Defence Strategic Review – Is defending Australia dead?

Sep 30, 2022
Royal Australian Air Force F/A18A Hornet
Image: iStock

The last decade of Australia’s defence policy has swung from successful focus on our own defence, by ourself, to one heavily influenced by the US strategic determination to dominate China militarily. Thereby conservative governments have invited risk to our nation needlessly and been wrong-headed enough to subsidise it.

Former Minister for Defence Stephen Smith, who leads the Government’s current Defence Strategic Review would profit from reflecting on a number of milestones with which the Review coincides.

First, it comes exactly fifty years after the first review of Australia’s Defence, which found that Australia has no alternative but to construct its own independent self-defence capability. That choice arose from the ANZUS Treaty wherein the US declined to provide Australia with a security guarantee such as in NATO. Successive governments from Whitlam until, but not including, the most recent LNP governments have pursued that objective without waiver.

The Australian taxpayer has sacrificed $2000 billion to that end since the first review. But Australians generally still feel undefended. It’s as if all that money has yielded little for our security. The reality is that Australia now is able to defend itself, without armed assistance from the US, as I showed in P&I (“Understanding Australia’s existing defence capability is critical”, 18 September). Yet no Australian government has explained to its people how cleverly this taxpayer sacrifice has been rewarded.

The upshot is that Australians are vulnerable to alarmist pressure about our security, designed to profit others. This Review could distinguish itself by explaining to Australians the extraordinary progress that has resulted from their hard-won money. After fifty years of funding purposeful defence planning Australia’s days of security dependency should be behind us. That result is the second milestone coinciding with the Review.

In introducing the third milestone it might help to remind former Minister Smith of how he embraced that goal of self-reliant defence in his Defence White Paper of 2013:

1.05 At the core of Australia’s national security lies the ADF, whose purpose is to deter or defeat attacks on our territory, contribute to the stability and security of Australia’s immediate region and help meet our international obligations. A credible ADF gives substance to the principle of self-reliance in deterring or defeating armed attacks on Australia. 

As succinct a way of reaffirming Australia’s long-standing policy of independent self- defence as any. At the same time the Minister was keenly aware of changing strategic circumstances:

1.11 The United States has committed to a strategic rebalance to our region aimed at supporting long-term peace and stability. Enhanced cooperation between the United States and its regional partners is an important component of this rebalance.

But in no way was there a suggestion that “enhanced cooperation” with the US should come at a cost to us, such that our own interests were diminished.

The election of the Abbot government in 2014 led to an unheralded shift in defence policy, expressed in the White Paper of 2016. Nowhere is reference to self-reliance to be found. Three defence objectives were defined which would determine how defence spending would be allocated:

  1. to deter, deny and defeat any attempt by a hostile country or non-state actor to attack, threaten or coerce Australia.
  2. to support the security of maritime South East Asia and support the governments of Papua New Guinea, Timor-Leste and of Pacific Island Countries to build and strengthen their security.
  3. to provide meaningful contributions to global responses to address threats to the rules-based global order which threaten Australia and its interests. Australia will work closely with our ally the United States and other international partners to play an important role in coalition operations wherever Australia’s interests are engaged.

Broadly, the first corresponds to the status quo, while the second is more emphasis on the existing defence cooperation with neighbours. But the third, for the first time, requires military forces and activities to embrace entirely new horizons, playing a “meaningful” and “important” role in coalition with the US. For the first time, we would fashion our forces to work closely with the US military on primarily US priorities. And we would pay up for the privilege.

This new burden was the result of ceding to US pressure originating in the Obama “tilt to Asia”. The US was saying then, and still is, it wanted to confront China but it didn’t have the money. So it would be depending on allies (Japan, Korea, Philippines, Australia). Never mind that ANZUS provided no security guarantee for Australia. So the government’s shift was a capitulation – Australia embracing a US demand which would take us into conflict with China while also funding it. Who else would pay for taking on extraordinary added risk for the benefit of another? Australia’s interests again had been ignored by a conservative Australian government, and demeaned yet again by our great friend. Our Prime Minister at the time was describing the relationship as being ’joined at the hip”. What matter it that body bags only come in singles.

So, the third milestone is the death of Australia’s successful defence policy enjoined by all Australian governments for nigh on fifty years. Its demise went unremarked by media or the professional security commentariat, ever unable to look beyond submarines.

Yet the burial has not yet taken place. With the Morrison government’s “Strategic Update 2020” the three objectives above were jettisoned:

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. 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.

At first sight this could be more of following America into planning to attack China. But the strategic environment is defined as falling short of China:

The Government has decided that under this new framework, defence planning will focus on our immediate region: ranging from the north-eastern Indian Ocean, through maritime and mainland South East Asia to Papua New Guinea and the South West Pacific. This new
framework will provide a tight focus for defence planning and alignment with broader initiatives ..

And alliance contributions, instead of commanding top priority with defending our territory have been put back in their place:

Consideration of making wider military contributions should not be an equally-important determinant for force structure compared to ensuring we have credible capability to respond to any challenge in our immediate region.

So perhaps, just perhaps, the defence policy corpse has been resurrected. That is, the projection of power into this “tight” strategic focus across the wide arc of our maritime approaches is roughly what we have been doing for fifty years. Is it just a swaggering way of saying we will defend Australia by being able to apply force selectively at times if appropriate across our approaches into Indonesia and PNG and Oceania? Well no.

The Brief for incoming Minister Marles obtained under FOI (heavily redacted) advises:

1.2.16 Since 2020, a core feature of our international engagement has been to acclimatise the region to increased Australian defence spending. We want our neighbours to see and accept the transformation of the ADF from a primarily defensive force into one with much more potent deterrent capabilities as a contribution to their security as well as ours [MG1]

So officially, at the time this new government was elected, Australia no longer had a defensive defence force. What can that mean when our focus is specified as being the immediate region stopping short of China? At least it should signal to China that Australia’s defences are just that, defensive. That is, we do not plan our forces for attacking China. Because that is what the previous government’s Strategic Update 2020 says.

But the question then arises as to why the former PM Morrison took no notice of his own policy, by pursuing nuclear submarines specifically to operate in contested waters off China with US forces. The Prime Minister simply ignored his own freshly minted defence policy. Morrison himself had just signed off on it, alongside Defence Minister Reynolds. It would be unconscionable for the Review not to get right into the origin and rationale behind the $170 billion nuclear submarine proposal. And assess its place and value for money openly.

All of which would explain why our military are confused and believe they are fighting China. Just retired chief of Navy Admiral Noonan reportedly opined that any new submarine should be nuclear because of ‘greater level of surface and above-water surveillance capabilities by all nations, in particular by China in the South China Sea”, indicating his belief that such distant operations should shape our forces and defence spending. Earlier the new Air Force Chief had talked of our aircraft penetrating China’s air defences.

Let’s go back to the milestones. On this fiftieth anniversary of Australia’s first Defence review, $2000 billion later, it is reasonable to ask that today’s Review first establish the context – attainment of a credible self-reliant defence for Australia. Sustaining and hardening it within the durable policy framework of putting Australia’s territory first, intelligibly, and moving on to sensible refinements responsive to change should be the object of this Review.

Read more in our Defence Strategic Review series of articles.

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