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‘Impactful projection’: a porcupine with very long quills

Posted By on November 18, 2022 @ 14:30

A term that was unknown only a week or so ago has entered the lexicon of Australian strategic thought: ‘impactful projection’. Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defence Richard Marles first used it in an armchair conversation at last week’s Submarine Institute of Australia conference, and then repeated it in a more formal address at the Sydney Institute this week.

So it’s now a thing, but what is impactful projection? Marles first defined it this way:
I think increasingly we're going to need to think about our defence force in terms of being able to provide the country with impactful projection, impactful projection, meaning an ability to hold an adversary at risk, much further from our shores, across kind of the full spectrum of proportionate response. Now, that is actually a different mindset to what we've probably had before …

His later remarks expanded on this, stating: ‘The ADF must augment its self-reliance to deploy and deliver combat power through impactful materiel and enhanced strike capability—including over longer distances.’

The timing of Marles’s remarks is, of course, not random. In his Sydney Institute address, Marles told  us: ‘Earlier this month, I received the interim advice on the defence strategic review from Professor Stephen Smith and Sir Angus Houston.’ That comes on the back of Prime Minister Anthony Albanese revealing that the National Security Committee of cabinet has had frequent updates from the review’s leads. So we can safely assume that Marles is giving us a foretaste of what they will deliver.

While the term ‘impactful projection’ might be novel, we shouldn’t be surprised at the underlying message, which calls for greater combat power, force-projection capabilities and self-reliant strike capabilities. Keen readers of recent strategic policy documents will hear clear echoes of the previous government’s 2020 defence strategic update, which put matters this way:
Given Australia’s limited resource base, we must improve our ability to deliver these effects without seeking to match the capability of major powers. This includes developing capabilities to hold adversary forces and infrastructure at risk further from Australia, such as longer-range strike weapons, cyber capabilities and area denial systems.

That’s not an accusation of plagiarism. The Albanese government has already expressed its agreement with the key judgements in the 2020 update. Rather, it’s confirmation of broad bipartisanship on the kinds of capabilities the Australian Defence Force needs. One of those capabilities is nuclear-propelled submarines. Marles noted that ‘a long-range-capable submarine does impactful projection more than any other platform that we have within our defence force right now’.

Members of the Canberra strategic policy blob, like me, will be analysing where impactful projection sits in Australia’s history of strategic thinking. And they’ll be attempting to reconcile that concept with the porcupine metaphor that Marles has also used.

Ever since federation, Australian thinking about the role of its defence force has sat along a spectrum. At one end are those who believe the ADF’s purpose is to defend Australia—that is, the continent of Australia. At the other end are those who think the best way to defend Australia is to work with our great and powerful allies to defeat significant threats wherever they may arise in the world. Porcupines might suggest the former philosophy, while impactful projection might imply the latter.

Regardless of the view of policy elites, the Australian people sit firmly in the first camp. While the majority of Australians support the alliance with the US, Lowy Institute polls suggest they are ambivalent about joining the US to fight a war over Taiwan. That means any argument for increased defence funding—and the prime minister has said the government will spend whatever it takes to keep Australia secure—has to be couched in terms that the Australian public find compelling. Ultimately that comes down to the defence of Australia. Tellingly, Marles didn’t refer to Taiwan or the South China Sea in either of the forums in which he talked about impactful projection.

So that explains the porcupine, but how is that consistent with impactful projection? In my view, it reflects a fundamental recognition of the changing nature of military technology and the threat that presents. Fighter planes with a combat radius of 1,000 kilometres might have been able to defend the ‘air–sea gap’ against conceivable threats in the era of Paul Dibb’s defence-of-Australia doctrine. But now that a potential adversary has capabilities that can kinetically strike Australia from more than 3,000 kilometres away, we’re taking a very small knife to a gunfight if we don’t increase the range of our own strike capabilities. This is not about the South China Sea or Taiwan. To expand on Marles’s own metaphor, impactful projection seems to be a porcupine with very long quills.

Of course, we can have intense debates about how long the quills should be and about the best strike capabilities for Australia’s particular circumstances. All of those debates should be based on a rigorous analysis of value for money—what capability return are we getting on our investment? And the Australian government can and will still deploy capabilities it acquired for the defence of Australia much further afield, as it always has done.

But we can see the key drivers in the government’s vision of the ADF’s role emerging. We’ll have to wait until the review team completes its work in March to see how that translates into a force structure and defence industry policy, but there too we are starting to see the factors shaping the government’s thinking. The need for large stocks of guided weapons is a consistent theme. Marles’s acknowledgement of a defence force personnel crisis is also significant, but again, we’ll have to wait to see whether that translates into a force design philosophy that builds the force around likely numbers of people rather than hoping that ‘if you build it, they will come’.

There’s still much work for the review team to do, but we’re starting to get a clear sense of the government’s defence priorities.

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URL to article: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/impactful-projection-a-porcupine-with-very-long-quills/

[1] conversation: https://www.minister.defence.gov.au/transcripts/2022-11-08/submarine-institute-australia-conversation-michael-fitzgerald

[2] address: https://www.minister.defence.gov.au/speeches/2022-11-14/address-sydney-institute-annual-dinner-lecture

[3] revealing: https://www.theaustralian.com.au/inquirer/strategic-ambitions-of-a-foreign-policy-pm/news-story/d8d725b6343c6cbdbe30633b1ccf4032

[4] defence strategic update: https://www.defence.gov.au/about/strategic-planning/2020-defence-strategic-update

[5] porcupine: https://www.smh.com.au/politics/federal/we-need-to-be-a-porcupine-marles-says-australia-must-project-lethal-force-20220826-p5bd3x.html

[6] Lowy Institute polls: https://poll.lowyinstitute.org/