Defence in Depth. The 1987 document said the ADF had to be able to find and deal with an enemy in the sea and air gap to the north of the continent and to defeat forces that managed to land in remote locations. 

The 2024 NDS, supported by the 2024 update of the Integrated Investment Program (IIP), aspires to extend the ADF’s reach to a wider ‘area of primary military interest.’ This was defined in the 2023 Defence Strategic Review (DSR) as ‘encompassing the north-eastern Indian Ocean through the maritime Southeast Asia into the Pacific, including our northern approaches.’ Within this broader hemispheric region, the 2023 document set five key tasks for the ADF: 

to defend Australia and our immediate region … deter through denial any potential adversary’s attempt to project power against Australia through our northern approaches [the sea-air gap] … protect Australia’s economic connection to our region and the world … contribute with our partners to the collective security of the Indo-Pacific; and … contribute with our partners to the maintenance of the global-rules based order. 

The 2024 NDS correctly emphasizes that Defence must now function within a multi-domain operational space, encompassing not only the traditional domains of sea, air and land but also space and cyberspace, and that it must be able to fight in the electromagnetic spectrum. New layers of challenge are added by having to face long-range conventional precision strike by advanced ballistic and cruise missiles, cyber attack and ever-more sophisticated counterspace systems. 

To all that, add the emerging technologies of swarming autonomous systems; the implications of quantum technologies and artificial intelligence for advanced sensors, communications and battlespace management; and the acceleration of the pace of war through hypersonics and directed energy weapons. So, the ADF has a much more complex task than simply defending the sea-air gap. 

Furthermore, our critical infrastructure can be threatened with not only direct attacks but also indirect coercion. This can occur through disruption of sea transportation of vital supplies and other trade and even through the severing of submarine cables that maintain national connectivity with the global internet. 

In this regard, the NDS and IIP get the fundamentals broadly correct. They recognise that Australia is an island nation, so it is only sensible for Defence to prioritise a buildup of naval power at the centre of future ADF ability to carry out five key tasks noted above. 

The basics of this remain acquisition of nuclear powered but conventionally armed submarines (SSNs) and expansion of the Royal Australian Navy surface fleet under the recently released Fleet Review. These are accompanied by re-announcements of long-range strike capabilities that have been progressively approved since 2020. Certainly, the ADF’s long-range strike capabilities will be enhanced and better able to contribute to achieving the five tasks at greater range.  

The boost to naval capabilities, particularly SSN acquisition, will enhance our ability to project power farther from our northern coast. The SSNs will have the flexibility and endurance to remain on station for much longer than the current Collins-class diesel-electric submarines. Defence Minister Richard Marles goes so far as to state that ‘…more than any other capability, this platform will give an adversary pause for thought and hold their assets at risk further from our shores. Our future submarines define projection.’ 

Finally, the army’s ability to undertake littoral warfare will be enhanced, as will its ability to support long-range strike missions through acquisition of highly mobile land-based strike capabilities including HIMARS launcher vehicles and PRsM missiles. 

These are all good steps towards achieving an ability for deterrence by denial. The challenge, though, may be around timing. In launching the NDS and IIP, Marles states that ‘…the strategic problem we are trying to meet, that we are trying to solve, is making sure that in a much less certain world in the future we are able to resist coercion and maintain Australia’s way of life.’  

Yet at the same time, the NDS correctly recognises the rapid worsening of Australia’s strategic outlook, even stating that ‘Australia’s strategic environment has continued to deteriorate since the release of the Defence Strategic Review ….’ With the ending of an assumption of 10 years of strategic warning back in 2020, the challenge now is how to balance investment in new capabilities to meet long-term threats identified in the NDS versus ensuring the ADF is equipped to respond to short-term and immediate risks. So, it was worrying that in responding to media questions, the minister derided concerns about potential ‘worst contingencies that may or may not occur in the next few years’, suggesting that such concerns ‘lack wit’. This is not a helpful observation at a time of increasing strategic peril. 

Like the 2023 DSR, the 2024 NDS and IIP update seem to have a disconnect between their perception of a rapidly rising danger and their approach to meeting it. While preparing for threats in the 2030s and beyond, Australia must also get ready for protracted military operations in worst contingencies this decade. 

That would require the government to be more ambitious in increasing defence spending sooner than suggested in the IIP. The IIP correctly talks about ‘minimum viable capability’ approaches, but timelines stretch out even as threats rapidly approach. So, in addition to extra funding sooner than suggested in the IIP, there would also need to be greater determination to streamline capability acquisition processes and make some radical change in this regard. There are risks ahead that cannot be dismissed, and we must be ready for them.