The defence strategic review: a revolution in Australian defence planning?

Public discussion of the defence strategic review (DSR) has focused on the announced changes to major capability programs. On that score, the statement by Defence Minister Richard Marles that the DSR is ‘the most ambitious review of Defence’s posture and structure since the Second World War’ is hard to reconcile with its recommendations, as there were few specific changes beyond those to Army which had been long expected. A few short paragraphs on the way that Australia should fundamentally change its approach to defence planning and force design, however, hint at very consequential change—and it is important that the government does not lose sight of their importance, despite them not receiving an explicit mention in the minister’s statement.

Australian defence white papers tend to consist of an engaging essay on the strategic environment in the front, and a list of capability decisions at the back. In general, the links between both are always implicit, and often only tenuous. Indeed, translation of strategic guidance in terms of priority for strategic risks, geographic focus and general tasks for the ADF into capability is the main historic weakness of Australian defence planning—going back at least to the 1970s ‘core force’ concept.

A key exception was the 1986 Dibb Review and 1987 Defence White Paper, which provided an (implicit) force structuring scenario for the defence of Australia, and explicit guidance on how the ADF would operate the ‘defence in depth’ strategy. In this framework lies the real importance of these documents, as it was internalised by Defence and government and implicitly guided defence force design until the 2000 white paper. No similarly impactful and enduring framework has replaced it.

The DSR’s reference to past planning against ‘low level and enhanced low-level threats’ (para 4.7) shows that it was conscious of this history, and seeks to provide a new framework that can have similarly lasting impact. In that sense, the most important paragraph of the DSU is that ‘the ADF needs a much more focused force structure based on net assessment, a strategy of denial, the risks inherent in the different levels of conflict, and realistic scenarios agreed to by the Government.’ What does this mean?

The use of politically, operationally and technically realistic scenarios that align with government strategic intent is key to coherent force design. Internationally, explicit political endorsement of force design scenarios are key elements of defence planning as in the United States; or the NATO defence planning process. Not so in Australia, where historically capability scenarios have only been endorsed by the Chiefs of Staff Committee. Even in white papers, ‘force structure reviews’ often preceded decisions that the government wanted Defence to achieve in the first place. Political endorsement of ADF force structuring scenarios will be crucial for government’s ability to ensure that the process which produces the capability proposals it receives from Defence actually reflects its strategic priorities.

The review’s reference to a ‘net-assessment planning process’ and rejection of a ‘balanced force’ (para 8.3) , which it understands to be designed to be able to react to a ‘range of contingencies’, provide a crucial insight into what the review wants these scenarios to entail. Net assessment as an analytical method has many applications, but the context makes clear that the review wants the ADF to be designed to meet one, extant, actual, clear and present threat (from China) rather than a range of possible or notional adversaries. Also sometimes called ‘threat-based planning’, ADF force design should in future reflect much more closely the actual shape and challenges that a conflict with China would present. As was the case for the US and NATO during the Cold War, changes in Chinese force structure and capabilities will flow much more directly and urgently into Australian capability priorities. The review’s recommendation that government direct a ‘strategy of denial’ is a consistent and necessary element of this approach, insofar as it explains how government would want the ADF to meet this threat.

As Australia is likely to operate alongside the US in such a conflict, and China’s ability to project force against Australia would depend on US action elsewhere, the review likely has set Australia onto a path towards much closer cooperation with the US in force design than has been the case since the SEATO alliance. The review’s comments about ‘recent advances’ in the bilateral and trilateral relations between the US, Japan and Australia hint at this, insofar as the review of alliance ‘roles’, ‘missions’ and ‘capabilities’ and the ‘scope’, ‘objectives’ and ‘forms’ of cooperation are part of these. NATO has always had a process for force structuring at the alliance level, and we may now be on our way to a more informal version of one.

The final element is the explicit consideration of ‘levels of conflict’ (para 7.8). Since the late 1960s, the starting point of Australian defence planning guidance has been geography, as priorities and objectives were framed through geographic regions (Australia, Southwest Pacific, Southeast Asia, Northeast Asia, and the global level), variations of which dominated the table of contents of every strategic review and white paper since 1968. In contrast, the DSR takes us back to the 1950s and 1960s when Australian defence policy was last dominated by the threat of great power conflict. Then, too, defence planning was framed in terms of what level of conflict Australia should focus on—in particular, Cold War (today: competition), limited war, and global (today: major) war.  These remain meaningful distinctions today and lead to very different geographic as well as force structure and posture foci.

In competition, the ADF needs to be able to best respond to the security concerns of those countries over whose alignment we are competing by reflecting the interests in economic, resource and domestic security of South West Pacific and Southeast Asian countries. Today’s lightly armed and lightly built offshore patrol vessels are an example of a capability almost only useful for competition.

In limited conflict, by definition both sides accept that limited stakes impose limits to escalation and acceptable cost of conflict. Territorial conflict over maritime features other than Taiwan, or confrontations over incidents at sea, may today reflect such circumstances. Australia and partners would seek to manage limited conflict by deterrence through forward presence of highly capable, visible surface and air forces—including in regions such as the South China Sea where they would not be survivable in major war. Kinetic use of submarines against surface vessels would likely be subject to direct political concern about escalation, as was the case of the Belgrano sinking in the Falklands war. The main axis of ADF operations would be north-south, from Australia to the likely areas of conflict.

In major war, both sides fight to disarm and thus impose their will on the adversary. War termination will come to rest on the nuclear balance (if only in the sense that one side accepts cutting its losses rather than risk escalation). Australia’s main concern will be to secure supplies to remain in the fight, to avoid catastrophic losses, and to influence the shape of a post-war settlement in our immediate approaches. The main axis of ADF operations would thus be east-west, reflecting the crucial sea lines of communication to bring supplies across the Indian and Pacific Oceans, with US long-range strike forces operating north from the continent.

The guidance in the 2020 defence strategic update was arguably compatible with preparations for any three of these levels of conflict. While the review in its unclassified form is silent on what it would recommend government focus on, its insistence that the ADF is ‘not fit for purpose’ (para 8.2), emphasis on long-range strike, hardening of bases and fuel reserves in Australia hints at a classified recommendation to focus on major war.

The review and government have clearly internalised the need for much faster, and more robust and coherent adaptation than Defence has been able to provide. The effective admission that the post-2016 contestability agenda has failed (paras 12.2-3) shows the difficulty of reforming Defence, despite the clear efforts of Defence leadership and governments of recent years. Time will tell how long the intended biannual cycle for the new national defence strategy will survive a three-yearly electoral cycle, but it would in any case only be an outcome of the underlying defence planning framework. Hence, the review’s section on defence planning and force design is arguably not just the most brief, but also the most important, and—if implemented—would well warrant the minister’s moniker as the ‘most ambitious review’ of them all.