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Planning to defend Australia in an era of profound strategic disruption

Posted By on October 15, 2019 @ 15:02

Australia’s international security outlook is starting to look very unpredictable and potentially threatening. Our defence planners must now deal with a world which is markedly different from any they’ve known before. The United States is undermining the international rules-based order and, at the same time, China and Russia are becoming increasingly assertive militarily and aligned in their anti-Western attitudes. All of this is taking place as a crisis of democracy in the West is distracting it from wielding national power more effectively.

We are now in a period of unpredictable strategic transition in which the comfortable assumptions of the past are over. Australia’s strategic outlook has continued to deteriorate and, for the first time since World War II, we face an increased prospect of threat from high-level military capabilities being introduced into our region.

This means we must make major changes to the way we manage strategic risk, a grey area that involves making critical assessments of capability, motive and intent. Past defence judgements relied heavily on the conclusion that the capabilities required for a serious assault on Australia simply didn’t exist in our region.

In contrast, in the years ahead, the level of capability that can be brought to bear against Australia will increase, so judgements relating to warning time will need to rely less on evidence of capability and more on assessments of motive and intent. Such areas for judgement are inherently ambiguous and uncertain.

The potential warning time is now shorter because regional capability levels are higher and will undoubtedly increase in the years ahead. How should Australia respond? Contingencies that are credible in the shorter term could now be characterised by higher levels of intensity and technological sophistication. This means that readiness and sustainability need to be increased. We need higher training levels, a demonstrable and sustainable surge capacity, increased stocks of munitions, more maintenance spares, a robust fuel supply system, and modernised and protected operational bases in the north of Australia.

For the longer term, the key issue is whether there’s a sound basis for the timely expansion of the Australian Defence Force. Matters that need examination include developing an Australian equivalent of an anti-access/area-denial capability (especially for our vulnerable northern and western approaches), improving our capacity for antisubmarine warfare, and reviewing our capacity for sustained strike operations.

The prospect of shortened warning times now needs to be a major factor in our defence planning. Much more thought needs to be given to planning for the expansion of the ADF and its capacity to engage in high-intensity conflict in our own defence in a way that we haven’t previously had to consider. Planning for the defence of Australia needs to take these new realities into account.

We must now refocus on our own region of primary strategic interest, which includes the eastern Indian Ocean, Southeast Asia including the South China Sea, and the South Pacific. The conduct of operations further afield, including in the Middle East and Afghanistan, and Defence’s involvement in counterterrorism, must not be allowed to distract from the effort that needs to go into this planning or from the funding that enhanced capabilities will require.

The transformation of major-power relations in the Asia–Pacific region is having a profound effect on our strategic circumstances. Without increases in our defence preparedness, the options available to the government for the ADF’s involvement in high-intensity, high-tech operations would risk being severely constrained.

The issue for the longer term is whether we’ve built a sound basis from which to expand the ADF, especially our strike, air combat and maritime capabilities. Having such an expanded force would significantly increase the military planning challenges for any potential adversary and the size and military capabilities of the force it would have to commit to attack us directly, or to coerce, intimidate or otherwise employ military power against us.

Attacks on Australia of an intensity and duration sufficient to be a serious threat to our way of life would be possible only if an adversary’s forces had access to bases and facilities in our immediate neighbourhood. This needs to be taken into account in the development of our strike forces so that they have sufficient weight to deny any future adversary such an advantage. Consideration will need to be given to the range, endurance and weapon load of our strike forces and the numbers needed for repeated strike operations.

It’s imperative that planning for the defence of Australia, and for operations in our region of primary strategic concern, resumes the highest priority. Re-establishing our foreign policy and defence presence in this part of the world is crucial.

We need to get rid of the 2016 defence white paper’s ill-advised proposition that the defence of Australia, a secure nearer region and our global defence commitments should be ‘three equally-weighted high-level Strategic Defence Objectives to guide the development of the future force’.

Finally, it needs to be understood that the policy recommended here is a continuation of Australia’s longstanding defence policy that we do not identify any particular country as a threat. Rather, we are responding to the significant improvement in high-tech military capabilities across the board in our region.

This post is adapted by the author from a speech he gave on 10 October 2019 to the Chief of Navy's Sea Power conference. It reflects joint work with Richard Brabin-Smith, honorary professor at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University.

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[1] 2016 defence white paper: https://www.defence.gov.au/WhitePaper/