What the Defence Strategic Review does not tell us

May 1, 2023
Canberra Parliament House in Sunrise at Lake Burley Griffin.

There are a number of salient points arising from the Defence Strategic Review which have not been exposed to clear light – which might explain why the government has taken the approach it has. There are two scenarios behind the DSR: war over Taiwan with the US, or war with Indonesia by ourselves.

The easiest part of a strategic review is to analyse the actual and emerging geo-political situation. This has been done quite well in previous strategic reviews. Next step is to put the review side by side, as it were, with available funds which have generally followed a clear trend line over the years.

The fun starts of course when the implications of this or any other review is opened for discussion, which comes down to a bargaining between and among key participants – the Army, the Navy and the Air Force, plus a few new extras like a Space Force. The carving up of the available pool is, to repeat, a process of bargaining determined by predetermined agreement over respective shares. Detached, objective appraisal of proposed capital items and their relevance to the adopted strategy comes only later as an ex post facto rationalisation.

Over the years this process has resulted in much wastage and irrelevance, justified by ‘fair shares’, seniority of service, and such notions as a ‘balanced force’ which remains undefined. The current decision to embark on a strategic review recognised that we could no longer go on like this as a process, quickened now by a perception that when a real threat came the force as given could be good if not for nothing, then well short of need.

A compounding difficulty has been uncertainty over what kind of war we might be involved in and how far we should commit in that regard.

There are two scenarios: war over Taiwan with the US, or war with Indonesia by ourselves (largely). The first looks at a distant force projection capability; the second, more directly being closer and more relevant to the defence of Australia and its interests, where the need would be to deter or at worst to develop area denial strategies.

One can argue that there has been too much focus on actively deterring or even some day defeating China which would be self-defeating in the extreme. Notwithstanding the appalling consequences that would befall us if we were to take on China in either capacity, even with the US, we are preferencing capital items with a long reach from our shores, at great cost, which we really would not want to use, and should not need to use, in direct combat rather than for demonstration (exercise) purposes essentially.

Believing that if it were decided that we join with the US in a war over Taiwan now, in three years’ time, or into the distance – a contingency that is taken seriously it appears – we would not know how our forces would complement those of the US without detailed US-sourced advice. As this could involve much joint maritime activity in the area of the South China Sea it is no wonder that the future development of the Navy has been left over for six months to a task force essentially driven by US considerations. Our decisions on naval procurement for generations have been largely poor and inefficient. Hence the decision in this case inevitably involves a further relinquishment of national sovereignty as we defer again to others’ advice.

Coming to the question of on what formal basis all of this is being done and the confusion between ANZUS and AUKUS, the first is a treaty without a war going commitment, but is in relation to New Zealand, which is now being left out. AUKUS is not a treaty in several senses as it does not contain a commitment for mutual support against aggression and has not complied with the formal ratification processes of the parties. AUKUS will comprise a multitude of transactional agreements with respect to the various strands of activity among the parties. Neither ANZUS nor AUKUS can commit us to war though we can slip into that unilaterally by Executive Agreement among the few behind closed doors, without reference to Parliament. How we got to this stage of thinking about these more complex circumstances remains to be fully explained.

Regarding territorial or area denial to prospective enemies within our zone, arguably the strategic review will lead to a number of decisions on the procurement of capabilities that would allow us to withstand encroachment on our direct national interests. That is the positive.

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