Shaping a Way Ahead for Australian Defence: The Perspective of Malcolm Davis

By Robbin Laird

During my current visit to Australia in support of the 27 September 2023 seminar, I had a chance to visit with my colleague Malcolm Davis.

Dr. Davis is a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Canberra and has focused a good deal of attention in the recent past on the importance for and the need to develop Australian sovereign space capabilities as part of the way ahead for Australian defence policy.

There has been significant concern within defence circles in Australia about the government releasing a hard-hitting defence review which called for enhanced defence capability relevant to dealing with the challenges in the Pacific and then the failure to increase defence spending.

We started there in our conversation.

Davis made it clear that we are in a very difficult period of history in which Australia needs to enhance its capabilities both to protect its sovereign interests and to work with allies in the region.

According to Davis: “The DSR talks about the strategic outlook as being much more adverse and uncertain, but then does nothing really to address that threat into it within a reasonable timeframe.

“We seem to still be locked in the sort of paradigm and mindset that we have embraced really since the 1980s. We have a slow, steady capability acquisition process that takes 10 or 20 years to deliver new capabilities.

“This is simply not relevant to the threat environment in which we now exist.”

He warned: “We haven’t got ourselves into a mindset that would be more suitable for what might be called a pre-war period. It’s not just about capabilities in terms of hardware; it’s also about sustainment, mobilization, and readiness.

“All of these capabilities are a national level challenge, not simply for the ADF to deal with. Issues such as onshore oil refineries to produce fuel for vehicles, or ships or aircraft or the hardening of key critical infrastructure against kinetic and non-kinetic attack are significant tasks which need to be addressed.

“Strategic risks for Australia are growing not simply because of the actions of Beijing and Moscow, but because of the inability of Western capitals and Western leadership’s to respond to these challenges as well.”

We discussed the importance of leveraging new industrial technologies associated with the 4th industrial revolution to rebuild the Australian manufacturing sector and to do so as part of a larger allied effort to shape a 21st century arsenal of democracy.

We have seen a very robust arsenal of authoritarianism in operation in Ukraine which has challenged the West to rethink its manufacturing capabilities, many of which have been outsourced to China.

Dr. Davis underscored the need to build for the kind of strategic resilience which Australia will need in the event of protracted conflict. The wars of choice so called were fought far from Australian shores and the West collectively built a support structure uncontested by a major power. That simply is not the case when facing major authoritarian powers.

The point is rather simple: the DSR has not lead to any evident actions by the government to address resilience.

Davis expressed concern that the delay in actions on shipbuilding which are being pushed to next year by the government are being done largely for budgetary reasons. The government may be waiting until they have a better sense of the economic situation next year and its impact on the budget before making any further defence procurement decisions.

Dr. Davis has done a lot of work on the way ahead to shape an Australian national space capability and its importance for Australian sovereignty. He has been an advocate for the importance of having sovereign launch capability.

But he sees the current government retracting from the past government’s efforts to build a national space policy, and such capabilities are crucial for the kind of sovereign capabilities which the DSR underscores as well.

The discussion with Dr. Davis reminds me of a note which an Australian colleague sent me during my time here. He wrote:  “I think there’s a strong case to discuss preparedness more than capabilities now.”

See also the following:

The DSR and “Impactful Projection”