Angus Houston and Stephen Smith have delivered a blaring wake-up call to any Australians who think they still live in a sanctuary of safety at the southern edge of the Earth: you’re living in the past.
To those inside and outside the Australian Defence Force who think business-as-usual will cut it in the future: you’re delusional.
Their message to anyone confused about the biggest threat to Australia’s national security is similarly blunt: it is our largest trading partner, China.
Like a pair of doctors delivering confronting news to an ill patient, the two men tasked with reshaping Australia’s military for the 21st century have opted for admirable candour in their defence strategic review.
Rejecting vague language about rising tensions in the Indo-Pacific, the former defence chief and defence minister call out just one nation – China – for threatening Australia’s core interests.
“China’s military build-up is now the largest and most ambitious of any country since the end of the Second World War,” they write in the declassified version of their review, a slim volume of 110 pages that packs a hefty rhetorical punch.
While crediting China’s rise for boosting the Australian economy, they say: “This build-up is occurring without transparency or reassurance to the Indo-Pacific region of China’s strategic intent.
“China’s assertion of sovereignty over the South China Sea threatens the global rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific in a way that adversely impacts Australia’s national interests.
“China is also engaged in strategic competition in Australia’s near neighbourhood.”
The last time Australia called in an outside expert for a check-up on the health of the military, the verdict was far rosier.
To read Paul Dibb’s landmark 1986 defence review today is to travel back in time to the dying days of the Cold War, an era when Australia could accurately be described as “one of the most secure countries in the world”.
“Australia faces no identifiable military threat and there is every prospect that our favourable security circumstances will continue,” Dibb wrote.
“Global war between the superpowers is most unlikely and provides no basis for planning our force structure.”
Just as Dibb deserved credit for not inflating the threat of war, Smith and Houston should be praised for explaining how the world has radically changed in the past 37 years.
“Major power competition in our region has the potential to threaten our interests, including the potential for conflict,” they write.
While an outright invasion of the continent remains only a “remote” possibility, they point out that adversaries could seek to disrupt Australia’s crucial trade and supply routes and launch crippling cyberattacks on critical infrastructure assets.
“The rise of the ‘missile age’ in modern warfare, crystallised by the proliferation of long-range precision strike weapons, has radically reduced Australia’s geographic benefits, the comfort of distance and our qualitative regional capability edge,” they state.
They say this will require the nation to adopt an entirely new defence doctrine, abandoning the previous view that Australia faced only low-level threats from a small or middle power.
The classified version of Smith and Houston’s review – which has been kept secret from the public but is shaping the government’s thinking – is believed to go into even more explicit detail about China, including examining how Australia could be drawn into a potential war over Taiwan.
But while the review’s diagnoses are striking, the remedies being administered to revive the military so far lack the same sense of scale and urgency.
The government has made some tough calls: most notably by slashing the number of new infantry fighting vehicles from 450 to 129, a move that had been fiercely resisted by the army’s leadership.
But other big decisions have been kicked down the road, reflecting the fast pace of Smith and Houston’s eight-month review.
A separate review on the navy’s surface fleet will report back later this year with possible recommendations to cut expensive frigates and patrol vessels.
Similarly, a new two-yearly national defence strategy, to be launched next year, will provide a “comprehensive outline of defence policy, planning, capabilities and resourcing” – exactly what had been expected from Smith and Houston’s document.
The strategic review has made a powerful case for a transformation of the nation’s military to respond to the rise of a more belligerent China. It’s now up to the government to deliver the tough medicine required to turn their vision into reality.
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