The rise of Indo-Pacific Asia is serving to exacerbate Australia’s identity crisis, with politics playing an important role in navigating the quagmire of ideas to develop and implement a clear, concise and considered role for Australia in the 21st century. In order to do so, however, Australia needs to clearly identify what role it needs to play: that of a minor, middle or regional great power.
Australia's next Defence White Paper (DWP) will be tasked with responding to the challenges of an ever changing regional and global geo-political and strategic environment, through a number of programs focused on defining the nation's role and strategy in the Indo-Pacific, enhancing Australia's defence capabilities and supporting the further development and competitiveness of Australia's burgeoning defence industry.
These changing strategic realities, driven by the rise of nations like China and smaller regional powers, a resurgent and assertive Russia, combined with the relative decline of the US, means it is time to open the forum for discussion to shift the discourse from one of traditional 'black and white' thinking as it relates to Australia's defence and national security.
Strategic policy thinkers, academics, Australian politicians and the public all have a role to play in the discussion to change the nation's approach to defence policy.
It is also important to recognise that while Australia’s defence expenditure looks set to increase to $38.7 billion in 2019-20, the rapidly evolving strategic realities of the Indo-Pacific region will necessitate greater investment in the nation's strategic capabilities. Recognising this and following feedback from our readers, Defence Connect has put together a brief list of ideas and is encouraging conversation about the strategies, policies and capabilities to be included in the next Defence White Paper.
1. Develop a cohesive National Security Strategy - as the guiding document for the 2020 DWP, Integrated Investment Plan and Defence Industry Development Strategy
Australia has long stumbled from strategic doctrine to strategic doctrine – from 'Forward Defence' to 'Defence of Australia', the nation's approach to National Security Strategy (NSS) has been dependent on a combination of domestic and international factors and heavily eclectic, with no clear definition or understanding of Australia's role and responsibility in the Indo-Pacific region.
Any NSS must clearly define the roles, responsibilities and expectations of Australia in the rapidly changing regional order. A key component of this is implementing the first force posture review since 2012 – as announced by the opposition during the 2019 election – to focus on defining Australia's capabilities out to the 2050s.
Further enhancing the effectiveness of the NSS is the introduction and development of a National Strategic Reserve Program to stockpile key strategic resources (including crude and refined energy supplies, iron, aluminium, rare earth elements, coking coal, agricultural produce and medical supplies) and support the development of national strategically important industries.
Developing these concepts, in conjunction with an updated DWP and an expanded Integrated Investment Plan and Defence Industry Strategy, to enhance the capabilities of Australia’s defence industry – splitting the focus on domestic demand and export-oriented industrialisation in a similar manner to the policy and doctrines that supported the development of South Korea.
2. Shift focus of DST to focus on 'developing the weapons systems of the future'
Mimicking the effectiveness of the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which focuses on developing next-generation technologies with a longer-term focus (25 years plus), shift the focus of the Defence Science and Technology Group (DST) to locally develop and commercialise breakthrough technologies to support the modernisation and integration of leading-edge technologies by the Australian Defence Force.
This shift is one supported by Peter Jennings, executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, who told Defence Connect, "While we have to ask what are the sorts of capabilities we can field now, we also have to ask what are the capabilities we will need to field in the future, out to 2040? This is where an organisation like DARPA becomes particularly powerful in helping the US to locally develop key technologies, which will provide us with a tactical and strategic deterrent in the future."
3. Begin development of a credible conventional strategic deterrence capability
Ruling out the development of a credible nuclear deterrent, Australia's focus on developing a strategic deterrence-focused 'joint force' concept requires an emphasis on developing 'great power' level capabilities. Key to developing these 'joint force' strategic capabilities is developing a range of capabilities, including:
- Rapidly deployable expeditionary focused ground forces – combining amphibious units and traditional, high-intensity and manoeuvre warfare-focused ground combat elements;
- Comprehensive naval power projection forces including aircraft carrier strike groups, amphibious assault groups and conventionally-focused at sea deterrence submarine forces; and
- Integrated, expeditionary capable air forces combining tactical fighter aircraft, tactical and strategic strike, air lift and tanker, and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities.
Developing these individual forces requires an acceptance of Australia's position within this shifting regional environment, and an acceptance that Australia's precarious position and dependence on the Indo-Pacific will require increased investment and targeted policy development to maintain the nation's prosperity, security and way of life.
4. Recognise Australia's role as a regional benefactor
Australia’s security and prosperity are directly influenced by the stability and prosperity of the Indo-Pacific, meaning Australia must be directly engaged as both a benefactor and leader in all matters related to strategic, economic and political security, serving as a complementary force to the role played by the US.
Australia cannot simply rely on the US, or Japan, or the UK, or France to guarantee the economic, political and strategic interests of the nation. China is already actively undermining the regional order through its provocative actions in the South China Sea and its rapid military build-up.
To assume that Australia will remain immune to any hostilities that break out in the region is naive at best and criminally negligent at worst. As a nation, Australia cannot turn a blind eye to its own geo-political, economic and strategic backyard, both at a traditional and asymmetric level, lest we see a repeat of Imperial Japan or the Iranian Revolution arrive on our doorstep.
It is clear from history that appeasement does not work, so it is time to avoid repeating the mistakes of our past and be fully prepared to meet any challenge.
5. Support the development of a passive and active Australian space capability
Australia's burgeoning space industry and space capabilities draw on the nation's existing strengths in space situational awareness, over-the-horizon sensor technology, geospatial monitoring and emerging fields of launch and electronic warfare to develop a robust Australian space capability – completely self reliant and capable of supporting the national security objectives of the Australian economy and Defence Force.
Key components of this include the development and integration of advanced nano-satellite sensors forming a defence-focused 'internet of things' combining passive and active sensors to support decision making – and the high-speed flow of information in and out of a battlespace. Additionally, Australia also needs to introduce and enhance a credible anti-space capability to serve as a key component of a broader strategic deterrent capability given the growing dependence of modern economies and militaries on space technologies operating under the auspice of the Royal Australian Air Force.