The strategic challenge to keep Australia secure
Image: Angus Houston hands Prime Minister Albanese the Defence Strategic Review Source: Defence Images at

Written by

Michael Shoebridge

The government’s defence review, to be announced in April, is its first chance to put its stamp on defence and go beyond its support of strategic directions set over the past five years.

Defence Minister Richard Marles says the review is “to consider the priority of investment in Defence capabilities and assess the ADF’s structure, posture and preparedness”. But its real purpose is to make Australians safer in the more dangerous world we’re living in now – and to do so quickly.

The government is using the reviewers – Professor Stephen Smith and Sir Angus Houston – to confront four big issues. Australia must increase our military power quickly. The growing Defence budget isn’t enough to do what we need. Marles and Albanese need answers to the vexed issues of submarine capability gaps and the future of a massive army heavy-armoured fighting vehicle bid. And Australia must create improved facilities in Darwin, Stirling near Perth and Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island that our own military and our partners – including the US, India, Japan, the UK and PNG – can use to deter conflict in our region.

Australia is facing a fundamentally new strategic challenge compared with the past 70 years. China is intent on playing a big, direct security role in the South Pacific and across Southeast Asia. In Honiara, Solomon Islands’ Prime Minister Manasseh Sogevare knows this.

So, the Australian military has to make a practical contribution to deterring and opposing Chinese military activity and aggression in our near region in the next one, three, five and 10 years – not the 2040s.

If deterrence fails, Australian forces may be engaged in operations at the same time that our US ally and other partners are busy meeting their own needs, most likely in a wider conflict with China. And the military has a growing role in dealing with increasingly frequent natural disasters domestically and in our near region. Neither is a discretionary task, no matter the wishful thinking in parts of Defence.

Like Ukraine, we can’t just rely on the kindness of friends. We must be able to deploy and use our own forces in our near region and we must be able to sustain them in combat well beyond an initial few days and weeks. This capacity is critical to deterring aggression, as well as to winning in an actual conflict if deterrence fails.

The bad news is our military and the wider Defence organisation and industry doesn’t have this ability now without deep reliance on our US ally.

The good news is that things can be changed rapidly – as the Ukrainians have shown. Their military, which was comprehensively defeated by the Russian military in 2014 restructured, rethought and rebuilt itself in eight years. It’s been beating that same Russian military as a result. So, rapid shifts in military power are possible.

This will take courage from the reviewers to propose new approaches to how the military works with companies and implements investments in military power.

It might sound mundane, but this is about ending years of failed, incremental attempts to streamline and reform the big slow business processes used by Defence to get what the military need. Instead, it’s about standing up new, separate approaches that sidestep Defence’s extensive, complex bureau-cratic machinery for capability development, tendering, contracting and acquisition. We’ve done some of this before.

Countering nasty improvised explosive device threats in Afghanistan was possible because the companies making the protective systems and Bushmaster vehicles worked rapidly and closely with the ADF personnel actually in Afghanistan and with Defence Science and Technology Group (DSTG) experts to counter the evolving threat.

The “business as usual” approaches to slow project definition, tendering, evaluation, and delivery were all avoided because they simply couldn’t meet the urgent need.

Business as usual mindsets have led to the absurdity that, two years since announcing an accelerated program to build at least one missile type locally, there’s been little discernible progress.

The alternative Ukrainian approach is to have clear needs, be crystal clear about the urgency and involve the military end user, not the hierarchy, with the actual technology deliverers.

That’s how Elon Musk’s Starlink satellite terminals, Javelin anti-armour missiles, HIMARS rocket systems and US anti-air missiles have been brought into service rapidly and effectively – things which would take several years using standing Australian defence processes.

This isn’t about importing everything from the Americans. There’s real military power available in products small to medium Australian companies already make and partners such as the­­ British, the Dutch – and the Ukrainians – use.

But Australia’s Defence organisation hasn’t bought these for our own forces. Loitering smart munitions that can be fired from small weapons such as grenade launchers, small unmanned drones and even directed energy systems to counter drones are all made by Australian companies now.

It turns out that these “consumables of conflict”, like missiles, are essential in modern war and must be available at speed and in numbers. Getting these smaller items instead of focusing mostly on multibillion- dollar ship, submarine and heavy-armoured vehicle programs is essential for the review to recommend.

Without a step change to Defence’s speed of delivery, it’s hard to see the Albanese government spending more taxpayer dollars on defence, even in these dangerous times.

Despite the Defence budget growing from around $34bn in 2016 to $48.6bn now on a path to $70bn by 2030, Defence’s current plans are already unaffordable. So, without more money, cuts will have to be made and things already agreed will need to be shelved, slimmed or stopped.

That’s because these budgets were set in 2016. Since then, big commitments have been added into the funding bucket, notably AUKUS and its eight nuclear submarines.

So, debates about whether to spend 2 per cent of GDP on defence are overtaken by events. Doing anything more requires the government to make the case for spending more like 2.5-3 per cent on defence to the Australian public and the parliament. The review has to kick start this confronting conversation.

But it’s not all about what our own military can do to keep Australia and our region safe. Australia is incredibly fortunate to be in two of the most powerful new “minilateral” groupings – the Quad partnership between Australia, Japan, India and the US and AUKUS. We can help these minilaterals succeed by investing in expanded facilities to support these partners’ forces operating with our own out of Australian locations.

That means delivering on the “force posture” part of the review.

Finally ending the Chinese lease on Darwin port and investing in that strategic site, expanding the north’s ability to support military forces, growing the Stirling naval base near Perth and partnering with PNG on a decent base on Manus Island are all powerful moves.

That leaves Smith and Houston to determine what to do about the Collins-class submarines having to be retired before enough nuclear submarines turn up, and whether to accept, cancel or trim the army’s bid to spend $20-27bn to buy 450 more heavy-armoured vehicles.

Armoured vehicle decisions generate enormous emotions, but step one is to test the rationale for more investment in a heavy land force that Defence already can’t deploy or sustain in our maritime region. An alternative for the army is to be more like the US Marine Corps than the big US Army – operating as small, lethal, dispersed teams instead of securing fixed bases in others’ countries and preparing for large land battles.

It’s the “capability gap” from the subs problem that matters more, though.

Submarines are just one way of striking an adversary at a distance. Whether to skip upgrading the old Collins and buy a new submarine to get through to when the nuclear ones turn up is one thing to decide. But there are other ways to increase Australia’s long range strike capability.

The options here are broad enough to take every day of the review’s remaining six months. Arming the unarmed Offshore Patrol Vessels will get some more missiles to sea. Buying the new B-21 long range bomber the Americans have fast-tracked would give an enormous lift to the range and lethality of Australia’s military. And alternatives like long range missiles or weapons able to be launched from drones operating on the surface, under the sea or in the air can also provide this kind of strike capability.

The March 2023 deadline seems distant but is rushing up fast. It’s looming as a decisive moment for the Albanese government to demonstrate its wisdom, creativity and a sense of urgency on national security.



Michael Shoebridge is the Director of Strategic Analysis Australia.

This article was first published in The Australian on 4 October 2022.