A New Defense Review for Australia

On April 24, 2023, Australia’s federal government finally released the Defence Strategic Review. The publicly released version of the review is part of a larger classified version that will guide Australian defense thinking at least until the end of this decade. And while there are strategic imperatives behind the Australian Labor government’s decision to conduct the review, several political imperatives have also shaped its conduct.

First, the government needs to reprioritize the defense budget. The previous coalition government left a program of unfunded defense projects which needed trimming of funding. Making this challenge more compelling, the March 2023 announcement of the AUKUS submarine plan means the government needs to find up to 360 billion AUD to fund its nuclear-powered submarine program.

A second political driver for the report is the desire of the left-of-center government to assume the mantle of a reliable government for national security. In Australia, conservative governments have traditionally been associated with stronger national security credentials. The Albanese Labor government will be hoping this review will assist in a shift in sentiment among citizens on this issue.

Back in August 2022, CSIS examined the announcement of a new Defence Strategic Review, describing at that time how “Australia, having divested itself of large parts of its manufacturing capacity and not having invested in innovative thinking about future military and defense strategies and operations for many years, needs to reinvigorate its thinking and action rapidly.”

That commentary forecast the key issues that this review would need to examine and hopefully resolve if Australia were to address the significant changes occurring in the Indo-Pacific security environment. These challenges were (1) using time well and moving quickly, (2) the rapid development of deterrent capabilities, (3) the acceleration of adopting disruptive technologies, (4) enhancing military and national resilience, and (5) new mechanisms for thinking about Australia’s national security.

How has the review scored on these issues? There is good and bad news. The review acknowledges that Australia can no longer rely on warning time for conflicts as it has in the past. As the review notes, the current strategic situation “necessitates an urgent call to action, including higher levels of military preparedness and accelerated capability development.” But even further, the review advocates for “a move away from a business-as-usual approach to policy development, risk management and Defence preparedness.” And the fact that the review was completed so quickly is a good thing. This sets a good example for the Department of Defence to emulate. However, caution is warranted. Previous defense reviews have also advocated for similar urgency with little changes occurring in the department. And, the review proposes several subsequent reviews, such as one on the size of the naval fleet, which will slow down change.

On deterrence, the new review goes into some detail about deterrence and the adoption of a deterrence by denial strategy. Being able to design a force to deter potential adversaries means Australia needs to be able to project its power to longer distances against potential adversaries. Missiles are the chosen mechanism for this, with the USAF B21 bomber being explicitly ruled out. That the review goes into some detail about the requirement for a new approach to deterrence is positive. However, deterrence by denial rests on a clear purpose, particularly about who is being deterred and why, and is founded on an understanding of an adversary’s risk calculus. But who is being deterred is conspicuously absent from review. By now, it is hardly a secret that China is the nation in question.

On the acceleration of disruptive technologies, the news is mainly good. Not only is their endorsement of significant investment in long- and medium-range missiles welcomed, the widespread deployment of autonomous systems also has strong support. But beyond this, there is also support for advanced capabilities such as nuclear-propelled submarines, as well as collaboration on advanced technologies under AUKUS Pillar 2. And there is a new government program to be established called the Advanced Strategic Capabilities Accelerator (ASCA). This is designed to fill an existing gap between the Department of Defence and Australian companies. It is likely to be located outside of the Department of Defence but receives priorities from the government and works with industry to develop innovative asymmetric capabilities.

Enhancing resilience is an important part of the review. There are recommendations about increasing Australia’s ability to defend itself against air, missile, and drone attacks as well as attacks in the cyber and space domains. At the same time, broader industrial resilience is an important pillar of the report. Australia’s capacity to manufacture guided weapons and explosive ordnance will be expanded, and this will be part of an accelerated preparedness posture. Beyond this, the report also proposes that the Department of Defence be used less in disaster relief, with state and federal agencies developing more capacity for this function, as part of national resilience efforts, in the years ahead.

Finally, the review proposes the adaptation to current strategic planning mechanisms. The old intermittent cycle of Department of Defence white papers has been dispensed with. Instead, a more holistic approach will be adopted, and biennial national defense strategies developed. The first of these will be delivered in 2024.

If viewed through the lens of these five measures proposed in 2022, the newly released Defence Strategic Review would appear to be an overwhelmingly positive document. And mainly, there is much to be commended. However, several issues are apparent that will require closer examination and resolution in the coming weeks and months.

The first, and most important, is finance. The review contains minimal information about defense budgets over the coming decade. Despite the reallocation of nearly 8 billion AUD from the army to fund some of the review’s initiatives, there is little long-term budgetary certainty. This will have to change, particularly with the AUKUS submarine funding demand bearing down on the Australian government’s coffers for the next several decades.

Another area where the review has not provided much detail is military personnel. The document needed to explain the challenges of recruiting, training, educating, leading, and retaining sufficient people to tackle the fundamental changes to force structure and readiness proposed by the review. Instead, workforce challenges are covered in a page and half of a 116-page document. There is no discussion about the size of the future force, its funding, nor the rationale for recruiting reform.

A third area is joint integration. There are good sections on joint operations, and the need to continue deepening Australia’s alliances and international relationships. But the new integrated force described by the review has no mention of the two principal integrating mechanisms in contemporary military operations, the development of joint leaders, and the construction of a secure, artificial intelligence-enabled digital battle command and control network to link the integrated force.

A fourth area is the description of threat. The review needs to explain to the Australian people the magnitude of changes in the security environment. This includes the profound, and for some countries existential, threat posed by techno-authoritarian dictatorships such as Russia and China. The review does this, but only generically. Lessons from the most consequential war of the twenty-first century so far, Ukraine, are totally absent. The Defence Strategic Review makes little to no mention of specific threats posed by China, which is described in the public versions of the U.S. and Japanese national defense strategies released in 2022. This denies Australians a full understanding of the strategic factors driving the fundamental changes proposed in the review.

In conclusion, there is much in Australia’s new Defence Strategic Review to be commended. There is certainly enough direction within for the Australian Defence Force (ADF) to begin a rapid implementation of the many recommendations. But at the same time, issues such as budgets, personnel, joint integration, and communicating the threat to the public will need further work in the coming months and years. The nature of the threat and the speed at which it is evolving mean that the Australian government has work to do in better explaining strategic threats and challenges as the key elements of the review are implemented. This will be vital if the ADF is to be a more lethal, deployable, and resilient force that can work alongside its allies to deter conflict and aggression in the Indo-Pacific.

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