With the long-awaited DSR breaking the mould and shaking up Australia’s strategic policy with the proclamation that we must “develop the capability to unilaterally deter any state from offensive military action against Australian forces or territory”, what exactly do we mean by this, and importantly, what does it look like?
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In many ways, the Albanese government’s Defence Strategic Review has broken the mold of Australian defence and strategic planning, a marked departure from the Defence of Australia-era which championed continental-focused defence posture and ensuing force structure, while not quite being a return to the Cold War-era policy of Forward Defence marked by power projection-focused capabilities and an active presence throughout the region.
Underscoring this dramatic shift in national posture are the concepts of “impactful projection” and “national defence”, each forming the central delivery mechanisms of a broader conceptualisation of Australian deterrence in the Indo-Pacific.
Leading us into two specific comments, the first from Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defence Richard Marles at the release of the Defence Strategic Review where he explains the definition and theory of “impactful projection” where he states, “I think, increasingly, we’re going to need to think about our defence force in terms of being able to provide the country with impactful projection, impactful projection, meaning an ability to hold an adversary at risk, much further from our shores, across kind of the full spectrum of proportionate response. Now, that is actually a different mindset to what we’ve probably had before.”
Bringing us to the second statement, this time from the Defence Strategic Review, shattering the nation’s long-held belief in unassailable American primacy as Australia’s primary strategic benefactor and security guarantor: “Australia does not have effective defence capabilities relative to higher threat levels. In the present strategic circumstances, this can only be achieved by Australia working with the United States and other key partners in the maintenance of a favourable regional environment. Australia also needs to develop the capability to unilaterally deter any state from offensive military action against Australian forces or territory.”
In the era of renewed great power competition, this particularly definitive statement raises significant questions about what this actually means and what it looks like specifically in the Australian context.
Understanding the concept of deterrence
American strategic policy academic Michael Keane explains deterrence as, “The prevention or inhibition of action brought about by fear of the consequences. Deterrence is a state of mind brought about by the existence of a credible threat of unacceptable counteraction. It assumes and requires rational decisionmakers.”
Expanding on this definition, Bruce Jentleson, professor of public policy and political science at Duke University, establishes two distinct factors for “defending state” to successfully implement a strategy of deterrence, predicated on balancing proportionality, reciprocity, and coercive credibility via:
- Conventional military capabilities – including air, land, and sea-based power projection capabilities;
- Strategic deterrence capabilities – including but not limited to a nuclear triad, strategic bomber, and naval strategic force multipliers;
- Diplomacy and foreign policy – including but not limited to foreign aid, intelligence, and direct diplomatic efforts; and
- Economic power – focused on maintaining strategic industries with a focus on being globally competitive across manufacturing, resource and energy, innovation, and research and development.
At the apex of Australia’s future deterrence-focused capabilities is the nation’s future conventionally-armed, nuclear-powered submarine fleet to be procured under the trilateral AUKUS partnership with the United States and the United Kingdom and a major restructuring of the Army to emphasise “long-range” strike through the acquisition of HIMARs and planned evolutions of the Precision Strike Missile (PrSM) systems.
Yet across the recognised “hard” metrics of contemporary deterrence, both Australia’s immense (and justified) investment in a future nuclear-powered submarine fleet and next-generation strike capabilities like PrSM, coupled with the broader conceptualisation of deterrence, leaves Australia’s deterrence capabilities somewhat lacking, particularly if we have ambitions to unilaterally deter any state.
Economically, we have a long way to go
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, coupled with the ongoing economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and Beijing’s mounting antagonism and ambitions towards the Indo-Pacific as part of a broad global realignment to an increasingly multipolar world, have revealed that Australia’s “long break from history” is now well and truly over.
In order to survive and thrive in this new environment, Australia will be called upon to truly embrace what the government’s own Defence Strategic Review describes as “national defence” and a “whole-of-government approach” which includes a number of central components worthy of consideration, namely:
- Defence strategy and policy supporting whole-of-nation strategies;
- An enhanced and expanded alliance with the United States, including key force posture initiatives in Australia;
- A new, more focused approach to defence planning based on net assessment;
- A focus on deterrence through denial, including the ability to hold any adversary at risk;
- A new approach to critical Defence capabilities that drives force structure;
- A new approach to force posture for the ADF; and
- A whole-of-nation effort to develop strategic resilience.
On the economic front, our national economy has been largely defined by the export of the continent’s vast resource reserves and the agricultural booms, both of which have, in recent decades, been buoyed by the voracious demands of the Indo-Pacific and Middle East, namely China.
This comforting security blanket, flanked by education and services, has kept the Australian economy from spiralling into recession multiple times over the last two decades, while equally propelling our per capita wealth via the rapid growth in the Australian real estate market, enticing much of the Australian public into a sense of false security over the resilience, strength, complexity, and vitality of the national economy.
While the pandemic-era did, in some ways, startle many leaders and the public across the globe into the frailty of “just in time” supply chains and the perils of offshoring major industrial capacity, for Australia, the lessons learned during the COVID-19 pandemic seem to have reverted to becoming mere playthings in political debates, all the while as the chickens of unrestricted quantitative easing come home to roost, driving surging inflation and cost of living across the Western world.
Furthermore, Australia’s insistence on pursuing “free trade agreements” with nations that have additional layers of legislative and bureaucratic industry protections, combined with successive governments presiding over the death of Australia’s manufacturing sector and a reluctance to invest in advanced manufacturing techniques, has prompted Australia to become little more than a mine and farm for the rising powers of Indo-Pacific Asia and the very embodiment of the lazy country moniker, which author Donald Horne originally intended the “Lucky Country” to be known as.
Highlighting the need to rapidly respond to these challenges, Dr Ross Babbage of US think tank Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, speaking to the Defence Connect podcast, highlighted the need for Australia as an underrepresented member of the broader Western alliance network will need to embrace a radically different approach to the business-as-usual approach which has characterised our national economic and industrial development over the past three decades, saying, “It is really critical that we make ourselves more competitive. And many Australians have forgotten that, you know, for us to be prosperous and fully employed, and have good futures for our children and so on, then, competitiveness really is critical to our success, otherwise, we’re going to be an economic backwater. And we’ll be very vulnerable in international security terms as well, and much more dependent upon other countries for our security. So, we have to get more efficient and effective and more competitive, we have to attract more foreign investment and our own investment, to do sensible things in this country.”
Expanding on these key points, Dr Babbage added, “If, in a crisis, this, the sort of crisis we’d now might face, it’s not going to be the military that are going to be winning the war, if you like, on their own, they are very, very important. But it’s going to be all of society, this is going to be, it’s going to involve just about everybody. We will all be involved. The sooner we tell the public and the sooner we brief people properly, and the sooner we have discussions and debates about these issues, the better.”
Time to hit the gym
While the rhetoric around the Defence Strategic Review has emphasised the plan as the most “consequential review” of our nation’s defence capabilities since the Second World War, which will ultimately transform the Australian Defence Force into a more capable military, capable of unilaterally deterring any state as is established as a core ambition of the Defence Strategic Review, the truth is, we’re still someway off from seeing real, tangible outcomes, especially if we’re aiming to deter potential adversaries.
Across the rhetoric, commentary, and public decisions we already know, we have seen a push towards a larger fleet of smaller vessels optimised for low-intensity operations in the Baltic and Mediterranean, a dramatic reshaping of the Army, giving it a responsibility it has never had, while Air Force is set to receive no new combat aircraft, no new long-range strike capabilities beyond “known-known” missile acquisitions – so where is the mass, the force structure and the quantifiable capability that will deliver our capacity to truly deter any potential adversary?
Referring back to the aforementioned two central pillars of military-based deterrence, Australia needs to look at the examples that have and continue to work for the world’s major powers who have recognised that while alliances and diplomacy are nice to have, they alone are responsible for their security, and accordingly, they take it seriously and invest accordingly.
This means ultimately for Australia, it is “Rocky Time”, like in the penultimate scene of every Rocky movie where we see the titular hero working out vigourosly, hitting the bag, lifting weights, doing sit-ups, drinking raw eggs, all while being serenaded by a classic 80s music. The time has come for our own heroic transformation (epic 1980s music optional, but preferred).
Now I know some of the critics in the back will respond with claims about our population size, the importance of autonomy and next-generation technologies, each with degrees of relevance and importance; none of these mean that Australia cannot or should not support a larger, more capable ADF focused on developing a lean, muscular, and adaptable force capable of a range of operations across the region in support of the nation’s national security objectives.
Indeed, such developments are at the centre of the push towards a “focused force” capable of deterring hostile action against the nation and our interests.
Importantly, in this era of renewed competition between autarchy and democracy, this is a conversation that needs to be had in the open with the Australian people, as ultimately, they will be called upon to help implement it, to consent to the direction, and to defend it should diplomacy fail.
Our economic resilience, capacity, and competitiveness will prove equally as critical to success in the new world power paradigm as that of the United States, the United Kingdom, or Europe, and we need to begin to recognise the opportunities presented before us.
Dr Babbage reinforces this, saying, “I think what we’ve got to show, what’s the vision for Australia, you know, what can we achieve and what, you know, if we go on the trajectory we are on at the moment. I’ll tell you what, you know, a lot of people, a lot more people in a decade’s time are likely to be either in really dumb jobs or maybe not have jobs at all, and in the society, be a lot weaker and will be a lot less prosperous.
“So what we want to say is, look, there’s plenty of scope for doing more and smarter things, encouraging investment to do that, and then there will be some very, very interesting additional jobs and opportunities, a lot of high tech, and so on, I can tell you that, you know, talking to foreign investors, they’re quite keen on principle to work here, and do a lot more here and provide a lot more good jobs for Australians.”
Expanding and enhancing the opportunities available to Australians while building critical economic resilience, and as a result, deterrence to economic coercion, should be the core focus of the government because only when our economy is strong can we ensure that we can deter aggression towards the nation or our interests.
This also requires a greater degree of transparency and a culture of collaboration between the nation’s strategic policymakers, elected officials and the constituents they represent and serve – equally, this approach will need to entice the Australian public to once again invest in and believe in the future direction of the nation.
Additionally, Australia will need to have an honest conversation about how we view ourselves and what our own ambitions are. Is it reasonable for Australia to position itself as a “middle” or “regional” power in this rapidly evolving geopolitical environment? Equally, if we are going to brand ourselves as such, shouldn’t we aim for the top tier to ensure we get the best deal for ourselves and our future generations?
If we are going to emerge as a prosperous, secure, and free nation in the new era of great power competition, it is clear we will need break the shackles of short-termism and begin to think far more long term, to the benefit of current and future generations of Australians.