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A sorry state of affairs – serious questions raised over ADF’s capability following lacklustre RIMPAC attendance

Australia’s three Hobart Class guided missile destroyers, HMA Ships Hobart, Brisbane and Sydney underway. (Source: Defence Image Library)

Despite the lofty rhetoric and ambitious roadmap designed to transform the capability of the Australian Defence Force set out by the government in its program of rolling reviews, our latest contribution to RIMPAC leaves some major concerns.

Despite the lofty rhetoric and ambitious roadmap designed to transform the capability of the Australian Defence Force set out by the government in its program of rolling reviews, our latest contribution to RIMPAC leaves some major concerns.

Prior to coming to government in June of 2022, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and his defence team stressed that they recognised the deteriorating geopolitical and strategic environment facing the nation and would, following a series of reviews, ensure that the Australian Defence Force was “fit for purpose” in this era of renewed great power competition.

Beginning with the 2023 Defence Strategic Review, the government began to pivot away from the decades-long emphasis on building a “balanced force”, with a shift towards transforming the Australian Defence Force into an “integrated, focused force” with significant consequences for each of the ADF’s respective branches.


Following this, we had the government’s “short, sharp” Independent Analysis into Navy’s Surface Combatant Fleet, which set out an ambitious plan to double the size of the Navy’s surface combatant fleet, to complement the nation’s future fleet of conventionally-armed, nuclear-powered submarines and better respond to the deterioration in the Indo-Pacific’s security environment.

Then we move on to the 2024 National Defence Strategy and supporting Integrated Investment Program which detailed the strategic focus and the decade-long funding pathway to delivering the government’s “transformative” defence agenda.

Stressing the importance at the launch of the National Defence Strategy and Integrated Investment Program, Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Richard Marles said, “Over the last few decades, the ADF has been a ‘balanced’ force capable of undertaking a broad range of functions in a broad range of environments, be it participating in a multinational effort in Afghanistan led by others, through to leading regional missions in Timor-Leste or Solomon Islands.

“The essential thesis of the Defence Strategic Review demanded a shift from this ‘balanced’ force to a ‘focused’ force. There is now one job at hand: transforming our future capability such that Australia can resist coercion and maintain our way of life in a much less certain region and world. The ADF needs to be entirely focused on this...

“Our national security and our national prosperity are based on a stable peaceful region where the global rules-based order is pre-eminent and respected. Indeed, the rules of the road at sea are everything for us. When the rules-based order is under pressure, Australia is under pressure,” the Deputy Prime Minister detailed further.

Yet, in spite of the rousing rhetoric and commitments to the contrary, we have seen a continued diminishment of the nation’s defence capabilities, with major workforce challenges, the early retirement of naval capabilities like HMA ships Anzac and Huon, and the planned retirement of Arunta in 2026 amid a host of other reprioritisations.

This predicament is only exacerbated by revelations that Australia’s two new replenishment tankers, HMAS Supply and Stalwart, are both out of action as a result of major drive train faults, delays in the acquisition of new Army capabilities, the in-country manufacture of guided weapons, and let’s not forget, Australia knocking back a US request to support ongoing maritime security operations in the Red Sea.

A sorry state of affairs

Now Ben Packham and Cameron Stewart of The Australian have revealed just how dire the situation is amid the world’s largest multinational naval exercise, the RIMPAC Exercise in Hawaii.

Beginning with Stewart, who stated, “The collapse of Australia’s military contribution to the world’s largest maritime exercise has laid bare just how woefully unprepared our current Defence Force is for any serious conflict in the region. This is a fundamental failure of national security that Australians will have to live with for the next decade. If a conflict should arise in that period, we don’t have enough warships or submarines that work or enough personnel to crew them.”

Adding further context, Stewart’s colleague, Ben Packham, said, “The Australian Defence Force has sent just 320 personnel, a single warship and one P-8A maritime reconnaissance aircraft to RIMPAC 2024, which the US has hailed as its biggest yet. The contingent falls 80 per cent short of the nation’s 2022 contribution, when the ADF provided 1,600 personnel, three surface ships, a Collins Class submarine, two Poseidon aircraft, an army combat group, and a clearance diving team.”

Stewart built on this saying, “In other words, Australia is providing one of the 40 surface ships involved in RIMPAC, just one of the 150 aircraft involved and just 1.29 per cent of the personnel. It is a shamefully microscopic contribution for a supposed ­middle power that spends $55 billion on defence a year and harbours ambitions to become an operator of nuclear-powered submarines.”

For a government that has repeatedly cited an “Australian pivot” towards focusing on our “immediate region” this, lackluster contribution to the RIMPAC Exercise is hardly an endorsement of our primary strategic partnership and more concerningly, a major indictment of our lack of military capability.

Now I will be fair, successive governments (going back to at least the early-2000s) have failed to adequately make the case for investing in our national defence capability and are equally responsible for the dire position we find ourselves in.

This compounding failure has only served to leave the Australian public ill-informed about the rapidly deteriorating strategic environment, the challenges posed, and the very real hard work we will require to dig ourselves out of this self-imposed hole.

Detailing this hole, Stewart added, “No military exercise focuses more specifically on regional security than RIMPAC and Australia is all but AWOL. This is the result of a decade of neglect on defence that has been blighted by inadequate funding, botched pro­jects, delayed decisions on replacing warships and subs and a failure to recruit personnel.

“Australia cannot send a sub to RIMPAC because corrosion problems have sidelined three of the navy’s six ageing Collins Class submarines for the rest of the year. It cannot send an Anzac frigate because they are ageing quickly, forcing the government to mothball one and a second ship in 2026,” Stewart detailed.

One thing is abundantly clear to anyone watching, something has to change and quickly.

Final thoughts

While contemporary Australia has been far removed from the harsh realities of conflict, with many generations never enduring the reality of rationing for food, energy, medical supplies or luxury goods, and even fewer within modern Australia understanding the sociopolitical and economic impact such rationing would have on Australia’s standard and quality of life.

There is no doubt that Australia’s position and responsibilities in the Indo-Pacific region will depend on the nation’s ability to sustain itself economically, strategically, and politically in the face of rising regional and global competition.

At the forefront of this is the nation’s seemingly declining capacity to defend itself both independently and in concert with our regional and global partners, raising an important question worth asking: If we don’t take our own defence seriously, how can we expect anyone else to?

As events continue to unfold throughout the region and China continues to throw its economic, political, and strategic weight around, can Australia afford to remain a secondary power, or does it need to embrace a larger, more independent role in an era of increasing great power competition?

Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on Australia’s future role and position in the Indo-Pacific region and what you would like to see from Australia’s political leaders in terms of partisan and bipartisan agenda setting in the comments section below, or get in touch at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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