The Task Ahead for Rapid Capability Enhancement in Australian Defense

In December 1941, Prime Minister John Curtin wrote about the security challenges facing Australia in an article called “The Task Ahead.” He described the following year, 1942, as one in which there would be “an immense change in Australian life” to address the perils of the Japanese advance through Southeast Asia and the South Pacific. Curtin wrote about “reshaping, in fact, revolutionising, of the Australian way of life until a war footing is attained quickly.”

In some respects, the national challenge Curtin described in the bleak days of 1941 mirrors the challenge confronting the current Australian government. In Ukraine, not only is a young democracy fighting for its life, but the entire world has also been shocked in the realization that large-scale war can still occur, and that it remains a distinct possibility in Asia as well as Europe.

Australia, having divested itself from 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.

Just as Curtin was thinking about the next year or two in his article, Australian defense leaders should also shift their mindset from procurement programs looking beyond a decade, to programs that can deliver in the next three to five years. Curtin was not thinking about the longer-term force structure of 1950 or 1960 when he wrote those words, but the current Australian defense leadership still retains such an outlook.

Therefore, the announcement of a review of Australia’s defense strategy this week comes at just the right time. As Ukraine has demonstrated, good strategy matters. Ukrainians have proven to be outstanding at integrating all of their national assets into a single unified strategy to repel the Russian invasion. Whether it is their military operations, information operations, the mobilization and unification of their people, or the solicitation of massive aid from the West, Ukrainians have proven to be masterful strategists. There is much Australian government and defense leaders might learn from this approach. But this review will be about more than strategy.

It should deliver enhanced defense capabilities at a faster rate than any Australian government has done since the World War II. The Chinese, drawing strategic lessons from the Ukraine war, may well advance their timeline for action against Taiwan or lean even further forward into the development of operating bases in our region. As Yun Sun has written in a recent article in Foreign Affairs, President Xi Jinping may become even more aggressive in outlook once the October party Congress is complete. She writes that Xi “will have less to prove to his domestic audience. But he will have all the power and the opportunity he needs to pursue his ‘China Dream.’”

Key Themes in the New Defense Review

  1. Time is of the essence. It is a commodity rarely prized in Canberra but is one that Australia has very little of in preparing itself for a growing and more assertive Chinese Communist Party and People’s Liberation Army. The review should be completed quickly (a five-month turnaround will be a record, if achieved) and every recommendation should be capable of implementation in the next three to five years, or by the end of the decade at the latest.
  1. The rapid development of an effective approach to deterrence with capabilities that the Chinese fear is vital. There are those whose view is that nuclear submarines and B-21 bombers are exactly what is needed. Perhaps. But the reality is that these are champagne capabilities for a nation with a Jim Beam bourbon budget. And they will not be available for more than a decade. Australia needs different, asymmetric capabilities that deter the Chinese in the physical, diplomatic, and information domains now. As such, the procurement of available long-range strike missiles, launched from mobile, survivable air, land, and sea platforms, will be vital. If possible, these should (eventually) be built in large numbers in Australia. A strategic deterrent should also include a large expansion in capacity to generate influence beyond Australia’s shores, and an ability to work with regional allies and partners.

This means developing the ability to undertake a range of different military operations that will deny an adversary the ability to maneuver unhindered within thousands of kilometers of Australia’s shores. While Australia’s defense forces have useful crewed land, air, and sea capabilities to do this, Canberra will probably need to procure additional crewed systems as well as substantially expand the size of uncrewed drone systems. Australia needs swarms of these autonomous systems that can deny airspace, interdict maritime and subsurface platforms, and operate across the many large and small islands of the Indo-Pacific. Land capability is critical. History provides multiple examples of countries that have hoped to win the next war in just the air or at sea but have been frustrated by the reality that winning wars means fighting people on the ground. This pertains to future competition and conflict in the Indo-Pacific as well.  

There are no silver bullet solutions to the development of an Australian deterrence capability. The challenge demands a wide range of different solutions that can be combined and adapted in different ways to anticipate and address distinct and evolving threats.

  1. The Australian Defence Force (ADF) adoption of new and disruptive technologies should be accelerated. The Defence Science and Technology Group, while having made some significant contributions in its history, should be reformed to move more quickly. Its approach to innovation is sclerotic. The recently formed Defence Artificial Intelligence Centre has been understaffed and under resourced and is so ineffective that each service has established its own artificial intelligence programs. Defense needs a separate organization that can rapidly work with defense and other industries to develop new technologies that allow the ADF to indirectly target, deter, and hurt an adversary. The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) is a good model. But perhaps a joint AUKUS DARPA might be even better.
  1. Australia needs to enhance its military and national resilience. Air and missile defense in the ADF is in a parlous state. Currently, the ADF would be unable to defend most of its existing bases against missile or air attack, let alone cities. At the same time, Australia remains virtually defenseless against autonomous systems. As Ukraine has shown, no country has effective defenses against drones. This has to change, and quickly. But such resilience will also necessitate a stepped-up approach to civil defense. The ADF has suffered a significant degradation in its warfighting preparedness over the past two years because of the range of domestic support tasks it has undertaken. An expansion of state-based full-time and part-time emergency services is required, which should be underpinned by a national service scheme for young Australians. The perils of the coming years means that the ADF must focus on its core warfighting missions and provide civil support only in extremis. As I have written previously, "the ADF is too small and too busy to continue to be the first responder of choice for the federal government.”
  1. Australia needs new and different mechanisms for thinking about national security. Presently, defense is largely resistant to external ideas. It has even resisted the development of joint organization for the development of future warfighting concepts. Those ideas it does pretend to listen to come from within the Canberra environment from a very few voices in the limited number of think tanks. The government needs to foster a larger ecosystem of institutions outside Canberra to generate a more diverse range of ideas warfighting, strategy, domestic support, and defense policy.
  1. Defense should take risks. Its processes, which are perfect for the slow, low tempo 1990s, are largely irrelevant to the current world. The primary driver in its current procurement and promotion processes is the total removal risk to government and defense leadership. This review gives the minister the opportunity to provide a much broader appetite for risk tolerance, and for a “fail fast” culture. There is little time, and the minister should ensure he has the right leaders in place to nurture such a culture.
  1. While there is a clear and present threat presented by China, Canberra should not assume that this review will predict every possible military scenario. Indeed, democracies have proven to be poor at predicting the exact form of the next war. The war in Ukraine has shown, once again, that ambiguity and uncertainty are key features of the international system. The old idea of “fog of war” has new meaning in a world where one can access all the information one wants, but still be none the wiser about what is taking place. Because of this, Australia will need a range of lethal, networked and survivable and supportable air, land, sea, space, and cyber capabilities so it can quickly adapt to a range of potential threats across the Indo-Pacific.

The defense review team has a massive task that should be completed quickly. While there have been many reviews of Australian defense over the decades, almost none of them are likely to be important as this one. It will not get everything right, given the limited time available. But it should be given the latitude to challenge extant structures, basing, technologies, and most importantly ideas, and it should then oversee changes at a very fast pace. The profound challenge of Australia’s environment means that the leaders of this review, Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston and Stephen Smith, have a very big task ahead.

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

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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