New government can deliver what Australia needs to defend itself in a dangerous decade

Skilled diplomacy, a powerful and achievable deterrent capability developed with urgency, and the highly trained personnel to drive a technically skilled defence force will be crucial to Australia’s defence in the uncertain decades ahead.

A big dilemma confronting the incoming defence minister is how to resolve the disconnect between the 2020 defence strategic update, which signalled that Australia might find itself embroiled in a major conflict without the 10 years’ warning time that has long been considered likely, and the 2020 force structure plan which set out a plan to re-equip the Australian Defence Force that would not be delivered for decades.

During the election campaign, Labor’s defence spokesperson, Brendan O’Connor, signed up to the Coalition’s increases to Defence spending, with the March budget increasing it to $48.6 billion and further growth set to take it to $70 billion by 2030. Labor also agreed with the big investments being made in frigates and nuclear-powered submarines.

The challenge for the new government on defence, though, isn’t about the headline budget figures, or the massive, long-term projects it’ll have to manage. It’s to use the large and growing defence budget to make Australia more secure this decade—over the next 1, 3, 5 and 8 years—not from 2035 and out to 2050 as the new frigates and submarines slowly arrive.

The 2020s look to be a dangerous decade for Australia and our region because of an aggressive China under Xi Jinping. And that aggression isn’t just a long way away, in places like the South China Sea and around Taiwan. It’s close to home given China’s growing presence in the South Pacific and the implications of the security deal Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare has made with Beijing. Unravelling that agreement will be another major challenge for the incoming minister and their counterpart in foreign affairs. It’s a time to gather strength with friends and allies, as in Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s priority dash to the Quad meeting in Tokyo.

The good news for the new government is that there are things to build on and accelerate—like the work underway to get at least some of the guided weapons our military use produced in Australia so that we aren’t dependent on risky and vulnerable international supply chains. As we’re seeing every day in the war in Ukraine, these essential military supplies are needed in numbers.

Like militaries all over the world, the ADF is watching closely the lessons from Ukraine, right down to footage of model aircraft enthusiasts dropping grenades from small commercial drones and of the Moskva, Russia’s Baltic Sea flagship burning and sinking.

Do the columns of wrecked and rusting hulks of Russian tanks signal the end of armoured vehicles as an effective force? Probably not. Armour was very badly handled by the Russians despite the Ukrainians being badly outnumbered. It needs to be used as part of a system including infantry, artillery and air support, which the Kremlin did not provide, but armour’s vulnerabilities to cheap weapons are undeniable.

The new government will need a comprehensive early briefing from the ADF on all the complex detail of the AUKUS agreement with the US and UK and plans to help Australia obtain eight nuclear-powered submarines.

That will include the content and progress of the talks the Royal Australian Navy’s nuclear-powered submarine taskforce is involved in with the International Atomic Energy Agency to ensure that the plan doesn’t weaken the international non-proliferation regime.

The navy has said it will ensure the project embraces such high safety standards that it will set a rigorous new benchmark under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, or NPT.

The reactors on both US and UK nuclear-powered submarines use highly enriched, or ‘weapons grade’, uranium that does not need to be replaced for the boat’s 30-year life. Such fuel could be used to make nuclear bombs.

Other nations, including France, use low-enriched uranium in their submarine reactors but they need to be refuelled several times through the life of the submarine. That uranium is not suitable for bombs, but the refuelling process is a complex one that would probably require ongoing help from the provider country.

The submarine enterprise is as massive as it is ambitious.

It is likely to see Australia obtaining an advanced new boat, still being designed, from either the US or the UK.

In the meantime, Australians will find themselves crewing US or UK submarines to gain experience and professional skills.

When its AUKUS allies are satisfied that Australia can meet the highest nuclear-safeguard standards, the RAN may eventually ‘borrow’ a nuclear-powered boat from one of them.

But AUKUS is about much more than submarines.

As defence minister, Peter Dutton chose the big US companies, Raytheon and Lockheed Martin, as industry partners for missile production. The new government must push these companies to start production in Australia by 2025, not allow them to slow-roll things over a decade. And it would be wise to bring in some faster-moving competition through companies like Norway’s Kongsberg and Israeli-Australian partnership Varley Rafael, which would each get production of missiles the ADF have chosen started fast and push our American friends to also get moving quickly.

The new government can push the navy to do what it should have done all along and arm the only new ships Australia is getting into the fleet before 2035, the Arafura-class offshore patrol vessels. These warships are more relevant than ever given the Chinese navy’s push into our near region.

Labor can focus where it traditionally likes to in defence, on local industry. Medium and small Australian firms can provide the military with technologies from artificial intelligence capabilities, cyber systems and armed and unarmed small drones. They can get these new technologies into the hands of our military to use and adapt much faster if they aren’t forced to navigate the labyrinth that is the Defence bureaucracy and procurement system.

It will take a strong prime minister and determined defence minister to break through this internal process logjam, but that can be a satisfying role for a new minister—and it’s one our security environment demands. The MQ-28A Ghost Bat drone also known as the loyal wingman and the investment in large unmanned undersea vessels announced by Dutton during the election campaign are tantalising glimmers of what’s possible.

Delivering new capability to the Australian military over this decade—not just in the mid-2030s—will show taxpayers they are getting something for the billions going into Defence in economically challenging times. And, with Australia’s powerful partners in Washington, Tokyo, Delhi and Seoul, it’ll help deter Beijing from thinking conflict is a quick way to achieve its goals. The Chinese military does respect countervailing military power. So, how novel and fortunate for an Australian defence minister to have the prospect of starting projects and seeing them deliver results to our military while they are still in the job.

While Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has demonstrated that nothing short of a courageous armed defence can stop a violent and autocratic aggressor, war can also be an unnecessary consequence when diplomacy and armed deterrence fail.

But diplomacy remains a crucial first element and a stronger and better resourced Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is a strategic imperative. The vastly experienced and capable Penny Wong will be influential in cabinet to make that happen. Tone may help, but policy substance still needs to deal with structural realities.

The new government also needs to free up and encourage the ADF to play a much greater role in informing the public about the strategic threats posed by climate change with the strong possibility of competition for resources such as food and water and the likelihood of mass international people movements from areas that become inundated or otherwise uninhabitable. That’s the practical, security side to the new government’s climate agenda.

Difficult decisions which will shape the ADF for decades need to be made soon on armoured vehicles and the future of special forces.

On integrity and accountability, the new government gets the chance to deliver what the overwhelming majority of Australia’s serving military personnel want—accountability for any among them who are proven to have committed unlawful killings in Afghanistan as well as changes to the command chain and the way allegations of misconduct on operations are investigated and handled in the future.

A previous defence minister, Linda Reynolds, undertook to inform the Australian public, through statements to parliament, about the implementation of the Brereton inquiry’s forensic investigation and recommendations. That has not happened. Now those processes can be pursued more publicly with the full backing of the new government, both through the Office of the Special Investigator outside Defence, and through Defence’s internal disciplinary and administrative systems.

This will align Defence with steps to increase integrity and government transparency that look like being a key part of the new parliamentary program of Labor and the independents.

It’ll be symbolic here to have the new defence minister do what Brereton recommended and give periodic statements in parliament updating on progress with implementation and change.

So, inheriting bipartisan structural policy settings and a growing defence budget is a foundation. The next three years, though, will be busy time of delivery and decision for Albanese and his national security committee colleagues.