Australia’s military must become ‘focused force’ to combat ‘missile age’ in Indo-Pacific

The Australian military will be rapidly transformed to prepare for a possible conflict triggered by China and the United States’ increasingly tense superpower rivalry as the federal government junks the fundamental principles that have guided Australian defence policy since World War II.

The defence strategic review, which lays the foundation for the biggest shake-up to the nation’s military in decades, states bluntly that the Australian Defence Force (ADF) is not equipped for a “missile age” of modern warfare that has dramatically reduced the previous benefits of Australia’s geographic isolation.

The review, conducted by former defence minister Stephen Smith and Defence Force chief Angus Houston, calls for major spending on long-range strike capability across all branches of the defence force, the purchase of drones and the rapid development of a local missile manufacturing industry.

Former defence minister Stephen Smith and former defence chief Angus Houston, pictured with Defence Minister Richard Marles at the announcement of the review in August 2022.

Alex Ellinghausen

The government has adopted all the review’s recommendations in full or in-principle and plans to spend an extra $19 billion on defence over the four-year budget forward estimates.

This will be offset by $7.8 billion in savings including major cuts to the Army’s infantry fighting vehicles and howitzer artillery weapons revealed last week.

Defence spending will rise significantly in coming decades as a result of the review, well above 2 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) but the government will not state a new GDP figure.

Difficult decisions about possible cuts to the Navy’s surface fleet – including reduced numbers frigates and offshore patrol vessels – will be put off until a separate newly announced review is completed later this year.

In the declassified version of the review released on Monday, Smith and Houston explicitly accuse China of damaging Australia’s national interests by threatening the rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific and refusing to be transparent about its dramatic military expansion.

Urging Australians to recognise that the nation’s closest ally, the United States, is no longer the sole dominant power in the Asia-Pacific region, the reviewers argue the return of great power competition should be seen as the “defining feature of our region and time”.

“As a consequence, for the first time in 80 years, we must go back to fundamentals, to take a first-principles approach as to how we manage and seek to avoid the highest level of strategic risk we now face as a nation: the prospect of major conflict in the region that directly threatens our national interest,” they state in the review.

Defence Minister Richard Marles clearly referenced China in his response to the review, writing: “A large-scale conventional and non-conventional military build-up without strategic reassurance is contributing to the most challenging circumstances in our region for decades.

“Combined with rising tensions and reduced warning time for conflict, the risks of military escalation or miscalculation are rising.”

Marles said the government agrees with the review’s central finding that the ADF, as currently constituted and equipped, is “not fully fit-for-purpose”.

Smith and Houston argue that the two dominant pillars of Australian defence policy since World War II – the “defence of Australia” doctrine and the maintenance of a “balanced” defence force – both need to be abandoned.

“The current Australian Defence Force (ADF) force structure is based on a ‘balanced force’ model that reflects a bygone era,” Smith and Houston state.

“It does not adequately address our new strategic environment.”

Rather than spreading itself thinly across multiple domains, the ADF needs to be a “focussed force” that is built around deterring potential adversaries from attacking Australia.

The “defence of Australia doctrine” held that the fundamental purpose of the Australian military was to respond to potential low-level threats from a small or medium power in our immediate region.

The review finds this doctrine has passed its used-by-date and should be replaced by “a new strategic conceptual approach of ‘national defence’, which encompasses the defence of Australia against potential threats arising from major power competition, including the possibility of conflict”.

“Adopting the national defence concept will be the most substantial and ambitious approach to Defence recommended to any Australian government since the Second World War,” they state.

More to come

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