The National Defence Strategy’s 2 key shortfalls: strategic purpose & the nature of warfare

The NDS launched by Richard Marles, Pat Conroy & Anthony Albanese suggests a retreat to a narrowly defined ‘primary area of military interest’, limiting options to help others shape security & military outcomes. Image: Defence.

Written by

Lesley Seebeck

Years ago, a task often assigned graduates newly arrived in Defence was to draft responses to letters from the public. Responses would be composed by stitching together relevant ‘standard paragraphs’—pre-agreed words to common issues or concerns—then dispatched to the minister’s office for signature.

There are fingerprints of that approach in the National Defence Strategy (NDS). It is now a given that every defence white paper, or national defence strategy in the new lexicon, must start with words along the lines of ‘[t]here is no greater responsibility for the Government than defending Australia.’ Other catechisms in the NDS include ‘[p]eople are Defence’s most important asset’ and ‘the Alliance with the US is fundamental to our national security’ and ‘tough decisions’.

And every government claims to drive ‘consequential’ transformation in Australia defence capability.

There are some adjustments and upgrades, of course: Japan, for example, has graduated to an ‘indispensable partner’; AUKUS has had to be eased into the construct; and ‘resilience’ and ‘impactful projection’ are in vogue. 

But the NDS, overall, has feet of clay. It is hampered by inertia, from the defence establishment, from the sheer agglomeration of existing capability, and from Labor’s own funding compromises. 

Every defence white paper must contend with the infrastructure in place, often dated capability and cultural resistance to change. Typically, white papers manage such impediments by reversing the logic of strategy: strategy should indicate the nature of likely operations (for example, expeditionary, homeland defence, large conventional combined arms, etc); that in turn defines capability requirements, which are further constrained by available resources. White papers tend to work in reverse, rarely consciously: ‘what have we got and how could it be used, if supported’.

Accordingly, the NDS translates geopolitical realities into a vision that roughly matches what the government is willing to fund. And typically, because Defence is used as the balancing account in government Budgets—especially where government is pursuing increased funding for social and economic welfare—strategic policies end up favouring existing and past capability, and old, familiar strategic concepts.

That may suffice in a stable environment, guaranteed by US primacy, governed by the ‘rules-based order’. But such conditions are sorely tested: there is increasing geopolitical turmoil, accelerating technological change, increased need for depth of sustainment, and the prospect of both likely and unforeseen disruption. The existing and familiar won’t cut it anymore.  

The NDS falls short in two fundamental areas: strategic purpose and the nature of warfare. Both undermine the government’s prospective ’strategy of denial’.

First, the shaping purpose of an Australian grand strategy.

The NDS presupposes that the system of the world that has been so beneficial to Australia remains, and that others—aside from a few, such as China and Russia—see it the same way and want that system to continue.

Such conditions have been questionable since well before 2000 and have worsened particularly since Xi Jinping came to power. Elizabeth Economy’s review of Chinese statecraft in Foreign Affairs shows how Western nations can no longer rest on their ideological laurels. Arguing for continuation of past settings—the ‘rules-based order’—is insufficient and may even harm our position. China has successfully cultivated dissatisfactions and presented its own vision as a viable alternative. Those seeds will continue to bear fruit regardless of China’s domestic economy or welfare. 

More, the key actors in geopolitics—Putin, Xi, and potentially Trump—care more about upending existing standards, norms, and institutions, including the system of alliances, than upholding them.

Rather than ceding ideological ground and strategic positioning, Australian policymakers, along with like-minded Western counterparts, need to double down on, rather than retreat from, the nature and benefits of democracy and liberal free markets. 

Too much is taken as a given but there is nothing pre-destined or inevitable about either democracies or Australia as we know it now. Both must be argued and fought for. Australian policymakers too often run shy of advocating for classic liberal, capitalist, democratic norms. The NDS itself does not mention democracy, only that the strategy draws on ‘democratic norms’; democracy is not a goal in and of itself. 

It is past time to start shaping what Australia wants a technologically charged, post-rules-based order to look like. Australia needs to articulate a strong counter-narrative to China’s authoritarian posture and vision, and to support economically sustainable national competitiveness, entrepreneurial drive, and civilian, not simply military, capability.

Second, there is the changing nature of warfare.

Much of the recent debate over capability has focussed on drones, facilitated by online footage of their effects on especially armour, in Ukraine. (US Abrams tanks have been withdrawn from the front-line dues to their vulnerability.) Drones are only part of how war has changed—and it’s not simply drones, but many, cheap, mass-produced, first-person view drones working in teams on land, stealthy drones at sea, and supported by a robust digital infrastructure.

A war of surveillance, connectivity, camouflage and swarming requires continual evolution and adaptation in doctrine, capability, systems, and support. The uncrewed Ghost Bat aircraft and the Ghost Shark prototype are impressive expansions of existing capabilities and operations. Defence has yet to master fast development, deployment and adaptation cycles associated with cheap, mass, highly expendable, continually modified drones, and counter-drone technology and operations, evident in Ukraine. 

The importance of long-range fires in Ukraine has reinforced the government’s purchase of small numbers of HIMARS and missiles—reflective of the spatial scale of the Ukraine war, if not its intensity or duration.  Similarly, it’s not simply long-range fires, but artillery at mass—Ukraine has shown how quickly a war of manoeuvre transitions, inevitably, into grinding blood, iron, and attrition. Wars of attrition are won and lost by the depth of sustainment—resources, supply lines, the production of material, the availability of manpower—and, of course, national willingness to continue.

Ukraine’s war is a hackers’ war as well; the involvement of civil society has been crucial. From cyber operations—especially cyber defence—to the IT Army and civilian-built and modified drones (often using common civilian parts) and jamming devices, civilians have been an integral part of the war effort. In Australia, national security has remained the jealously guarded remit of the military and intelligence agencies. Efforts by, for example, civilian white hat hackers to test and harden systems have been rebuffed by agencies, with researchers and bug hunters threatened with prosecution. The lack of communication, transparency, trust and collaboration harms Australian national security posture, resilience, purpose and, potentially, mobilisation.

The war in Ukraine has also demonstrated the limits of deterrence. Russia was not deterred from attacks in either 2014 or 2022. Putin was able to use the threat of nuclear use to deter the United States from a more active engagement: nuclear deterrence, after all, works both ways. Given Australia’s unquestioned reliance on the US nuclear umbrella, that’s worrying: to what extent could the United States be deterred by nuclear threats from China in similar circumstances in our region?
All these matters raise doubts about the NDS’s ‘strategy of denial’.

A strategy of denial assumes the ability to withstand, completely, opportunistic attack and the ability to shore up weakness quickly, against the momentum of battle, and then to inflict sufficient pain on the aggressor. It effectively cedes freedom of movement to the aggressor, and implies a willingness to accept loss of ground, destruction of capacity, and casualties, potentially civilian casualties. It implies a substantial depth of resources, manpower and firepower—at minimum, as with both Israel and Taiwan, the ability to hold out until the United States can help. At worst, it is a scorched earth policy.

Ukraine has shown the costs and uncertainties associated with ceding ground and reliance on others. Frankly, if China directly threatened and/or invaded Australian territory or its ‘primary area of military interest’, chances are that allies are already deeply engaged and concerned with their own problems.

That’s because Australia benefits from geographical depth—Australia is a long way from immediate kinetic harm, aside from prospective missiles. But our ability to manage the degradation of that advantage is questionable. The NDS suggests a retreat to a narrowly defined ‘primary area of military interest’, limiting options to help others shape security and military outcomes where our engagement may be most beneficial to our own and allies’ security. Further, China’s grey zone tactics continuously and cumulatively erode the surety around any protections archipelagic Southeast Asia or ‘the Pacific family’ may offer.

And strategic denial leans evermore heavily on US capability, alliance protection and extended deterrence.  

The government may have arrived at a different strategy if Australia had a mature net assessment capability—as suggested by the public Strategic Defence Review—supported by an ecosystem of funded think tank, university and independent research, and was more open to informed, contestable debate. It’s possible there would have been a deeper questioning of drivers, trends, and potential disruption and testing of possible responses, rather than a reliance on standard paragraphs and dated concepts. Moreover, a grand strategy would more accurately reflect enabling and consequential factors such as economic growth, productivity, entrepreneurship, reskilling and adoption and uplift of new technology.

To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, you go to war with the military you have. That, alarmingly, given the increasing prospect of major strategic disruptions in our geostrategic environment, will leave Australia in a poor place.