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Australia Has a New Defense Strategic Review

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Australia Has a New Defense Strategic Review

The Defense Strategic Review achieves its ambitious objective of providing a holistic consideration of Australia’s defense force structure and posture. 

Australia Has a New Defense Strategic Review
Credit: Depositphotos

On April 24, the day before ANZAC Day – a holiday in remembrance of those who have served and died in war – Australia released its Defense Strategic Review. This is the first chance for the public and international observers to see an unclassified version of an independent review by a former chief of defense and former defense minister along with the government’s response.

The Defense Strategic Review achieves its ambitious objective of providing a holistic consideration of Australia’s defense force structure and posture. The hope is that it does so in a way that does not contribute to escalation in the region.

The keynote of the review is on deterrence, and particularly on a strategy of denial through deterrence at a distance. It states the aim of the defense strategy as “to secure peace and prosperity” and presents Australia’s investment in stronger defense capabilities as a way “to help deter coercion and lower the risk of conflict.”

In Minister for Defense Richard Marles’ words, “We aim to change the calculus so no potential aggressor can ever conclude that the benefits of conflict outweigh the risks.”

The review notes Australia’s changing strategic circumstances, which include major power competition, the United States’ relative decline, disruptive technologies, nuclear proliferation, and the increased risk of miscalculation or misjudgment. It recognizes climate change as a significant national security issue. 

The review promotes a new doctrine it calls “National Defense.” This contrasts with previous approaches focusing on the “Defense of Australia” – protecting the Australian landmass and approaches – or on a more expeditionary mindset where Australia saw its role as throwing its weight behind a great power security guarantor even if it meant fighting far from home.

The doctrine of National Defense “encompasses the defense of Australia against potential threats arising from major power competition” through supporting “the maintenance of a regional balance of power in the Indo-Pacific.” This is described as being part of “a broader national strategy of whole-of-government coordinated and focused statecraft and diplomacy in our region.” 

National Defense is not about preparing for invasion. The review concludes, “There is a at present only a remote possibility of any power contemplating an invasion of our continent.” But geography is no longer a guaranteed protection for Australia, in particular from threats such as cyberattacks, disruption of sea lanes, and long-range missiles.

There is thus a need for Australia to be able to deter adversaries, particularly at a distance. The chosen approach is deterrence through denial (that is, deterring adversaries by reducing the benefits of engaging in an attack). Marles’ description is of “impactful projection” – being able to “hold an adversary at risk further from our shores.”

Applying this approach brings changes to Australia’s defense posture.

The government has accepted the recommendation to move from a “balanced force” – sometimes seen as having a bit of everything – to what it calls a “more focused force” to respond to the risks Australia faces. That means canceling or reducing some acquisitions (howitzers and land combat vehicles) and allocating funds to others (land-to sea-missiles and landing craft). There will be a review into the navy surface combat fleet. The focus is on submarines, improving precision strike capability, hypersonics, and longer-range precision guided munitions.

The review says that to maximize deterrence and denial, the Australian Defense Force (ADF) must evolve into a genuine integrated force across all five domains: maritime, land, air, space, and cyber. The review also recommends improving the ADF’s ability to operate from Australia’s northern bases.

There is a focus on improving the capacity to translate disruptive new technologies into capabilities, in close partnership with Australian industry. To speed up procurement, the review sets the aim of minimum viable capability in the shortest possible time. An impressive example of this is Ghost Shark program. An Advanced Strategic Capabilities Accelerator (ASCA) will be established to provide the missing link between Defense and innovative Australian companies.

There is also a focus on national resilience – an important aspect of deterrence in demonstrating national resolve – for example, in the ability to manufacture ammunition and explosives. There are recommendations to improve domestic fuel reserves and for defense procurement to move away from fossil fuels.

Finally, there is a focus on building partnerships in the region through both “deepening diplomatic engagement and stronger defense capabilities to help deter coercion and lower the risk of conflict.”

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the Defense Strategic Review is that it openly acknowledges that Defense cannot do it alone

As Marles said, “Australia’s foreign policy works with defense policy as essential and interdependent parts of how we make Australia stronger and more influential in the world.” This chimes well with Minister for Foreign Affairs Penny Wong’s comments that “effort cannot be left to one or another arm of the Australian Government. Our diplomats cannot do it alone, nor can our military… It takes investment in all elements of our national power.”

This is in line with increasing discussion of an all tools of statecraftapproach, which recognizes that investment in military hardware should not be the only way that Australia thinks about its security. recent paper by Asia-Pacific Development, Defense & Diplomacy Dialogue (AP4D) outlined the range of instruments through which Australia can generate international effects and discussed why all tools – including development and diplomacy – need to be respected and properly resourced.

This whole-of-government, whole-of-nation, all tools of statecraft approach was resoundingly endorsed in the Defense Strategic Review.

It is a watershed moment for a major defense planning document to recommend more funding for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and “the reversal of a long-term reduction in diplomatic resources. Our diplomatic capability must be resourced, directed and focused.”

The Defense Strategic Review promotes a new strategy for a new strategic environment, one that frames defense within a broader national strategy that harnesses all elements of national power. It will be interesting to see what the region makes of the National Defense approach to protecting Australia’s strategic interests.