The Defence Strategic Review Strategy vacuum

May 29, 2023
Australian Army flag on military camouflage uniform.

We now have a Defence Strategic Review. But where is the National Risk Assessment, the National Security Strategy, and the Plan? A failure to resource the DSR changes adequately could mean that our deployable military operational capability will in reality be less at the end of this decade than it is today.

On the 24th of April 2023 the Australian Labor Government released the unclassified version of the independent Defence Strategic Review (DSR) which assesses whether Australia has the necessary defence capability, posture, and preparedness to best defend Australia and its interests in the strategic environment we now face. The DSR finding is that the ADF is “not fully fit for purpose” against increasing threats.

The unclassified report totals 116 pages, 30 of which are just full-page photographs. The Strategic review is incomplete; the reassessment of Navy capabilities is the subject of an ongoing, separate review. The Strategic Review is also not a strategy and there is no coherent plan. A “National Defence Strategy” is promised for mid 2024 … and a coherent costed plan hopefully soon after that?

The Government’s National Defence Statement 2023 (NDS2023) at the beginning of the DSR notes that “we must sharpen our focus on what our interests are, and how to uphold them … These interests demand we deploy all elements of our national power in statecraft seeking to shape a region that is open, stable, and prosperous.” For us to deploy all elements of our national power it seems logical to expect that we would conduct a compressive risk assessment and then develop a national security / resilience strategy and plan. A key component of that strategy would, of course, be focussed on the Defence component of our national power in the form of a National Defence Strategy.

The promised National Defence Strategy is described in the NDS2023: “It will encompass a comprehensive outline of Defence policy, planning, capabilities and resourcing, including reprioritisation of the Integrated Investment Program, to align with the intent and recommendations of the Review.” This is clearly focussed on the military and not a strategy that will guide our nation as “we deploy all elements of our national power in statecraft.” Such a strategy does not exist today, although the DSR does note that National Defence must be anchored in a broader national strategy. There is no information regarding what the Government intends to do about this broader national strategy.

So, why is there no National Security / Resilience Strategy in 2023? We had one in 2013; the Gillard Government produced “Strong and Secure – A Strategy for Australia’s National Security” which was intended to provide “a unified national security system that anticipates threats, protects the nation and shapes the world in Australia’s interest.” That strategy was discarded by the Abbott Liberal Coalition Government when it came to power later that year … and nothing replaced it in the subsequent nine years of Liberal coalition Governments.

The late Senator Jim Molan campaigned extensively for a National Security Strategy. In my many discussions with Jim, I asked him why the Liberal party would not develop one. His answer was illuminating, and somewhat depressing. He told me that he had been pressured by the Liberal leadership to desist in his public campaign for a national security strategy as the they did not view it as an election issue. Throughout this period, the Labor opposition was largely silent on the issue. Such was / is the state of our nation’s political system.

The DSR also identifies that a central component of deterrence for national defence is resilience. It explains that critical requirements for a resilient nation include:

  • an informed public,
  • national unity and cohesion,
  • democratic assuredness,
  • robust cyber security, data networks and space capabilities,
  • supply chain diversity,
  • economic security,
  • environmental security,
  • fuel and energy security,
  • enhanced military preparedness,
  • advanced munitions manufacturing,
  • robust national logistics, and
  • a national industrial base with a capacity to scale.

There is no indication from Government of how it intends to address these resilience components; listing them is not acting. In each case there needs to be a risk assessment before a strategy and plan can be developed. For example, given national concerns re the state of our energy systems and import dependencies, it is sobering to realise that the last time we had a National Energy Security Assessment, i.e., an energy risk assessment, was in 2011! And the plan is?

Whilst these are all important issues that impact national resilience, they are a list developed primarily through a Defence / military lens. National resilience is about much more than the military. The Institute for Integrated Economic Research – Australia, which I chair, has led a National Resilience Project since 2019. Many of the issues we addressed, such as the security and resilience of our nation’s health systems, environmental systems, education systems, research and innovation systems, agriculture systems, and our national preparedness (whole of society not just military) are not addressed in the DSR. The risks we face in these areas are as significant as those in the military sector and are not independent of each other; they are interconnected.

Do we understand the risks in these areas? The answer is no, as there is no National Risk Assessment. Thanks to this Labor Government, one was commenced in late 2022, but it will not deliver much in the way of a comprehensive assessment for the next year or so. Whether it deals with risks in stovepipes or as an interconnected system remains to be seen.

The DSR rightly emphasises the importance of having an “informed public”, to engender national unity and cohesion if Australia is to create the resilience to withstand external coercion. Unfortunately, the DSR terms of reference, and the time allowed for the review, kept the analysis narrow and made the stated task, to “take a first-principles approach as to how we manage and seek to avoid the highest level of strategic risk we now face as a nation,” one that was beyond the resources provided to the review.

So, what is the DSR based on? … the answer seems to be largely “politics” and previous Government commitments. The unclassified DSR report resembles a marketing brochure rather than a vitally important, transparent, strategic review to inform the public. It reflects a failure of successive Australian Governments to acknowledge and grasp the breadth and complexity of the range of strategic threats confronting Australia, the region, and the world.

The DSR makes statements such as “Australia’s strategic circumstances and the risks we face are now radically different — the US is no longer the unipolar leader of the Indo-Pacific. Major power competition in the region has the potential to threaten our interests, including the potential for conflict. China’s military build-up is now the largest and most ambitious of any country since the end of WW2 … This necessitates a managed, but nevertheless focused, sense of urgency. It is clear that a business-as-usual approach is not appropriate.” But will the DSR result in a significant improvement of our nation’s defence capabilities this decade, given the Government’s assertion that past assumptions of a 10-year warning time are no longer valid?

To answer this question, it would be worth examining past defence reviews to see if the recommendations made were actioned and if not, why not? It is difficult to see where the DSR has taken account of the many failures to implement past reviews and what lessons were learnt from the actions that were only partially implemented. That aspect is business-as-usual for Defence reviews.

The following is an example of a failure to implement previous review recommendations with a resulting impact on our national resilience. In 2013, when one of the DSR co-leads was Defence Minister, the Gillard Government published the 2013 Defence White Paper. Actions called for included enhancing the ADF’s presence in northern Australia, updating operational plans for the north and developing a better understanding of the ability of civil infrastructure and logistics capacity available to support operations in the north-west. How much progress was made in these areas in the past decade? In reality, very little. 

The DSR now states that “fuel distribution in the north and northwest must be more effective and less vulnerable by introducing a more productive and predictable supply approach … Deep Defence engagement with the fuel industry is vital in our strategic circumstances … Addressing vulnerabilities, particularly where there are single points of failure and inadequate capacity in key domestic distribution routes, is essential.” Very valid recommendations, but why hasn’t this issue been adequately addressed in the past 10 years? There have also been Senate Inquiries and Joint Standing Committee reviews on this specific issue, and even a Liquid Fuel Security Review in 2018/9 which the previous Government refused to make public on “security grounds.” Simply stating a need in a review, without understanding why similar recommendations made by multiple previous reviews / inquiries were not implemented, will not likely result in a different outcome.

Based on my 43 years’ experience in the RAAF, I have found that organisational change of the scale envisaged in the DSR consumes significant personnel and financial resources and results in organisational confusion / disruption in the process. The Government has stated that “Realising the ambition of the Review will require a whole-of-government effort, coupled with significant financial commitment and major reform.” Yet, there is no significant new funding for DSR implementation this decade.

Defence has not been very good at managing complex change programs in the past, yet now they are expected to succeed with this, a massive and under-resourced change program. Reorganisations, reallocation of resources and cancellation / changes in projects are assumed to be all that is necessary in the near term. In my view, this failure to resource the DSR changes adequately could mean that our deployable military operational capability will be less at the end of this decade than it is today … right when the threat envisaged by the review could be manifesting.

Finally, the commitment to what appears to be a 25-year plus program to acquire two different types of nuclear submarines (one yet to be designed), from two separate nations, for a cost in the order of $350B is being justified on a classified threat assessment with little or no public visibility. However, it is difficult to comprehend how a Government could make such a long-term commitment without first conducting a National Risk Assessment, given the complex security environment we are facing and the uncertainty in global economic systems that is already causing palpitations in many nations.

The absence of a comprehensive National Risk Assessment, a national security / resilience strategy and a coherent resourced plan makes the Government’s latest pronouncements and decisions strategic folly. Such is the state of our nation’s political system.


The article was published in DefenceConnect May 22,2023

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