By Peter Jennings
The Albanese government’s announcement of a new defence strategic review, to be led by former defence minister Stephen Smith and former chief of defence force Sir Angus Houston, comes not a minute too soon to deal with the darkening strategic environment. It does not matter that the review is to look to “2032-33 and beyond” – the real challenge is to see what can be done to deter or prevail in an Indo-Pacific conflict with China in perhaps three to five years.
Why a war in the mid-2020s? That’s the period when many strategic analysts across the West’s national security establishment believe the People’s Liberation Army will be at its strongest relative to its opponents, when the democracies will be at their distracted nadir, and Xi Jinping will be at the zenith of his personal power in his mid-70s.
Xi sees himself as a world historical figure taking advantage of America’s terminal decline to realise the great China dream of global dominance. He is not going to step away from power – or, more likely, have power taken from him – wondering if he could have forcefully put Taiwan under Communist Party control.
Forget the AUKUS promise of nuclear-powered submarines to be delivered in the later 2030s. By then the Chinese Communist Party will be a relic of history or dictating to the Indo-Pacific.
For several years now Australia has been the sand in Beijing’s gears, showing the world that appeasement, or “nuanced diplomacy” as its advocates call it, is not the solution. Working with like-minded allies, building strong military capabilities and giving our Southeast Asian and Pacific Island neighbours better options for co-operation will deter China.
Smith and Houston have a bare eight months to come up with a better plan for Defence than the fantasy of a “networked and integrated future force” in the 2040s, something never to be taken out of its limited-edition box.
The “future force” strategic plan worked well enough when the wars Australia faced were optional deployments to the Middle East. Anthony Albanese – like Scott Morrison before him – needs to respond to a much harder Indo-Pacific strategic reality. On that, Australia is out of time.
Our planners no longer have a notional 10 years to identify a threat and gear up to defeat it. China already has the capability to project substantial power into our nearer region, to target Australian military bases and critical infrastructure with missiles, and to coerce our neighbours.
It’s not surprising that Houston said at Wednesday’s launch: “It’s absolutely imperative that we review the current strategic circumstances, which I rate the worst I have ever seen in my career and lifetime.”
No one should be surprised. For the better part of a decade I have been writing in The Australian and elsewhere about the strategic threat presented by Beijing. I have been called a hawk, a xenophobe, a “national security cowboy”, a shill for the military-industrial complex and worse.
There will be time enough to explore how it was that so many people could pretend, for so long, that Beijing was benign or that the risk could be managed. Right now, the challenge is to rethink defence policy dramatically.
For Smith and Houston, I suggest there are six policy priorities that should guide their work. They are: adding to defence firepower; stockpiling essential equipment; speeding decision-making; increasing the US military presence; hardening and dispersing bases; and, finally, strengthening our national resilience.
At land, sea and in the air, Defence simply lacks enough weapons with the long ranges needed to prevail in modern war. For decades we put priority on buying the ships, aircraft and vehicles “fitted for but not with” armaments.
Old habits die hard; the Coalition’s last budget cancelled the SkyGuardian MQ-9B armed drone just on the point of delivery. A near-identical weapon killed al-Qa’ida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri last week, showing the value of long-range drones able to stay airborne for up to 24 hours.
Nothing in the Australian Defence Force can deliver that outcome without putting pilots’ lives at risk. Enemy drones will push our crewed ships and aircraft out of combat range.
Australia needs to acquire these and similar weapons available now from current US and European production runs. We can’t wait for a domestic industry to be built over a decade but we do need an industry capable of maintaining, upgrading, storing and distributing these weapons.
On stockpiling, the lesson of the Ukraine war is that missiles will be depleted very quickly, so they need to be bought in sufficient numbers they can be stockpiled and used in large numbers across prolonged conflict. Defence used to buy small numbers of missiles for training purposes, but we have no serious “war stocks” to speak of. When the missiles run out it doesn’t matter how advanced the launch vehicle is.
Governments have been frustrated for decades over the slowness of Defence decision-making. It’s not that officials are lazy; it’s more that the system is designed around peacetime priorities to reduce risk, weigh options and deliver modest successes.
Smith and Houston need to propose an emergency weapons procurement agency, something that will accept the reality of the strategic judgment that a mid-decade war is a real possibility. This step alone will overturn decades of rusted-on Defence processes. The test is simple: buy only what can be delivered in three to five years.
The fourth priority is to work with the US to increase its military presence, particularly in northern Australia. Smith was defence minister and Houston was chief of defence force when the US Marine Corps and greater US Air Force presence in the north was negotiated. They understand the deterrent value of that American military presence.
In the event of a military crisis in the Indo-Pacific, American policy is to disperse their forces to complicate enemy targeting. For Australia that means we urgently need to think about how we deal with that situation. The good news is that we are not alone. The “force posture” Smith and Houston need to consider is an allied force posture, but a larger US presence will draw heavily on Australia’s limited northern infrastructure. What can we do to make the north better able to handle a substantial growth in military forces there? Hardening and dispersing bases and areas from which the ADF and allied forces may operate is another critical task.
For years the policy priority was to create fewer, larger bases. Often near population centres, these large bases are barely protected against protesters, let along a determined foreign adversary. There is a huge task ahead to determine how to strengthen these facilities and to plan for dispersing our own forces (not just in Australia) at a time of crisis.
Finally, there is the issue of national resilience. We have grown used to the ADF being the national “go-to” resource in dealing with fires, floods and pandemics. Shortly before or during conflict the onus will be reversed: the military will look to industry and the Australian population to support a bigger defence effort. Smith and Houston need to start that conversation with the Australian people.
It is not often realised or reported but there is no more urgent policy agenda before the Albanese government than this new strategic review. It’s time to accept the truth about our worsening strategic position and start defence planning as though the threat was real – because it most assuredly is.
Peter Jennings is the former executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and a former deputy secretary for strategy at the Defence Department.