Taking Australia’s defence strategy forward
12 Jun 2019|

It’s been a while since Australia undertook a fundamental review of its defence strategy. Yet such a review is urgently needed as the rapid deterioration of our strategic outlook overtakes many of the assumptions that underpinned the 2016 defence white paper. The military strategy in that document has roots that go back to previous white papers, and in fact all the way back to the era of the 1987 Defence of Australia white paper and the 1986 Dibb review. It’s time for something new.

In a new ASPI paper, released today, I advocate a new strategy of ‘forward defence in depth’. The aim is to counter the growing offensive capability implicit in the anti-access and area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities now appearing in China’s People’s Liberation Army.

Although strategic geography still matters, emerging PLA capabilities such as high-speed, long-range strike make it much more difficult to defend the sea–air gap to our north.

Forward defence in depth treats the sea–air gap as the main rear area—not the front line—of the Australian Defence Force. Projecting power into the maritime Indo-Pacific region is much more vital, as is the ability to generate effects through space and cyberspace.

The goals of forward defence in depth are to prevent a major-power adversary from threatening Australian and allied forces and facilities across northern Australia unmolested; to deny them access to our air and maritime approaches by controlling maritime straits across Southeast Asia; and to ensure the ADF can respond rapidly to coercive threats to our energy and maritime trade on the high seas.

If Australia is to successfully adopt forward defence in depth, we can’t do it alone. Enhanced defence diplomacy is essential. We have already started this process with the recent agreement to re-establish a US–Australia–PNG naval base at Lombrum on Manus Island, but our future defence diplomatic efforts need to go much further.

The defence diplomacy dimension needs to be handled sensitively and respect the key interests of partners and address their threat perceptions. For example, Pacific island states tend to focus on non-traditional security concerns like climate change, and our defence diplomacy must address those. But it must also provide an alternative to these states being forced to acquiesce to Beijing’s interests through debt-trap diplomacy.

Forward defence in depth is as much about the defence and security of the Indo-Pacific region as it is about updating Australia’s defence strategy. Our approach to defence must recognise the region as equal partner, rather than as a means to an end.

With this key aspect in mind, the paper advocates a much more ambitious partnership with Indonesia, including through reciprocal base access, intelligence sharing, joint capability development, and joint exercises and operations.

It also emphasises the need to formalise a trilateral defence alliance with the US and Japan. The Australian government should accelerate the growth of that relationship to incorporate greater defence cooperation through intelligence sharing and joint exercises and training, and then move towards joint operations including reciprocal base access.

As part of this process, the paper advocates a trilateral defence chain, running from Okinawa in the north, through Guam and Micronesia in the middle, to Lombrum in the south, as well as Royal Australian Air Force bases Tindal and Darwin, to create a manoeuvre space. Such a space could see deployment of naval surface combatants from all three states equipped with SM-3 and SM-6 missile-defence capabilities, supported by ‘Aegis Ashore’-type land-based ballistic-missile-defence interceptors and radars at Okinawa, Guam and Tindal. From within this manoeuvre space, US, Japanese and Australian submarine and long-range airpower could then project force rapidly inside the first island chain to deny China the ability to employ long-range-strike capabilities.

This is not to advocate a cult of the offensive, in which Australia adopts a strategically aggressive posture. It’s about developing our own A2/AD capabilities to allow rapid and precise strikes at long range, and with short notice, alongside our partners to strengthen common security. The aim should be to boost deterrence by increasing the potential cost to the adversary in a way that precludes a war from occurring or, in concert with allies, enables us to win such a war, should it occur.

The capability implications of forward defence diplomacy would see future force structure development go beyond that proposed in the 2016 integrated investment program. We’re talking about long-range power-projection capabilities, first and foremost.

The potential for the PLA to exploit advanced ballistic- and cruise-missile systems—and, in time, hypersonic weapons—to circumvent the sea–air gap is emerging as a key risk for Australia. Through forward defence in depth, the ADF will maximise its chances to kill the archer before he releases his arrow.

The recent announcement of the Australian government’s partnership with Boeing to develop the ‘loyal wingman’ unmanned combat aerial vehicle is a positive step towards filling a capability gap left by the retirement of the F-111 in 2010. But it needs to be complemented by acquisition of long-range, high-speed standoff weapons for forward-deployed RAAF strike and air combat capability, and integration of long-range land-attack and anti-ship cruise missile systems for the Royal Australian Navy’s naval surface combatant and submarine forces.

Ultimately, the RAAF needs to explore how it can acquire new capabilities that offer long range, high payload and high speed and which exploit manned–unmanned teaming. That sort of capability is likely to be at the cornerstone of US penetrating counter-air projects in the coming decade. Australian participation in those projects could lead to a complementary future capability for the RAAF’s F-35A fleet.

To strike fast, we need to see first. Broader investment in unmanned systems on and under the waves would offer a means to maintain a permanent forward presence to monitor an adversary’s naval activities close to its ports and wage a sea-denial campaign when necessary.

The alternative of a continued coast on autopilot with traditional defence strategy settings would sacrifice the operational and tactical initiative, and not respond effectively to emerging adversary capabilities. In the next war—which could occur as early as the 2020s—the ADF needs to push forward, and recognise the advantage of forward defence in depth.