A report into Australia’s military is about to be handed down. Now a bigger challenge is ahead
In the coming week, Professor Angus Houston and Sir Stephen Smith will present their final report of the Defense Strategic Review to the federal government.
As part of the DSR, which was announced last August, Houston and Smith were charged with investigating and making recommendations to the government on the structure, readiness, posture and investment priorities of the Australian Armed Forces.
Australia faces a range of security challenges. China has undertaken the largest peacetime military build-up in recorded history and is diplomatically, informationally and financially forcing every nation in its orbit (and in our immediate region) to walk away from relations with the United States, Australia and other democratic norms.
Russia is waging a vicious campaign to subjugate the Ukrainian people. Both nations use a mix of older forms of warfare as well as new, advanced weapons, including hypersonic missiles, autonomous systems and sophisticated algorithms.
It is this strategic environment, and the opportunity cost of the impending nuclear submarine announcement, that Houston and Smith must address when they submit their review in early February.
The review must get its reading of the environment right and describe Australia’s strategy for operating in that environment. This strategy should propose budget and capability settings to deter or respond to military threats.
At the same time, Australia must reassure its regional neighbors that a military build-up poses no threat to them, but is focused on improving the collective security of our neighbourhood.
Space to play or break, M to mute, left and right arrows to search, up and down arrows for volume.Viewing duration: 7 minutes 16 seconds7m The government announces a comprehensive review in the Australian military. What are the main challenges for the review?
First, Australia needs new and different mechanisms for thinking about national security so that it can provide options to quickly adapt to strategic developments.
No democracy specializes in predicting the next war. None of the defense reviews of the 1980s or 1990s predicted Australia’s engagements with East Timor, Iraq and Afghanistan. Therefore, the review must explain how Defence’s leadership and power structure will anticipate threats and respond quickly to unexpected surprises.
The war in Ukraine has shown (again) that ambiguity and uncertainty are key features of the international system.
Second, it must produce methods to deliver improved defense capabilities at a faster rate. But time is a commodity rarely valued in Canberra. Indeed, as change in the strategic environment has accelerated, the delivery of new defense capabilities has slowed. The revision should close this growing gap.
Former Defense Secretary Professor Stephen Smith and former Chief of Army Staff Air Chief Marshal Sir Angus Houston AK AFC (Ret’d) led the review.
The DSR should allow the Secretary of Defense to expedite acquisition and change. But this may require evolutions in the leadership culture and incentives of Defence. The fact that the government had to go outside Defense for this rapid strategic review may demonstrate the need for change.
Third, the overhaul will have to strike a difficult balance between long-range attacks and close combat. There will be a temptation to bias long-range assault weapons in this review, and understandably so politically. In general, missiles and drones are the most survivable long-range attacks.
One of the lessons from Ukraine that Australian commentators have ignored, while focusing on empty tanks being “clipped” on Twitter, is the sophistication and lethality of modern air defense systems. Russia will not fly manned aircraft over Ukraine, instead sending swarms of drones and missiles.
At the same time, ground combat capabilities are still required. Every nation in our region is upgrading or expanding its land forces, especially rocket artillery, maritime attack, and yes, tanks. The DSR will need to balance investment in longer-range missiles and drones with those combat systems for the inevitable ground battles that follow strike operations.
Space to play or pause, M to mute, left and right arrows to search, up and down arrows for volume. Watch Duration: 7 minutes 25 seconds7m What to expect from the Defense Strategic Overview(Laura Tingle)The future remains uncertain
Fourth, the review must address Australia’s resilience. Our nation is unable to defend most of our existing bases against missile or air attack. This has to change.
But Australia’s resilience also requires more government investment in indigenous defense production. Since the end of the Cold War, every democracy has reduced defense production capacity and the holding of ammunition and weapons. The era of war on an industrial scale has returned, as demonstrated by China’s military buildup and the war in Ukraine. We can no longer be assured of quick access to foreign weapons. We must help ourselves before we are helped by others.
Finally, the review must provide a compelling narrative that convinces the government, and the Australian people, of the need to expand defense investment. No serious defense expert in this country believes that 2 percent of GDP is sufficient for an effective 21st century defense. A figure of 3 percent or even 4 percent may be required.
But it warrants a clear statement of intent from the government to convince Australians – many of whom still believe our geography insulates us from 21st century security challenges. The Japanese government’s December 2022 announcements on national security and a doubling of its GDP spent on defense provide a model.
Despite amazing new technologies that improve communication and allow us to understand many more aspects of what is happening in the world, the future remains uncertain. As a result, the Australian government must invest in a range of lethal, networked, survivable and logistically supportable land, sea, space, air and cyber military capabilities that can adapt to both expected and unimaginable contingencies.
Houston and Smith had a great job describing such a force in this review. But the bigger task will be to ensure that Defense quickly follows up on the report’s recommendations.
Mick Ryan is a strategist and recently retired Major General of the Australian Army. He served in East Timor, Iraq and Afghanistan, and as a strategist on the United States Joint Chiefs of Staff. His first book, War Transformed, deals with warfare in the 21st century.