• Scott Morrison and the Minister for Defence Industry Melissa Price speak to the media during a visit to RAAF Base Tindal in February.
    Scott Morrison and the Minister for Defence Industry Melissa Price speak to the media during a visit to RAAF Base Tindal in February. Defence

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has unveiled the government’s updated Defence Strategy and Force Structure Review for the next 10 years.

“The Government has directed Defence to implement a new strategic policy framework that signals Australia’s ability – and willingness – to project military power and deter actions against us,” PM Morrison says in his foreword. “Under this new framework, Defence’s strategic objectives are to deploy military power to shape Australia’s strategic environment, deter actions against our interests and, when required, respond with credible military force.”

The 2020 Defence Strategy Update and Force Structure Plan pledges $270 billion over the decade for military capabilities, including $15 billion for cyber war, $55 billion for land forces, $75 billion for naval forces and $65 billion for air. A further $7 billion is earmarked for space capabilities.

Interestingly, the strategy does away with the two per cent GDP target for the Defence budget even as spending is forecast to reach that benchmark next year, for a total of $575 billion over the decade.

“The Defence Budget has been decoupled from GDP forecasts to avoid the need for adjusting Defence’s plans in response to future fluctuations in GDP,” the report says.

The Strategic Update maintains that the 2016 White Paper remains relevant, but certain trends have accelerated in ways ‘that were not anticipated.’ It refocuses the ADF on Australia’s region and does away with the previous assumption of a ten-year ‘strategic warning time’ for a major conventional attack against Australia.

“Australia’s immediate region is also the area in which we should be most capable of military cooperation with the US,” the report says. “Should circumstances require it, this is also the region in which Australia needs to be capable of leading military operations.”

The strategy includes the purchase of an unspecified number of Lockheed Martin AGM-158C long-range anti-ship missiles (LRASMs) for a cost of $800 million. The missiles will be mounted on Super Hornet aircraft, with training to begin from next year.

“We are expanding our plans to acquire long-range maritime and land strike capabilities, and to invest in more highly integrated sensors and weapons,” PM Morrison said.

LRASMs use gross target cueing data to find and destroy pre-defined targets, meaning they remain effective in operational environments characterised by advanced electronic warfare and reduced or eliminated access to satellites – environments the ADF expects to face in conflict with a powerful adversary.

The shadow of that powerful adversary loomed over PM Morrison’s speech.

“There is a new dynamic of strategic competition, and the largely benign security environment Australia has enjoyed - roughly from the fall of the Berlin Wall to the Global Financial Crisis - is gone,” PM Morrison said. The report explicitly highlights the increasing likelihood of a war between the US and China.

The updated strategy also includes funding for hypersonic missile research. BAE Systems Australia is already involved in US hypersonic programs, leveraging world-leading guidance and control technologies developed through previous collaborations.

“[We] must be able to hold potential adversaries’ forces and infrastructure at risk from a greater distance, and therefore influence their calculus of costs involved in threatening Australian interests,” the report says. “We must improve our ability to deliver these effects without seeking to match the capability of major powers.”

ADM Comment: The update will no doubt be welcomed by strategists, particularly PM Morrison’s commitment to increase the ADF’s ability to compete in the grey zone, or below the level of traditional armed conflict. This is an arena in which China excels.

It is also a potent investment in more near-term capabilities for the ADF, as ASPI’s Peter Jennings observed in comments to the ABC, rather than relying on large ships and submarines that will be delivered post-2030. It quickly increases Australia’s options should circumstances require the use of force.

However, the updated strategy should not come at the expense of investments in other arms of Australian power. The government is concerned with preventing China from expanding its reach into the South Pacific, particularly through the construction of military bases in small island states. The report says Defence will ‘invest in relationships across the Pacific’ to counter this, yet the government has voluntarily weakened Australia’s influence in those same states: it is unwilling to listen to a chorus of Pacific complaints over Australia’s contribution to climate change, and increases in defence spending are massively outpacing investments in regional aid and diplomacy.

The report does flag the need for inter-agency cooperation: “Defence must be better prepared to respond to these activities, including by working more closely with other elements of Australia’s national power.”

Yet if those elements are underfunded relative to the military, Defence will find it more difficult to harness their strengths as a Whole of Government response.

If China offers a sinking island state a financial lifeline in exchange for allowing PLAN submarines to dock, what is Australia’s counteroffer? $800 million worth of LRASMs can’t solve that problem. Defence is not the only government department able to mitigate the geopolitical risks facing Australia: not every problem is a nail and not every solution is a hammer.

More coverage on these documents will be available in coming days and weeks as the ADM team sift through the details.

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