Reassessing Australia’s Defense Policy

By Stephan Fruehling

Four years have now passed since the release of the 2016 defence white paper, the most recent comprehensive review of Australia’s defence policy and capability. The main contours of that document were set down as early as 2014, which was arguably too early to take full account of the geostrategic implications of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and China’s island-building in the South China Sea.

Since that time, the defence policy of Australia’s friends and allies in the northern hemisphere has changed dramatically and now focuses on major-power conflict with Russia and China. Calls for a new white paper or a reassessment of defence policy in Australia are also getting louder—Hugh White has provided the most eloquent and radical, but far from only, call for action.

Why did it take three years for the government to announce a ‘re-assessment of the strategic underpinnings of the 2016 Defence White Paper’? Compared with Scandinavia, NATO or Japan, Australia is less immediately exposed to Chinese and Russian military adventurism. In addition, three elements of the 2016 white paper have contributed to a relatively stable defence policy but also present particular challenges for the future:

a strategic policy setting that is so undefined that proponents of various policies could project their preferences onto the document

a stable defence investment plan that the Defence Department has been able to deliver with unusual fidelity, thanks to sufficient and predictable government funding, but which will deliver significant growth to critical capabilities only from the late 2020s at the earliest

the development of a continuous shipbuilding program that has already consumed much leadership attention and infrastructure investment, but will now lock in a significant part of the defence budget in perpetuity in return for efficiency and strategic agility that will, if at all, be realised only in future decades.

Although the 2016 white paper set out force structure priorities that reflected the demands of air and maritime operations in the Indo-Pacific, it nominally gave equal priority to the defence of Australia and its approaches, to security in Australia’s immediate neighbourhood, and to a stable Indo-Pacific region and rules-based global order.

It was the first white paper not to prioritise the defence of Australia, but it contained clear acknowledgement of the practical challenges that this entails. And while it was vague on what a ‘rules-based order’ might be, not restricting defence objectives geographically made it clear that Australia would consider supporting international coalition operations globally. Giving a central place to the concept of the ‘Indo-Pacific’ acknowledged the major challenge of the rise of China.

Eschewing the politically charged term ‘self-reliance’, the paper emphasised the need for Australian forces to be able to operate ‘independently’ instead. In this way, the white paper successfully skirted all the major policy debates of earlier years, which perhaps accounted most for its generally positive reception.

The cost of this fudge is that Australia’s current strategic policy contains remarkably little strategy, beyond the notion that working in partnership with countries close and afar somehow helps manage strategic risk. The presence of the ADF in general, and the navy in particular, in the Southwest Pacific and the wider Indo-Pacific has increased significantly since 2016. But those deployments are no indication of a coherent strategic policy framework, which would lay out the political–military cause-and-effect relationships through which government thinks the existence (and activities) of the ADF will translate into security outcomes and explain what Australia seeks to achieve though increased cooperation. Indeed, the few sentences of the navy’s strategy for 2022 (‘Plan Pelorus’) that are devoted to how it should operate focus almost exclusively on maintaining partnerships ‘to know and understand our region, our friends, and our threat’. Whereas the navies of Britain and Japan have a fairly clear, geographically grounded understanding of their strategic role in the defence of their home islands, Australia’s still does not.

The army, too, has been trying to develop a new future concept to replace the 2011 Plan Beersheba and the mid-2000s vision of a ‘hardened and networked army’, which remained the foundation for the army’s structure and acquisition projects even in the 2016 white paper. Given Australia’s geography, the army has always found it difficult to define its role and mission in a regional context, beyond the need for stabilisation operations in the Southwest Pacific. Under the current chief, Lieutenant General Rick Burr, it underwent a period of genuine reflection and analysis, resulting in the 2018 concept of ‘an army in motion’, which highlights accelerating regional strategic change and the consequent need for the army to be adaptable.

Burr’s statement also emphasises the blurring lines between cooperation, competition and conflict, and the need to fight at greater ranges than the army has traditionally considered, and into other domains (including the sea). Altogether, it presents a well-reasoned argument that the stability and predictability on which Plan Beersheba was predicated are no more, but not quite yet a clear road map to a new structure and purpose.

At the same time, the operational tempo for regional engagement isn’t slowing down. Whereas events since 2014 have pushed the US and its NATO allies to refocus on the possibility of major war, in Australia the ‘Pacific step-up’ has had the opposite effect. As a result, the ADF today remains focused on strategic demands that are ‘like the past, only more so’. That this continues to be appropriate to deal with the risks from an increasingly assertive China, and an increasingly unreliable US, is a difficult judgement to sustain.

Reassessing what the ADF is for is thus the most urgent question facing the current defence review—and it’s not a question that can be answered by simply narrating developments in Beijing, Washington or Tehran.

What are our Strategic Priorities?

The strategic policy chapter in the 2016 defence white paper doesn’t provide a framework to determine priorities for force structure, posture and employment. Old concepts such as ‘self-reliance’ have become divorced from their original strategic rationale, while a focus on what should be instrumental ‘partnerships’ has become an end in its own right.

Calls to give greater definition to strategic policy often argue for giving clear priority to the defence of Australia, regional stability or global stability. But all of those could be affected by a range of threats, so framing strategic policy around them requires many assumptions—each of which should be made explicit.

Merely asserting that great-power conflict is the main concern for defence policy is insufficient because it says nothing about how government wants to reduce that risk. And geographical priorities should be the outcome of, rather than an input to, the strategic policy framework.

A more fruitful approach takes inspiration from the distinction between the ‘cold war’, ‘limited war’ and ‘global war’ concepts found in the ‘strategic basis’ papers of the 1950s and 1960s—the last time Australian defence was primarily concerned with great-power conflict in the Indo-Pacific. Strategy, and hence requirements for force structure, posture and employment, vary significantly across those concepts. So a key requirement for strategic policy is to establish priorities among what we would today call ‘competition’, ‘limited war’ and ‘major war’—all three of which could arise from conflict with China.

In competition, Australia’s objective is to influence third countries by demonstrating our ability and willingness to support their security concerns and establish our broader political position as their preferred security partner. That includes practical support, relationship-building and signalling—including through the deployment of force—to third countries and adversaries that Australia is willing to bear the cost of countering hostile influence.

While Australia’s strategic objective is competitive influence, operational objectives and the types of forces required to operate forward would thus primarily reflect the partner country’s concerns (be they fisheries protection, counterterrorism or capacity-building for higher intensity operations). The competitive aspect would largely be reflected in the need to be able to offer more, on more attractive economic and/or political terms, than China. It implies a geographical focus on the inner arc, where our need and ability to compete for influence are greatest.

In contrast, ADF force structure has traditionally focused on limited war, in which countries use, or threaten to use, force in pursuit of specific, limited objectives. From the 1970s, the possibility of limited war with Indonesia was Australia’s main concern, and it remains a valid consideration for self-reliance.

Since the 2000s, the ADF’s ability to make meaningful contributions to joint taskforces in US operations in limited war, in the Indo-Pacific or beyond, has increased—a posture further strengthened by the acquisition plans of the 2016 white paper. In a conflict with China, ‘limited’ objectives could be related to control of specific geographical features, such as in the South China Sea, or merely aim to teach a lesson, but would stop short of attempts at disarming the other side by targeting its ability to conduct major combat operations in the Western Pacific.

Managing the risk of limited war may require immediate deterrence in a crisis, which could be achieved by deploying US and allied forces to make a credible threat of the use of force, in the hope that the cost of such a conflict would outweigh Beijing’s immediate interests. This entails the ability to operate in high-intensity conflict against Chinese forces, but within a confined geographical space close to regional flashpoints in the Indo-Pacific, reflecting the political desire to avoid escalation.

For deterrence (and reassurance of third countries), Australia would need to operate forward, possibly for long periods, in a way that purposely would make it difficult to stand aside should conflict break out, especially with land forces, forward-based air forces and surface naval forces, and in political–military arrangements (such as joint standing taskforces) that demonstrate political commitment. In reality, despite all the rhetoric about ‘100 years of mateship’, Australian governments of both political persuasions have been very reluctant—since well before the Trump presidency—to hitch Australia in that manner to US commitments in Asia.

In major war, the US and China would seek to destroy each other’s ability to oppose their own operations in the Indo-Pacific theatre, with the aim of being able to impose a post-war settlement on regional order. Major war would most likely arise as a result of escalation during limited war or from a Chinese invasion of Taiwan.

The main tasks of the ADF in major war would be to defend the continent of Australia as a base area for US long-range air and naval operations, including shipping to Europe and North America on which civilian life and the war effort would depend, and independent operations to shape the post-war settlement in our immediate neighbourhood, where the settlement matters more to us than to the US.

Forward operations to our north would thus focus on submarines and anti-access/area-denial bubbles and independent raids to achieve specific objectives, rather than physical presence to demonstrate political commitment. Australian operational objectives and risk aversion would need to reflect the potentially existential nature of the conflict, accepting that the war’s termination and outcome overall would rest on the threat or use of US and Chinese nuclear forces.

All three of these constructs respond to the threat of conflict with China, but they lead to very different force structure and force posture priorities, to different types of forward presence and to different types of Australian objectives for regional partnerships. They also imply different geographical priorities within the Indo-Pacific, but those are only a consequence of prioritising competition, limited war or global war.

Which of those three situations government prioritises should ultimately be a political judgement on strategic risk, based on an assessment of the nature of Chinese power and objectives and a hard-nosed look at the support that Australia could expect from the US and the support the US would expect from Australia.

But if government doesn’t clearly articulate its priorities in relation to competition, limited war and major war, Australia will continue to remain without a clear and coherent strategic policy framework.

Reassessing Australia’s Defense Policy

While current concerns about Australian strategic policy are many, the underlying theme behind much of the disquiet is that we aren’t sufficiently prepared for the demands of major war in our own region, even before doubts about the extent of US assistance are taken into account. Australia doesn’t have the residual memory of Cold War organisation that the US and NATO now fall back on, and Australia’s Defence Department has been struggling in recent years to develop a concept for mobilisation.

The roots of some of the problems go fairly deep. For example, supplies of certain munitions ran low even for the relatively small coalition campaign in Syria. Our defence industry is not structured to deal with disruptions to supplies. Our noncompliance with our obligation to the International Energy Agency to hold 90 days’ worth of fuel consumption in country remains a strategic embarrassment. And our merchant marine includes few oil tankers and freighters that could be used for wartime resupply.

Still, there are good reasons to think that Australia should place more emphasis on preparations for major war than it has in the past: ‘competition’ is at least as much political, economic and diplomatic as it is military; the Australian Defence Force is already geared towards limited war, the outcomes of which will, however, continue to rest on US resolve; and developments in Moscow, Beijing and Washington since 2014 have all given greater credence to worst-case scenarios.

But we don’t have the luxury of time—if there was a time to declare strategic warning, it was in 2009, rather than 2019. Bringing forward the frigate and submarine replacement programs by a few years wouldn’t make a significant difference to the ADF of the 2020s, so what we’re left with in terms of new platforms are the off-the-shelf purchases already planned for the air force—F-35s, MQ-4C and MQ-9 drones, and MC-55A electronic warfare support aircraft—and the navy’s new offshore patrol vessels (OPVs). But even within the broad outlines of the force structure laid out in the 2016 defence white paper, Australia could make significant improvements focused on the possibility of major war during the 2020s.

In particular, the government should consider making Australia’s air combat capability more resilient by acquiring additional KC-30A tanker aircraft; increasing munitions stocks and resupply capability; integrating Kongsberg’s Naval Strike Missile on the F-35; reviewing the number of pilots, base support personnel and battle-damage repair capabilities required to maintain continuous high tempos of operation, including dispersed from civilian airfields; and improving fuel stock and resupply infrastructure at air bases across the north of the continent.

We should also strengthen the ability to protect the sea lanes across the Pacific and Indian oceans that we would depend on for the war effort against long-range submarine operations by acquiring additional P-8A Poseidons and fitting towed arrays to the Anzac-class frigates. We need to ensure the availability of sonobuoys for periods of large-scale extended use. If they’re equipped with towed arrays and a rudimentary self-defence capability, such as RAM or Phalanx systems, the new OPVs should also be able to make a meaningful contribution to antisubmarine operations in areas of limited air threat. If the OPVs were able to support lilypad operations of the MH-60R, additional antisubmarine helicopters may also be worthy of consideration.

Defence should consider accelerating the acquisition of land-based anti-ship cruise missiles, additional short-range air defence systems, and the foreshadowed medium-range air defence capability. It should also consider using those capabilities to establish a permanent army garrison on the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, which lie close to areas that major Chinese naval forces now regularly transit through but would be very difficult to reinforce, let alone retake from mainland Australia.

In addition, Defence should consider:

  • acquiring new long-range anti-ship missiles for the navy’s Hobart-class destroyers and Anzac-class frigates
  • increasing its investment in the development of autonomous and unmanned air and naval capabilities that have the potential to complement existing major platforms within a time frame of five to 10 years.
  • further improving intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance and battle management systems for long-range targeting in our neighbourhood, while beginning to harden (or provide redundancy for) critical nodes at risk from submarine-launched land-attack cruise missiles
  • exploring the acquisition of the B-21 Raider bomber, which is the only viable solution to drop ordnance in mass at a range that would enable Australia to suppress a possible Chinese base in the Southwest Pacific
  • rebuilding the territorial organisation of the reserves not just to deal with natural disasters but also to provide the logistic support that will be needed for mobilisation and dispersed operations from the continent and to support civil defence at times of fuel rationing or widespread cyber outages
  • strengthening the ability to repair battle-damaged aircraft and naval vessels in Australia with limited need for resupply from the US, for ADF as well as coalition forces.

All of this would not come cheaply. The odd billion may be saved from curtailing future armoured vehicles for the army, and perhaps it’s time to re-role existing units rather than expand the army for additional air and coastal defence capabilities (we won’t lose a conflict with China for lack of infantry). But strengthening Australia’s defences requires additional money that will take us to defence expenditure of 2.5% of GDP and beyond. If the government isn’t willing to spend more money than it intended to in 2016, it will have to make the case that the world hasn’t become a more dangerous place since then.

Investment of this kind won’t enable an Australia that’s abandoned by all friends and allies to make a last stand against an uncontested China, and the outcome of a major war would continue to rest on US conventional and nuclear forces. However, it would help us to stay in the fight for longer, make our immediate neighbourhood a less attractive theatre for Chinese operations, and increase our value and effectiveness as a base for US long-range air and naval operations that could bring the war to an end. Hence, it might make China just a little more cautious of initiating a limited or a major war during the 2020s that would also involve Australia. Surely, that’s not such a bad thing to have an ADF for.

Stephan Frühling is a professor in the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre of the Australian National University. Image: Department of Defence.

Featured graphic is credited to Australian Department of Defence.

This article was published in three parts by ASPI.

Reassessing Australia’s defence policy (part 1): What is the ADF for?

Reassessing Australia’s defence policy (part 2): What are our strategic priorities?

Reassessing Australia’s defence policy (part 3): Preparing for major war in the 2020s