‘That future is now’: defence minister explains strategic update

Defence Minister Linda Reynolds has mapped out why Australia needs to quickly develop a much more potent defence force to deal with looming threats in a dangerously uncertain future.

In a speech to ASPI in Canberra (video below), Reynolds said the 2016 defence white paper made it very clear that Australia needed to maintain its capability edge, adapt to rapidly changing strategic circumstances, and prepare for the complex and high-tech conflicts of the future.

‘Ladies and gentlemen, that future is now’, Reynolds said, ‘and the government and Defence must respond’.

A review of the strategic underpinnings of the 2016 defence white paper, begun by the Defence Department last year, found that the security environment had deteriorated far more rapidly and in ways that could not have been predicted four years ago. ‘Our region is now facing the most consequential strategic realignment since the end of World War II’, Reynolds said.

‘Historically, defence planning had assumed a decade-long warning period for any major conventional attack against Australia. This is no longer valid.’

In what she described as ‘an incredibly dynamic age’, Reynolds said shifts in power and pressure on rules, norms and institutions were endangering the global order.

Accordingly, Defence thinking, strategy and planning had shifted gears. Across the Indo-Pacific, countries were modernising their militaries and increasing their preparedness for conflict. Regional nations now had submarines, next-generation combat aircraft and highly effective land forces.

New weapons and technologies, including hypersonic glide and long-range missiles, autonomous systems, space capabilities, artificial intelligence and cyber capabilities had increased range, speed, precision and lethality.

‘Quite simply, they are transforming the characteristics of warfare’, Reynolds said.

The defence minister said the government was committed to shaping security developments in Australia’s immediate region.

‘Government has directed Defence to sharpen its capabilities across five defence domains—maritime, land, air, information and cyber, and space—to build an even more potent ADF.’

The minister said the ADF’s capacity to deter and respond would be sharpened in many ways.

Reynolds said the ADF’s weapons systems would be formidable, with more potent capabilities to deter adversaries and keep their forces away from Australia.

Long-range strike capabilities would enable the ADF to threaten potential enemy forces and infrastructure from greater distances. These would include the long-range anti-ship missile, or LRASM.

The goal was to strengthen the ADF’s ability to deter and respond to threats to Australian interests. ‘Possessing weapons of this type influences the decision-making of those who seek to threaten our national interests.’

‘Let me be clear, though, the government is not planning to invest in intercontinental ballistic missiles’, Reynolds said. ‘We are focused on the protection of our deployed forces from ballistic missile threats, rather than the protection of the Australian continent. This is in line with the current threat assessment.’

Reynolds said Australia’s submarine capability underpinned the country’s credibility and influence as a modern military power. They were the vanguard of strategic lethality and deterrence, with substantial firepower, stealth, endurance and sustained presence. ‘Our regionally superior Collins-class submarines are already very capably demonstrating all of these effects.

‘We will see further refinements to our future Attack-class submarines, ones that will strengthen our capability to maintain peace and security in the region.’

Along with the rising threat of combat, nations were increasingly employing coercive tactics that fell below the threshold of armed conflict with cyberattacks, foreign interference and economic pressure seeking to exploit the grey area between peace and war.

‘In this grey zone, when the screws are tightened, influence becomes interference, economic cooperation becomes coercion, and investment becomes entrapment.’

Reynolds said the transnational threats of terrorism, violent extremism, organised crime and people-smuggling remained. The Covid-19 pandemic was still an active and unpredictable threat that was dramatically altering the global economic and strategic landscape. The post-Covid-19 world would be more unstable, more dangerous and more vulnerable to the impacts of technological and economic disruption.

‘All of these pressures are contributing to uncertainty and tension, raising the risk of military confrontation, and also compromising free and open trade’, Reynolds said. ‘Australia must be prepared for all of these strategic challenges.’

The capability of the ADF to support civil authorities dealing with natural disasters and domestic crises would be increased, but that must be done without degrading the ADF’s ability to deliver core military effects.

The army’s lethality would be enhanced with greater mobility, speed, firepower, protection and situational awareness brought by long-range and enhanced missile systems, and upgrades to the protection, weaponry and communication systems of existing vehicle fleets, including the Bushmaster and Hawkei armoured vehicles. ‘We will also leverage robotics, automation and AI to enhance our land systems’, Reynolds said.

‘We will acquire capabilities such as new large landing craft, inshore patrol craft and also uncrewed ground vehicles. These investments will enhance the capacity of our land forces to conduct multifaceted operations—whether in conflict, crisis or cooperation.’

The air combat capability of a fifth-generation Royal Australian Air Force would be expanded with its F-35A joint strike fighters and E/A-18 Growler electronic attack aircraft fitted with options including long-range strike weapons, teaming vehicles, loitering munitions, and remotely piloted, semi-autonomous and autonomous aircraft.

‘The Jindalee Operational Radar Network will be expanded to better monitor Australia’s eastern approaches. And we will enhance our intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities.’

Reynolds said that in addition to the physical air, maritime and land domains, Defence was increasingly focusing its capabilities in the information and cyber grey zone where a new and broadening offensive was challenging the nation’s sovereignty.

With growing frequency, cyberattacks target all levels of government, industry, political organisations, education, health, essential-service providers and operators of other critical infrastructure.

The ability of Defence and the Australian Signals Directorate to conduct defensive and offensive cyber operations was being enhanced at a cost of $15 billion over the coming decade. ‘In cyber warfare, there are no front lines. And given the blurred boundaries between military and civilian impacts in cyberspace, this investment will support the government’s broader national cyber security agenda.’

Reynolds said space was increasingly critical to the ADF’s warfighting effectiveness, particularly for real-time communications, situational awareness and rapid information delivery, and Defence was working closely with the United States, the Australian Space Agency and industry to advance its space capabilities.

That would include new satellites to increase self-reliance and resilience and enhanced satellite imagery, data processing and analysis capabilities with a bigger geospatial intelligence workforce.

Reynolds said Defence capabilities would be further enhanced by targeted research that brought together the distinct strengths of academia, industry and publicly funded research agencies to address the biggest strategic challenges. ‘Over the next decade, the government has allocated $3 billion of capability investment funding for Defence innovation, science and technology.’

All of these capabilities would help Australia deter and respond to attacks and support neighbours when needed, Reynolds said.