Rapidly shifting contexts drive tough decisions. For Australia, that context is a more entitled China, a disrupted, multipolar environment driven by technological competition, and with the conflict in Europe, a possible return to an age of blood and iron—and potentially, nuclear war.
Such an environment drives urgency and a willingness to upgrade, step up and adapt. And there is that flavour in the public statements in the leadup to the release of the unclassified version of the Defence Strategic Review (DSR). That leads me to two key elements: the changing aperture of the government’s strategic vision; and the realisation of the DSR’s ambition.
Both Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles and Foreign Minister Penny Wong have addressed how they see the region and Australia’s strategic needs for some months.
Minister Marles, for example, has spoken of the need for ‘impactful projection’ since late 2022. On 27 February 2023 he further argued that advantages previously afforded Australia by its geography were diminished and ‘far less relevant’. His solution was expansive, referring to the need for a ‘full spectrum’ of proportionate response, for a regional balance that contributed to regional stability, and for collective security across the entire Indo-Pacific, along with the importance of diplomacy.
Senator Wong in her turn gave a well-crafted speech on 17 April 2023, emphasising the need for coherence and statecraft, and the importance of deterrence to diplomacy. The region’s balance, she argued, was underwritten by military capability able to deliver ‘deterrent effects’—the ability to hold others’ forces and infrastructure at risk from a greater distance.
Unfortunately, much of this messaging has been lost in the unclassified DSR. ‘Impactful projection’ now means missiles of perhaps 1000kms, rather than the current 100kms. True, that’s an order of magnitude improvement, but still only the distance between Canberra and Brisbane, and at best halfway to the southern part of the South China Sea from Darwin. That’s not much reach.
Deterrence has also been reduced to a much smaller scope, to deterrence by denial, rather than the broader concept—set out at 4.2 of the DSR—of deterrence by denial, dissuasion, or punishment.
It also begs the question: deterrence of whom, from what, under which conditions? As Wong has argued, China’s rise cannot be deterred. And it’s hard to see the Communist Party of China being compelled to change its mind on a wide range of issues just because the ADF might hold the sea approaches to Australia’s north. And that begs a further, unaddressed, question: what happens should deterrence fail?
The aperture of strategic effect has narrowed. The unclassified DSR, at paragraph 2.6, identifies a military limited to south of the second island chain—a traditional Defence of Australia posture. There are strong echoes of a 1980s world than of the early years of a highly disruptive, uncertain, and potentially more lethal 21st century.
Yet elsewhere the unclassified DSR implies a greater ambition, though it does not offer a clear path to that end. And it that will take time and considerable strategic savvy—after all, there is more than one strategic balance in the Indo-Pacific.
Then there is the question of delivery. The free kicks given to well-known and long-standing internal deficiencies, such as CIOG, fuel, and infrastructure—many the result of the wickedness of intractable public policy problems, leadership, and inability to compete against the needs of military operations, for example—does not lend confidence that Defence will be able to deliver.
More worrying, the unclassified DSR offers a patchy vision of a nation and economy ideally run to Defence’s timetable and needs. That’s disappointing, not least as it undervalues the strengths of an open, free market, liberal democracy, and a robust federal system.
Moreover, while the prospect of Defence money will lure many, there will be much less interest, including in state governments, to working to Defence’s drumbeat. The Federal Government will need to find incentives and structures suitable to a capitalist system, and that strengthens democracy, rather than relying on press release or fiat.
We can only hope that the classified version still has the rigour, coherence, and a forward-leaning posture, some of which has been lost in the public rewrite.
But keeping too much direction and insight behind classified walls also has problems. That can impede the whole-of-government approach, and the cooperation between federal and state governments, needed for a ‘national defence’ strategy. Departments responsible, for example, for infrastructure, energy, education and industry, all elements of national power, are less likely to be engaged constructively.
And over-classification obscures accountability. Speed, rigour, and contestability are all needed for assurance around delivery and for the ethical, economic, and effective expenditure of taxpayer funds. It’s hard to hold a department on secret orders to public account, risking ongoing public support for growing expenditure.
The DSR authors have recognised that something more is needed and proposed governance arrangements comprising three tiers—Cabinet, ‘external oversight advisors’, and the existing departmental leadership. Yet it’s far from clear how those arrangements will allow for sufficient control, contestability, and informed opportunities for intervention or the means to drive needed change, or the transparency and accountability that builds public confidence.
And there is more work is to come, from a review of ships, a defence industry statement, and a DFAT-led approach to statecraft—and, one must assume, other work behind the classified wall.
Finally, a few thoughts on the planned biennial national strategy. That process must engage in a rigorous questioning of basic assumptions and a clear-eyed assessment of Australia’s strategic circumstances and capacity. If allowed to atrophy, fall prey to justification of past decisions and the temptation of short-termism, or lose strategic vision, it risks the same criticisms levelled at the white papers. And, as we have seen with this review, it may also be a vehicle for decision paralysis, with programs and activity let drift pending the release of a new statement.
The DSR does serve to continue the process of necessary change identified in the 2020 Defence Strategic Update to meet a more threatening, disruptive security environment. It remains to be seen whether Defence can summon the wherewithal to overcome its institutional inertia to achieve the velocity and adaptability needed. Strong ministerial direction and tough decisions that Defence may be unwilling to make itself will need to be part of the recipe for success.
Lesley Seeback is a Senior Fellow at Strategic Analysis Australia.