Security Watch: Australia Deepens its Defense Posture

Kareem Salem

For the first time in 35 years, the Australian government is reviewing the mission of the Australian Defence Force. The unclassified Strategic Review was presented by Prime Minister Antony Albanese and Defence Minister Richard Marles on the eve of ANZAC Day, 25th April, the day of remembrance for veterans and fallen soldiers of the First World War. The public version of the review is part of a larger classified version that will guide Australian defence thinking until at least the end of this decade. According to Defence Minister Marles, the Strategic Review is the most ambitious project on defence capabilities and structures undertaken since World War Two.

In Australia, conservative governments have historically been associated with strong national security commitments. The current Labour government hopes that this review will contribute to a change in public sentiment on this issue. The rationale for the new Strategic Review is the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) growing military capabilities and its ambition to overhaul the regional order that has been driven by the United States since the end of the Second World War. The main theme of the review is deterrence, and in particular, a strategy of deterrence by denial strategy, that is, deterring adversaries by reducing the benefits of an attack. The objective of the Defence Strategy is “to secure peace and prosperity”, and Australia’s investment in enhanced defense capabilities is presented as a means to “help deter coercion and reduce the risk of conflict.” It is therefore reasonable to conceive that this document is intended to direct the focus of the Australian Defense Force to its neighbourhood: the northeast Indian Ocean through maritime Southeast Asia to the Pacific.

The People’s Republic’s assertion of sovereignty over the South China Sea has had a negative impact on Australia’s strategic and economic interests. Trade and foreign investment are vital to the Australian economy, creating jobs and prosperity. Australia’s proximity to dynamic, high-growth markets in the Asia-Pacific and its networks of 16 trade agreements, 11 of which are in Asia, are critical competitive advantages that have enabled the island-continent to record a 29-year run of consecutive economic growth until 2020 as a result of the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. With foreign trade accounting for more than 40% of the country’s GDP, the export of natural resources is an important driver of the country’s economic development. Indeed, Asia is Australia’s largest market for fossil fuels, making it the world’s largest exporter of coal and liquefied gas.

Faced with the risk of a deteriorating strategic environment, Australia’s new priorities are to strengthen its long-range projection capabilities. The Strategic Review calls for increased long-range missile and combat drone capabilities, as well as the development of domestic munitions production, to ensure the security of Australia’s sovereignty. Without the implementation of such a strategy, it is possible that in the event of serious geostrategic tensions, Australia could once again be a target, as it was in 1942 for the Japanese, who wished to integrate the northern part of the Australian coast into their sphere of influence: the Greater East Asia, unveiled on August 1, 1940, by Foreign Minister Yosuke Matsuoka. The reinforcement of military deterrence through the northern air bases and the improvement of their logistics will make it more difficult for an adversary to forge an effective strike.

The insular character of Australia and the predominantly maritime dimension of the Indo-Pacific region have led the Strategic Review to call for enhanced maritime capabilities in all areas for denial of access and sovereignty operations as a national priority. Australia’s navy is expected to be optimised to ensure the security of maritime lines of communication and commerce, which are essential for an insular nation heavily reliant on foreign trade and freedom of navigation.

The entry into service of Australia’s future nuclear submarines is still a long way off, but the country is already preparing for it. The Strategic Review mentions the need for a network of bases and facilities, especially in the south of the island but also in the west with the very strategic base of Stirling on the Indian Ocean, where Canberra would like to welcome more British and American submarines by 2027.

While ostensibly and publicly preparing Australia for a potential conflict, the unclassified version of the Strategic Review says little about the most important element of an army, namely the quality of its personnel. As Australia looks to acquire long-range missiles, hypersonic weapons, and nuclear submarines, investment in education is essential to assimilate these modern weapons. The paper should have explained the challenges of recruiting, training, education, and recruiting direction for the years and decades to come. This will be vital if the Australian military is to be a more lethal, deployable, and resilient force capable of working alongside its allies to deter conflict and aggression in the Indo-Pacific.

Another area where the ‘Strategic Review’ left little detail was in non-traditional security issues. It would have been appropriate to develop an inclusive national security strategy that analysed the full range of security challenges facing Australia, starting with great power competition, but also including issues such as cyber aggression, transnational crime, and the challenges posed by climate change. Since the Julia Gillard government, successive administrations have been reluctant to address the full range of security challenges. Addressing non-traditional security issues would have enabled the Anthony Albanese government to better identify how Australia could best cooperate with its regional partners on these challenges of common interest.

Ideally, the Australian government should have developed and embarked on a comprehensive national security strategy before engaging in the ‘Strategic Review’, but it is not too late to do so. Only time will tell if the Strategic Review will last longer than a three-year election cycle. It is important that the Australian government not lose sight of its importance.

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Security Watch: Australia…

by Kareem Salem time to read: 4 min