Let’s not miss the basics in the Defence Strategic Review

Oct 26, 2022
RAAF Flypast over the Sails of the Opera House

It’s time to inter the Hollywood ANZUS which has deceived Australians into believing a US security guarantee is necessary and unquestioningly available should we be attacked.

The Albanese government’s Defence Strategic Review shouldn’t miss the obvious. Australia has no security guarantee if attacked militarily, either through ANZUS or AUKUS. Yet our powerful friends, the US and Britain, enjoy a mutual guarantee of armed assistance. From which we have been excluded. Because Australia is treated so, discerning Australia’s own interests is paramount.

The Review can do Australians a big favour by informing them of the nation’s achievement in dealing with this condition, by creating the ability to secure our territory independently. And thereby inter the Hollywood ANZUS, which has deceived Australians into believing a US security guarantee is necessary and automatically available should we be attacked. Jettisoning that baggage would signal an Australia really growing up.

The role of Defence as an eager arm of Australia’s foreign policy must come to the fore. The challenge ahead is not in another level of weapons. At this time our interests and those of our allies will be served best by Australia focussing on imaginative cooperative programs with our neighbours, from Indonesia to the Pacific nations.

Where to start?

Missing from the Review’s essential inputs is an overarching policy for determining force structure priorities, typically expressed in a White Paper. Normally that would be front and centre. But with almost a decade gone during which contradictory defence policies were offered by LNP governments, the question is where to start? Commentators have made much of intelligence reports concerning China. A weakness in our intelligence is its dependence upon others in major aspects. While closeness with allies is a strength, sometimes national interests do not intersect entirely. Then prudence requires reserve, by assuming that each will finesse its position for its own interests.

The most recent official policy guidance is the Strategic Update 2000. Its intelligence-related comments are cagey, without absolutes but inviting guesstimates of “increasing potential” and “less remote” conflict involving the US and China:

Major power competition, coercion and military modernisation are increasing the potential for and consequences of miscalculation. While still unlikely, the prospect of high-intensity military conflict in the Indo-Pacific is less remote than at the time of the 2016 Defence White Paper, including high-intensity military conflict between the United States and China.

Yet this document is sound enough, in basic parameters, to be the start point for the Review. It reaffirms the objective of self-reliant defence of Australia, which went missing for the first time for fifty years in the White Paper of 2016.

Why should acknowledgement of attaining the long-sought objective of self-reliant defence be prominent in the Review’s findings? Firstly, because Australian taxpayers deserve to know, having spent $2000 billion dollars on the transformation since 1976. Most people still believe that Australia’s defence force is no more than an arm of America’s forces, and a token one at that. That is the result of what our media portray. And thereby we are seen internationally as just another instrument of America’s foreign policy. Which affects our regional credibility. The Review can choose to continue to accommodate those views as most predecessors have done. Or it can address the reality, and then explain why there is only one course of action for Australia – self- reliance, and acting truly in our self-interest when allocating our modest means.

How far out?

The Strategic Update 2000 also attempts to come to grips with elusive policy questions of how far offshore and in what way should Australia seek to influence events and attitudes, to complement our direct defence of sea and air approaches, by defining an “immediate region of most direct strategic interest”:

2.2  The Government has decided that defence planning will focus on Australia’s 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.

2.3  That immediate region is Australia’s area of most direct strategic interest. Within it, Australia must be capable of building and exercising influence in support of shared regional security interests. Access through it is critical for Australia’s security and trade. Defence has long-established patterns of deployment and engagement in this region. Our defence relationships with countries in this region are an essential part of our security planning, including with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member states, Papua New Guinea, Timor-Leste and Pacific Island countries.

This is a useful contribution. Of significance is that the waters off China and Taiwan are beyond our most direct strategic interest. Nevertheless, an enormous and complex task faces Australia in building the relationships and structures across the key region. The role of Defence as an eager arm of our diplomacy and foreign policy must come to the fore. Coordination of our defence and foreign policies in our interest has been allowed to wither, such that Australia’s defence force is more freely associated with supporting American foreign policy globally than Australian foreign policy in our neighbourhood. Not entirely true, but we will have failed the relationships outlined in 2.3 above if the misperception persists.


It is obvious that Australia can contribute little militarily to resolving the geostrategic strategic contest now gathering between China and the US, focussed on Taiwan. For that reason and the policy primacy of our own direct defence needs, those influences should not determine Australia’s future defence spending allocations. To the extent that proponents say differently, the Review must require arguments quantified in terms of any capability increment and cost over and above our existing capability for defending Australia, as well as in putative operations in Asia alongside the US. The point is basic. Yet such crucial information is absent from the AUKUS proposal to construct nuclear submarines in Australia. No Review can have credibility without that underpinning.

Australia first

Which assumes the Review will be able to impart a clear picture of what Australia’s existing defences are capable of in the direct defence of our territory. That is the second reason to state where we stand today in capability terms – it has to be the template upon which the benefits of any future programs are calibrated. This might appear pedantic, except that such a reference point has not ever been available. The result is that very few Australians feel otherwise than defenceless against an attack on our territory without the intervention of US power. Even public figures, whose duty requires being informed, belittle our defences in ignorance. What follows is an attempt to sketch the influences which have led to today’s capability in the hope that such perspective will aid the Review in its task.

The job is far from done

It is important that the northern barrier has ample coverage away from our shores. But that capability diminishes eventually with distance. To attempt to project defences over much longer distances is unrealistic. For example, to add ground missiles able to attack China’s land and sea defences means that targeting and impact assessment would be difficult, and in the hands of others. Our own defences would have to be hardened against response. So the cost of Australia acquiring forces to attack China on its homeland should be multiplied heavily by the added defensive burden here. And let’s not forget that China holds nuclear missile options. Serious cost and effectiveness asymmetries apply to the long range “sovereign missile” proposal publicly aired.

This is not to say Australia’s defence job is done. The Review aims to create a defence program appropriate to 2030ish. To the extent that government wants to hedge against deteriorating prospects in that period, the existing structures could be strengthened in sustainability. And the question arises as to how well the key assets, sensors and platforms are secured against pre-emptive attack of various kinds. From infrastructure re-engineering to ground-based air defence systems sited variously, the list is costly and long.

The army

The Australian Army long has worried that it is redundant in a well-defended island continent tucked out of the way, without a land border nor a threat of invasion. Yet it has stuck to its guns, asserting that an army has to look like an army, bearing all combined arms in emulation of US and UK counterparts. Without being able to articulate operational needs specific to Australia. It has long aspired for mechanised armoured capability for high intensity manoeuvre warfare, needed only for certain distant battlefields. Army’s preoccupation with institutional preservation has meant little disciplined planning has ever been given to Australia’s critical-asset security.

The Army finally should realise that it has a productive protective role at home. Previously it has dismissed such a role as constabulary. For the reserves maybe. New commitment and restructuring is needed, as the costs of implementing and of failure are high. Trade -offs are obvious, out of Defence’s existing financial misallocations to mechanised infantry, armour and self-propelled artillery.


Tellingly, public debate on submarines shows no awareness of the potency of our land-based aircraft and combat vessels in performing most of the roles of submarines, more effectively at lesser cost. The incremental value of submarines in defending Australia is non-essential. They add complexity for an enemy seeking control of our maritime approaches. Capital ships of an enemy, such as an aircraft carrier, would be burdened with countermeasures and risks of Mark 48 torpedoes not otherwise a concern.

The AUKUS nuclear submarine is unsuited to our needs, of archipelagic patrol and interdiction. To persist with it is to diminish Australia’s defence capacity while enhancing that of the US for its operations against China, for which Australia seems expected to pay financially, heavily. No submarine at all is the responsible course if the AUKUS imposition is the only option.

In the Collins class submarine, Australia has produced a boat which seems to be a sound and capable specimen. Australian taxpayers have endured extraordinary project cost blowouts in order to gain an industry able to construct such boats. It defies logic that such industry should now be discounted. If the Review is serious about Australia being well-placed by 2030 it will recommend proceeding forthwith with construction of updated conventional submarines. Let’s not be overly ambitious about something that really is marginal.

Defence cooperation with neighbours

The original White Paper of 1976 identified our geographic neighbourhood as fundamentally important. Its defence cooperation programs have achieved much but had variable priority over the years. We can be imaginative in how we help Indonesia, PNG and the Pacific islands family. Their security priorities are basic, like resource zone enforcement, in which we are experienced. We have the technology and ability to give them the gift of daily transparency into their resource zone activities. A truly cooperative project with great economic payoff. And also benefiting US security across those wide spaces of the Pacific where it finds itself stretched.

In conclusion

All of the above is the stuff of the real ANZUS treaty agreed at the inking in San Francisco ie self-help and reinforcing mutual interests. The Review has the opportunity to assist the government to inform Australians about the nation’s achievement of obtaining effective independence in ensuring our territorial security. And thereby to inter the Hollywood ANZUS, which has deceived Australians into believing a US security guarantee is necessary and unquestioningly available should we be attacked.

Even were China to threaten Australia we should stick with the defence strategy now in place, strengthening it selectively. The spine is sound. It would be folly to threaten to attack China on its territory or adjacent waters, where the asymmetry in cost-effectiveness would disadvantage Australia heavily. Yet that is precisely what the AUKUS submarine proposal invites Australia to do. The exorbitant madness of that project is an affront to Australians, crafted as it was with our old “friends”, rekindling memories of the exploitative pressure which took us into Gallipoli and Vietnam. Australia has no security guarantee, either through ANZUS or AUKUS. Yet both the US and Britain enjoy mutually agreed cover of armed assistance if either is attacked.

We should thank our great friends for making much possible along the way. And inform them that their interests will be well served by Australia focussing on the expensive tasks still facing our national defence and through imaginative cooperation with our neighbours, from Indonesia to the Pacific nations.

Read more articles on the Defence Strategic Review.

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