What we’ve learned from the Defence Strategic Review
The Strategic Review requires a new mindset to deliver new results

The Strategic Review requires a new mindset to deliver new results

Written by

Michael Shoebridge

While there’s only a single paragraph devoted to it down on page 23, it’s clear that the Defence Strategic Review and the billions of dollars the government will spend on Defence over the next ten years is all about grappling with Chinese power in the Indo Pacific.

It’s also inescapable (if largely unsaid) that our efforts to deter China from conflict will be part of a collective defence effort with the US and our other allies and partners – notably Japan, India and, of course, the other AUKUS partner, the United Kingdom. South Korea didn’t get a mention in the public Review, but it is also a key defence power and partner we must work with.

A one liner tells us that the challenge to our security from China isn’t just a distant one somewhere around Taiwan or in the South China Sea. Instead, it’s got local: “China is also engaged in strategic competition in Australia’s near neighbourhood”.

This is behind the Review’s big idea that Australia should have a ‘strategy of denial’, delivered by a military with Anti-Access Area Denial capabilities like precision missiles in numbers, hardened and dispersed bases and forces and an Army that looks more like the US Marines than the big US Army. That’s good, because our Army needs to be able to fight in the Pacific like the Marines instead of being structured for land wars in places the Middle East or Europe.

We also hear that, right now, “Australia does not have effective defence capabilities relative to higher threat levels”. In other words, the Australian Defence Force currently is not capable of deterring China from playing the bigger security role it wants to in our near region, or capable of defeating Chinese military forces operating in our near region during a time of war.

That’ll be key to our own security and to Australia’s contribution to broader security in the event of a wider war. So it’s a big gap that must be fixed fast. Nuclear submarines arriving in the 2030s and 50s won’t do this.

There’s a lot in the Review and the government’s response to it about the changes being a fundamental shift from the Defence of Australia approach set out in Paul Dibb’s White Paper back in 1987. 

But on closer examination, the real change is from the Afghanistan and Iraq era, where niche Australian force elements – like the Special Forces or the Wedgetail Airborne Early Warning and Control aircraft – were plugged into larger US forces, with the US military and logistics system wrapping around and supplying anything the ADF didn’t have. So, the Review’s new approach of ‘National Defence’ is really more a return to and update of the Dibb Defence of Australia doctrine in the face of Chinese power. There’s a ‘self-reliance within the alliance framework’ here.

The Dibb Review resulted in northern defence bases and ‘bare bases’ like RAAF Scherger being built. The Strategic Review reinvests in them, re-equipping ageing bases and hardening them to be able to operate in a world where precision missiles are now an expected threat. And, just as the Dibb Review did, this new review sees the area from the Malacca Straits across the South Pacific as the primary area for our military to focus on, while working with allies and partners more broadly.

The difference from then to now is that instead of ‘thugs with thongs’ causing havoc in northern Australia, we now face the problem of a powerful Chinese military backed by a government that wants to play a big direct security role in the South Pacific – and who has found welcoming partners like Mr Sogavare in the Solomons to help them out.

The Review does some important work in focusing Defence’s delivery efforts and mindset on urgency – which must be about making a difference in this next three years, not at some distant time a decade or more from now. That’s because, as the Review bluntly puts it, “Strategically, we may already have entered a decisive period for the Indo Pacific”.

That brings a level of confusion though: if these next three years could be definitive, then how is it that no new money is going into Defence until later this decade? And why is so much of the design and implementation – including what sounds like radical change to how Defence works and thinks – being left to the Secretary and Chief of Defence Force, with some external advisers along to provide their thoughts?

Similarly, we hear that the Navy needs to shift its planned fleet to include more smaller vessels equipped with missiles – no doubt anti-ship as well as anti-air and land strike missiles. But just what is to happen to current projects like Lurssen’s construction of the large unarmed Offshore Patrol Vessels is to be examined by a further review of the Navy’s fleet to report later this year.

And the effort to establish any domestic ability to make all the missiles Australia’s military will be buying and will need in volume if a conflict does occur is still a slow one. The government has accepted the recommendation to appoint a senior officer to be responsible for this work. After years of effort on this Guided Weapons enterprise already, their first job is to work out a plan for what to do.

It’s encouraging to hear that the government will increase planned funding for Defence later this decade, because the nuclear submarines and lots of the ideas in this Review will suck more money into Defence if they are to happen.

It’s also encouraging to hear that a new Advanced Strategic Capabilities Agency is to be established, with the Review saying this “must be an unencumbered entity outside of Defence”. That would mean it wouldn’t be slowed down by lots of the business processes about acquisition that the Review says must change.

Maybe this new agency will be the one to push artificial intelligence systems into Defence to help with everything from logistics management to high speed cyber defence, demonstrating that Defence can match the speed of technological change in the wider world.

Overall, then the reshaping of the Army is a very welcome thing, as is the clearer focus on what the ADF must do – which will result in more changes to existing plans than we’ve heard so far. And the momentum to make a more capable Defence Force is growing, including efforts to supply it with all the ‘consumables’ from missiles to fuel it would need in a time of war.

The coyness about the need to be part of stronger collective deterrence of China with partners and allies in the region is unfortunate. So, while the Australian public isn’t getting a lot of frankness out of the Review, we can hope that Australian diplomats and officials are being more direct in private exchanges with partners in the region.

The test for this Strategic Review is not about the prose of the document or the Minister’s speeches about it. It will come from the delivery of the directions it sets out and the shift in how Defence itself operates and deals with its corporate partners – in ways that reverse decades of detailed, risk averse business processes and attitudes.

And the real metric for success will be whether our Defence Force can operate independently in our near region and do so with capabilities that are effective in the higher threat environment there – not from 2030 but starting from now and growing more capable over the next few years.

That provides a personal challenge for Richard Marles and a compelling one for every person in the Defence organisation and defence industry.