Australia’s First National Defence Strategy: Deterrence Rules

25 Apr 2024 11:39 AM

With its first-ever National Defence Strategy, Australia aims to respond to a rapidly shifting strategic environment. But can the strategy address some of Australian defence’s more endemic problems?

Gearing up: a group of Australian Defence Force soldiers pictured during Exercise Super Garuda Shield 2023 in Indonesia

The Australian government has just released the country’s first National Defence Strategy (NDS), together with its accompanying Integrated Investment Plan (IIP). Australian governments often last three terms, so these two documents are likely to remain relevant into the next decade, albeit with biennial review.

The NDS is effectively a rebadged Defence White Paper, a long-used technique by which Australian governments have controlled the sprawling and big-spending Department of Defence. The difference is that the NDS is considered more expansive in that it looks beyond the Department to take a whole-of-government and whole-of-nation approach that connects all instruments of national power. The Department is now seen as one element contributing to the nation’s defence, rather than being responsible for its entirety.

A Strategy for Worrying Times

The NDS argues that Australia’s strategic environment is continuing to deteriorate given increasing strategic competition between the US and China, major wars in Europe and the Middle East, a large Chinese arms build-up, and ongoing tensions over Taiwan and in the South China Sea. The solution is seen as a strategy of denial that prevents others projecting power against Australia from the seas to the north. Earlier defence white papers have made similar arguments; however, this latest incarnation has some new twists.

The denial strategy’s contemporary implementation now ‘re-weights’ the 2020 Strategic Update’s equal weighting assigned to the defence objectives of shaping, deterring and responding. Deterrence is now Australia’s primary strategic defence objective, with the others supporting this. Another change is the priority now attached to the Australian Defence Force (ADF) needing ‘the capacity to protect Australia’s economic connection to our region and the world’.

The IIP sets out how the NDS’s objectives will be met in terms of new equipment acquisitions for the ADF. Over the next 10 years, some A$330 billion will be spent, with the largest single-project budgetary outlays by far consisting of the nuclear attack submarines acquisition (estimated to cost A$53 billion to $A63 billion) and the building of six Hunter-class frigates (A$22 billion-A$32 billion).

The solution to Australia's deteriorating strategic environment is seen as a strategy of denial that prevents others projecting power against Australia from the seas to the north

This expenditure reflects the maritime focus of the denial strategy, but the next tier of megaprojects instead look to enhance ADF preparedness. These feature acquiring stocks of naval strike and air defence missiles such as Tomahawk, SM‑6 and Naval Strike Missiles ($12 billion-$15 billion); improving the ability to build guided weapons in Australia (A$16 billion-A$21 billion); and establishing additional logistics centres and capacity (A$10 billion-A$15 billion).

Below this A$10 billion-plus tier, there are many smaller projects aimed at continuing to modernise the ADF. Of these, two less typical projects are the army receiving 26 landing craft to allow manoeuvre in the littoral in a manner akin to the US Marine Corps Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations concept, and the air force planning to fit hypersonic missiles on its F/A-18F Super Hornet fleet.

Tactical or Strategic?

Unsurprisingly, the NDS is a considerably more comprehensive and sophisticated document than last year’s Defence Strategic Review, which simply reflected a few consultants’ personal opinions and not the considered judgment of the Defence Department. Even so, the NDS is stronger at the tactical level than the strategic. It rather nicely sets out six capability effects (pp. 28–29) which are the broad requirements into which new and old equipment should fit. There is, though, no clear connection between this more tactical level and the primary strategic objective of deterrence; the linkage is assumed, not explained.

This is odd. Over the last two years, the foreign and defence minister have given numerous well-coordinated speeches and media statements to set out and explain Australia’s two grand strategies: a balance-of-power one addressing great power competition, and an engagement grand strategy focused on the region’s middle and small powers. The NDS occasionally alludes to the former while ignoring the latter, but both deeply involve and shape Defence.

This may be a result of the use of scenarios to devise the NDS’s investment priorities, explained in detail in the IIP. Scenarios are well-suited for technical analysis of force-on-force interactions, and so their use here might have unintentionally pushed Defence towards exploring tactical-level issues instead of addressing strategic matters. Higher-level wargaming might now be useful to enhance today’s strategic debates and the anticipated 2026 revision of the NDS.

Bouquets and Brickbats

Given the NDS’s goal of taking a national approach, the document attempts early on to integrate defence activities with the wider Australia. The NDS is considered as both working with and making investments useful to statecraft, national resilience, industrial resilience, supply chain resilience, innovation, science and technology, the national workforce and skills base, and the national intelligence community.

While the Strategy is pleasantly open in noting a shortfall of some 4,400 ADF personnel, only marginal attempts appear to be being made to solve this

This broad national approach is most evident in the many discussions across the NDS and the IIP on the naval shipbuilding and sustainment enterprise. Indeed, the AUKUS Pillar 1 nuclear submarine project can sometimes appear more a nation-building than a defence-related programme. The NDS also fits well with the prime minister’s new push for increasing manufacturing in Australia under the rubric of ‘A future made in Australia’.

On the other hand, the two criticisms continually made of Australian defence since 2020 remain.

Firstly, while the NDS is pleasantly open in noting a shortfall of some 4,400 ADF personnel – some 10% of the workforce – only marginal attempts appear to be being made to solve this. New equipment is being bought that will lack a workforce to operate it.

Secondly, to justify increasing defence spending, both the current and previous governments have argued for urgency in making the ADF battle-ready. However, the actions taken seem out of step with this rhetoric. Only two weeks before releasing these documents, the defence minister quietly signalled that short-term improvements to the ADF are now considered less pressing. He asserted that commentators focusing on this produced ‘analysis [that] lacks wit…. Australia’s challenge lies in the future beyond this. And here we must invest in the next-generation capabilities the ADF needs’.

In the main, the NDS and the IIP look to early next decade. The ADF of this decade will remain much as it is now.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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