With greater investment in manned-unmanned teaming, will come a need for developing sovereign space capabilities to manage these systems, enhance ADF C4ISR resiliency, and burden share in orbit with the US and other key partners.

Its been a little over four years since the release of the 2016 Defence White Paper (DWP-16), and its accompanying Integrated Investment Program (IIP). Those documents were supposed to provide clear guidance on Australia’s defence policy and military strategy through 10 years to 2026. The planned force structure that was announced, itself based on the earlier 2009 and 2013 White papers, emphasized naval recapitalization, with significant investments in naval assets.

Yet four years later in 2020 there is a new strategic defence review brought about by government recognition that the strategic environment has deteriorated more rapidly than anticipated by the writers of the 2016 documents. This new strategic review confronts a more dangerous and unpredictable strategic outlook for Australia in coming years and in doing so, needs to challenge orthodoxy on military strategy, force structure and defence spending, rather than deliver a re-iteration of 2016, with some cosmetic tweaks.

A key concern must be the impact of an assertive China. The rise of China suggests a new Melian Dialogue emerging for the 21st Century, with Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechie declaring at the 2010 ASEAN Regional Forum, “China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that’s just a fact.” The implication being that China as a big country does what they will, whilst the small states will suffer what they must.

In traditional military terms, the 2019 Chinese Defence White Paper stated that China aims to ‘basically complete the modernisation of national defence and the military by 2035.’ That modernisation emphasizes rapid growth of advanced anti-access and area denial (A2AD) capability and investment in power projection for expeditionary operations, as well as advanced ‘C4ISR’, counter-space, cyber and electronic-network warfare capability.

For Australia we now face the prospect of a major power adversary that is introducing long-range military capability in a manner that is highly challenging to the strategic status quo and to Australia’s future security. As Professor Paul Dibb stated in 2019:

“We are now in a period of unpredictable strategic transition in which the comfortable assumptions of the past are over. Australia’s strategic outlook has continued to deteriorate and, for the first time since WWII, we face an increased prospect of threat from high-level military capabilities being introduced into our region.”

Dibb then went on to state regarding Chinese-Russian strategic cooperation that “it may be the time has come when Beijing and Moscow test America’s mettle and see if they can successfully challenge the US in both the European and Asian theatres.”

That’s sobering stuff, and it should be ringing alarm bells in Russell. The lazy days of assumption-based planning, around 10-year warning times for a major threat appearing, are over.

US commitment
A second big strategic risk facing Australia is uncertainty about US commitment to the region. If the US were to retreat into some offshore balancer posture, driven by a serious economic downturn, or a deepened ‘America First’ mindset in coming years, that would fundamentally change our strategic outlook for the worst. Although the US military, and national security and defence policy community are certainly not suggesting a strategic retrenchment from the Indo-Pacific, at the level of US politics, there is less certainty of intentions. That stems from the current Trump administration (and the prospect of a second Trump term), or as a result of the polarization of US politics that could shape future decisions on where, and to what extent, the US remains in a global leadership role.

Add in the long-term economic and strategic effects of black swans, such as the rapidly emerging Coronavirus pandemic, and the impact of accelerating climate change too. The future is anything but clear.

What does that mean for Australia’s defence policy and ADF capability choices going forward?

Firstly, at the strategic level, Australian defence planning needs to prepare for some radical and potentially dangerous shifts in our region. Dibb’s suggestion of a period of strategic warning means we need to think about boosting ADF force readiness, mobilization and operational sustainment, including planning for the possibility of US-China strategic competition deteriorating into prolonged (as opposed to short-duration) high-intensity interstate war.

That should be driving questions about the size of the ADF in quantitative terms. At the moment, the ADF is a very high quality, high technology force, but it's ‘brittle’ due to the limited number of platforms that have limited offensive capability. Does it have sufficient mass to sustain high intensity combat operations over a period lasting months, or even years, and sustain operations in the face of combat losses that would be inevitable in the face of war with a major power adversary? If the ADF isn’t big enough to meet a much more serious major power challenge, continuing with the same force sizing assumptions must end.

Secondly, we must emphasize a need to step up to burden share alongside the US to a greater degree. That could mean significantly expanding US access to Australian facilities beyond that already planned for. Some possibilities would include home-porting US Navy vessels at Fleet Base West and East and expanding further the long-term presence of US Air Force assets at key RAAF bases. Australia should boost logistical and sustainment for US forces, including to respond to the impact of sustained combat operations in the event of a major conflict.

Thirdly, with greater regional burden sharing in mind, we need to review traditional settings for ADF military strategy. A continued reliance on the ‘strategic moat’ of the ‘sea-air gap’ needs to be challenged, in favour of greater emphasis on forward defence in depth. It would be a mistake to assume that a reactive, short-range ‘defensive defence’ posture would be sufficient to address the challenge by China’s offensive strike capability.

Long range strike
Instead there needs to be greater emphasis on acquiring long-range strike and power projection capabilities to strengthen deterrence by denial against a major power’s expeditionary forces and forward basing, and to counter their long-range offensive capability. The probable acquisition of up to 200 Lockheed Martin AGM-158C Long-range Anti-Ship Missiles (LRASM) is a good start.

Expanding forward defence in depth needs to have a coalition dimension through strengthening defence relationships with key partners that can facilitate forward basing of shorter-range RAAF strike and air combat capabilities.

At the same time, co-development of long-range strike capability with the US and other partners, such as Japan, also makes a great deal of sense. Government should be open to a range of long-range strike capabilities, at sea, or through land-based long-range missiles, or through development of advanced unmanned combat air vehicles (UCAVs).

Acquisition needs to happen more rapidly than current planned defence projects, whose capability acquisition cycles emerging out of the 2016 IIP are too slow in comparison to a rapidly deteriorating strategic outlook, and the rapid pace of technological transformation. For example, Navy’s first Attack class future submarine won’t appear until 2034, and the Hunter class frigates won’t start appearing until the end of this decade.

Two challenges emerge from the widening delta between rapid deterioration of our strategic circumstances and the slow pace of major capability acquisition. A slow acquisition of new capabilities, driven by a need to sustain naval shipbuilding (and the jobs that go with it), leaves Australia at risk of being less able to contribute to ensuring an outcome in a fast moving environment that best protects our vital interests in the 2020s.

Space programs
Australia is well placed to grow its commercial space sector to contribute to defence capability requirements, notably in relation to DEF-799 Phase 2 for space-based intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, and JP-9102 for satellite communications. Going with that investment should be a responsive space launch capability that is fully sovereign to enable us to launch and sustain our own space systems using our own launch systems from our own launch sites. That’s a bold step on from traditional ADF space dependency on the US and others.

Long-range strike, advanced unmanned systems, space capabilities – it sounds ambitious. Yet the strategic circumstances demand we be prepared to challenge orthodoxy now rather than assume a steady as she goes approach. Defence must balance the political imperatives for building Australian defence industry growth through slow acquisition of traditional platforms against the strategic need for rapid acquisition of new capabilities in the face of increasing threat, and the transformational nature of new types of military technology.

Instead of being a risk, this should be seen as an opportunity for Defence industry to develop new sectors for investment and support growth that can deliver quick returns of real capability, rather than sustain twenty-year project cycles.

It will also require courage and determination to challenge the arbitrary funding goal in DWP-16 and move beyond the two per cent GDP target. The two per cent figure will shift defence spending up and down depending on GDP growth – it's probably going to take a short-term hit with Coronavirus – but spending more over the long term makes sense, providing added defence investment is used wisely. That means investing now in new technologies that can be acquired and deployed in the next few years to future proof the force and mitigate risks of the dangers posed by the decade to come. 

Dr. Malcolm Davis joined ASPI as a Senior Analyst in Defence Strategy and Capability in January 2016 after many years in academia internationally. His main research focus is on defence strategy and capability development, military technology, and the future of warfare. The views here are his own.

This article first appeared in the April 2020 edition of ADM.

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