Australia’s New National Defence Strategy: Mostly Continuity but with Some Change

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A new National Defence Strategy (NDS) was recently released by the Australian government. The document is aligned with the 2023 Defence Strategic Review and was released alongside a Defence Integrated Investment Program, which includes platform and weapons priorities.

One of the foundational ideas of the document is that Australia is adopting what is described as a “strategy of denial” as a key pillar of defense planning. Placing deterrence at the center of defense strategy is hardly a new concept, but it is one that has not been well developed in Australia’s defense thinking. In the Australian context, deterrence is a term that has generally lacked the specificity and investment that is characteristic of other powers such as the United States, Russia, and the United Kingdom.

Deterrence, or the phrase “to deter,” is also frequently used in Australia’s contemporary strategic documents, especially in the no-longer-produced defense white papers. The 1994 defense white paper noted that “defence capabilities will be developed so we can continue to be able to deter or defeat any credible armed attack.” The 2009 defense white paper described how “the principal task for the ADF is to deter and defeat armed attacks on Australia.” In 2016, this strategic task was described as the need to “deter, deny and defeat attacks on or threats to Australia and its national interests.”

The 2020 Defence Strategic Update noted that “it is the Government’s intent that Australia take greater responsibility for . . . [its] own security. It is therefore essential that the ADF grow its self-reliant ability to deliver deterrent effects.” But as Stephan Fruhling and Andrew O’Neil write in Alliances, Nuclear Weapons and Escalation, “in Australia’s case, deterrence has emerged as a prominent concept in the country’s 2020 Defence Strategic Update. Yet, the underlying concept remains highly abstract and focused on capabilities rather than the political credibility or circumstances underlying how these capabilities would be used.”

The new National Defence Strategy goes some way in addressing this issue. However, the lack of a theory of conventional deterrence for middle powers reflects an intellectual gap in contemporary deterrence and strategic studies. It is a topic that would benefit from additional investment.

Despite this, a deterrence by denial approach is the most appropriate one for Australia. The alternatives, deterrence by punishment or retaliation, are probably well beyond Australia’s resources. Therefore, Australia has traditionally embraced a defense strategy that focuses on deterrence by denial. The new National Defence Strategy is largely a continuation of this approach. It is the resourcing and force structure elements of achieving this deterrence by denial approach that are seeing change.

The resources to be made available to the Australian military are described in the strategy and the accompanying integrated investment plan. Australia’s defense budget is planned to be doubled in the coming decade. This will permit investments in maritime, intelligence, logistics, aerial, and land capabilities, including long-range surveillance and strike systems. Investment in submarines (17 percent of the total budget) will be the largest single budget item over the coming decade. This is larger than the total budgets for land (16 percent) or air forces (14 percent). Any significant growth (or overruns) in submarine programs will inevitably eat into the capabilities and readiness of other domain forces.

Overall, the strategy outlines a large array of military investments that are appropriate for Australia’s geography and strategic outlook. But three key challenges remain.

First, there is the question of whether the current government is moving fast enough. The Australian government has spent the past two years studying the strategic environment. The NDS provides a plan to respond to that environment, but it may not deliver the right capabilities at the right time to achieve the strategic deterrence effect the government desires. Many of the major platforms, including most of the navy’s new surface fleet and the nuclear-powered submarines, won’t arrive until at least the 2030s (if production stays on schedule). Some risk mitigation is provided by the faster delivery of munitions, such as the Precision Strike Missile, the Long-Range Anti‑Ship Missile, and Tomahawks. However, the pace at which the ADF is introducing uncrewed systems is extraordinarily slow. Despite investment in advanced systems such as the Ghost Bat and uncrewed submersibles, these are very small fleet acquisitions. As such, the ADF still appears to be resisting the lessons of Ukraine and elsewhere in the massed use of uncrewed surveillance and strike drones in the air and in the maritime environment.

A second challenge is scale. Although in five to ten years the ADF may still be big enough to comprise an effective deterrent and response force, even after the investment plan is delivered, Australia’s military will still only be composed of a small force of around 80,000 personnel. This force size can be useful for regional engagement and providing bespoke contributions to U.S. operations, but the question is whether the future ADF will be large enough to pose a threat in the minds of potential adversaries. Like other nations, Australia is currently experiencing recruiting problems, and the all-volunteer force model is under pressure. Perhaps a squandered opportunity for the NDS was the lack of discussion about national mobilization. The industrial, societal, and personnel aspects of rapidly expanding defense capacity in times of peril are logical elements of a deterrence strategy. These elements are also ones that need to be communicated to the Australian public. This is a strategic conversation that the current government appears unwilling to have publicly.

A final challenge is that the NDS is an orphan document in the national security enterprise. One of the characteristics of this government is that it has resisted the development of a national security strategy which would align national security objectives (not just military strategy) with the full array of national resources. Australian strategist and academic Rory Metcalf has eloquently made the case for such a strategy in recent years. The orchestration and prioritization of national security aims and resources, made available for scrutiny to taxpayers, is a crucial missing piece of Australia’s national security enterprise.

Notwithstanding these issues, the National Defence Strategy is a timely update that explains Australia’s strategic circumstances as well as the trajectory of the current government’s policy. The improvements in military capabilities that will be delivered over the coming years, particularly in land, air, and naval long-range strike systems, will give Australia an improved capacity to implement a deterrence by denial strategy. They will also ensure a useful response capability for challenges in the South Pacific and beyond and the ability to work closely with the United States, Japan, and other regional partners. The key challenges moving forward will be the rapid and disciplined implementation of the strategy as well as Australia’s ability to adapt to further changes in the strategic environment.

Mick Ryan is an adjunct fellow (non-resident) with the Australia Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Mick Ryan
Adjunct Fellow (Non-resident), Australia Chair