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Projecting Australian power from behind a continental shield

Much has been made in recent months of turning Australia into the equivalent of a strategic echidna, a target so prickly that potential adversaries will think twice before acting against the Australian mainland. Developing this capacity is a critical part of the equation, but it’s not the only one, as balancing continental defence and regional power projection must go hand in hand. 

Since the nation’s earliest days, Australia’s strategic and defence planning has been intrinsically defined and impacted by a number of different yet interconnected and increasingly complex factors, namely:

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  • The benevolence and continuing stability of its primary strategic partner;
  • The geographic isolation of the continent, highlighted by the “tyranny of distance”;
  • A relatively small population in comparison with its neighbours; and
  • Increasingly, the geopolitical, economic and strategic ambition and capabilities of Australia’s Indo-Pacific Asian neighbours. 

Australia’s earliest strategic relationship with the British Empire established a foundation of dependence that would characterise all of the nations future defence and national security relationships both in the Indo-Pacific and the wider world. 

 As British power slowly declined following the First World War and the US emerged as the pre-eminent economic, political and strategic power during the Second World War, Australia became dependent on “Pax Americana”, or the American Peace. 

While the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War cemented America’s position as the pre-eminent world power, this period was relatively short-lived as costly engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq, peacekeeping interventions in southern Europe and enduring global security responsibilities have drained American “blood” and “treasure”, eroding the domestic political, economic and strategic resolve and capacity of the US to unilaterally counter the rise of totalitarian regimes and peer competitors in both China and Russia.

Exercising control in the ‘sea-air gap’

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While the broader economic, political and strategic rise of Indo-Pacific Asia further compounds the US and its ability to secure Australia’s strategic interests – challenging the nation’s long-held belief that it will never really need to do its own heavily lifting in a tactically and strategically challenging environment – further challenging this emerging situation is Australia’s comparatively small population and large geographic area, which led to the 1987 Dibb Review and the introduction of the Defence of Australia policy, which shifted the nation’s focus toward continental defence through the narrow sea-air gap. 

Enter widely respected Australian strategic and defence policy analyst Hugh White, who has recently kicked the hornet’s nest of debate with his new book, How to Defend Australia, and a series of supporting opinion pieces. White set the scene for the Australian public, presenting perhaps one of the most asinine questions of recent strategic debate:

“Should Australia defend itself? Our choice is not an easy one. Just because we probably can build the forces to defend ourselves does not mean we necessarily should. As we have seen, the costs would be very high, and it is not a foregone conclusion that the benefits outweigh those costs.”

White has used his position of prominence to advocate for a range of force structure, acquisition, modernisation and capability restructuring and developments shifting from the major acquisition programs identified as priorities of the Australian government’s record $200 billion investment in capability, including:

  • Scrapping the $35 billion Hunter Class program – selling the Hobart and Canberra Class vessels;
  • Increasing the acquisition plans of the Attack Class submarines from 12 to 36;
  • An increase in Australia’s purchase of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and long-range strike capabilities; and
  • A consideration of Australia developing or acquiring nuclear weapons capabilities.

While this represents a quick summary of White’s proposal, it perfectly encapsulates his modus operandi – that is the path of least resistance and a belief that Australia is incapable of affecting its own future. White’s primary focus builds on the Cold War-era Defence of Australia policy to focus on “controlling” the sea-air gap by hindering the potential for any adversary to get close to the Australian mainland while exercising a degree of rudimentary sea control and limiting the nation’s offensive capabilities.

This focus on sea control in particular is expanded upon by Richard Dunley in his recent ASPI piece, “Is sea denial without sea control a viable strategy for Australia?” Dunley dissects Whites premise for “limited sea control” to focus on “defensive sea denial”, which he defines as “trying to use the sea as a barrier to enemy aggression. In contrast to limited sea denial, defensive sea denial requires a very high level of sea control. For the strategy to work, the denying force needs to be stronger than its enemy everywhere (within the region of operations) all of the time” .

Further reinforcing the complexity of dominating the sea-air gap and White’s proposal to focus solely on becoming a “strategic echidna” is commentary by Andrew Davis, in his piece for ASPI, “What the Battle of Britain can teach us about defending Australia”, which seeks to focus on the limitations and challenges facing the air force proposed by White, namely the focus on a massive expansion of the Royal Australian Air Forces’ fast jet force. 

“Hugh White’s ‘Battle of Australia’ scenario in which 200 frontline aircraft form a bulwark against a hostile power. The lessons from 1940 mostly apply, with the exception of the rapid production of replacement aircraft, given that the lag time for a new strike fighter is well over a year. 

“Numbers still matter, and in a defensive posture geography would be on our side. Taking steps to ensure we could generate the number of sorties required would maximise the chances of success. Here are the enablers that need to be in place to make best use of an expanded fast jet force (some of which Hugh includes in his book):

  • an adequate number of hardened forward bases to reduce transit time to operating areas;
  • reliable supplies of fuel and other consumables to those bases;
  • more trained pilots than aircraft (I doubt we could do that now with half the aircraft numbers);
  • efficient and effective forward maintenance facilities to reduce turnaround times between sorties;
  • efficient second-line maintenance and repair to return aircraft to service;
  • tanker aircraft to keep aircraft airborne for longer; and
  • an efficient rescue capability for ejected pilots (from both sides).

“If we could do that, it would make the projection of air power against Australia a formidable task and would go a long way to ensuring the nation’s security against overt armed attack,” Davis asserts. 

Both of these challenges present significant challenges for Australia’s long-term strategic planning. However, they provide the opportunity to maximise the development of a continental defence platform, leveraging key force multipliers, while also taking advantage of operational and technological developments utilised by adversaries, namely China’s advanced anti-access, area denial (A2/AD) system to secure the mainland, empowering broader Australian power projection in the Indo-Pacific. 

An Australian-based strategic umbrella – Aussie A2/AD and IAMD

Australia’s geographic isolation and size presents a series of operational and strategic challenges for implementing a layered system of continental defence. Nevertheless, there has been an introduction of increasingly capable ballistic missiles throughout the region, most recently with announcements of a successful precision-guided long-range ballistic missile by North Korea and the increasing capability of China’s own ballistic and cruise missile systems. 

JORN has long served as a key force multiplier for the ADF, providing unprecedented over-the-horizon surveillance capabilities to monitor contingencies and coordinate responses to the north of the continent. Combining this capability with the growing power of integrated air and missile defence systems, in unison with advanced, multidomain “shooters”, provides traditional “defence in depth”.

Aegis ashore, meanwhile, provides a highly capable missile defence system – building on the successful integration to the Aegis combat system on US, Australian, Japanese and South Korean warships while incorporating “shoot down” capabilities and interoperability with a range of sensor and shooter platforms, including the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, E-7A Wedgetail, P-8A Poseidon, Hobart Class and Hunter Class and the recently announced $2 billion LAND 19 Phase 7B program.

Deployed in both Japan and parts of eastern Europe, Aegis ashore serves as a potent tactical and strategic force multiplier and “goalkeeper” enabling freedom of movement for air, land and sea-based assets throughout the theatre despite increasingly advanced and prolific ballistic and cruise missile systems fielded by adversaries like Russia, China and North Korea.

Combining the over-the-horizon surveillance capabilities of JORN – estimated to be capable of providing wide area surveillance at ranges of 1,000 to 3,000 kilometres – with the capabilities of Aegis can be used to form a key strategic integrated air and missile defence (IAMD) system for the long-range defence of the Australian mainland.

Further supporting the broader integration of these systems is the introduction of the $1 billion AIR 6500 program, which is designed as a joint battle management system that will interconnect the many disparate platforms, systems and sensors across the air, land, space, electromagnetic and cyber domains into a collaborative environment that provides shared situational awareness of the battlespace and the ability to rapidly plan responses to threats.

The intrinsic link between Aegis and platforms like the Mk 41 vertical launch systems (VLS) based onboard Aegis equipped destroyers and frigates in Australian and allied navies provides incredible opportunity for the nation to establish its own A2/AD network that penetrates well into the Indo-Pacific while also drawing on the incredible interoperability, sensor fusion and strike capabilities of existing and developing platforms.

The commonality of the Mk 41 system, combined with the development of increasingly potent long-range anti-ship missile systems, including the Kongsberg/Raytheon Naval Strike Missile/Joint Strike Missile family, the Lockheed Martin AGM-158C Long Range Anti-Ship Missile and upgraded variants of the Raytheon Tomahawk cruise missile all provide viable, cost effective A2/AD capabilities.

Furthermore, the commonality of air and missile defence systems like Evolved SeaSparrow Missile, SM-3 and SM-6 systems and interoperability of said platforms with both Aegis and the Mk 41 VLS further enhance both the A2/AD and IAMD capabilities of the broader network, but Aegis ashore in particular.

Your thoughts

The nation is defined by its relationship with the region, with access to the growing economies and to strategic sea lines of communication supporting over 90 per cent of global trade, a result of the cost-effective and reliable nature of sea transport. Indo-Pacific Asia is at the epicentre of the global maritime trade, with about US$5 trillion worth of trade flowing through the South China Sea and the strategic waterways and choke points of south-east Asia annually.

For Australia, a nation defined by its relationship with traditionally larger yet economically weaker regional neighbours, the growing economic prosperity of the region and corresponding arms build up, combined with ancient and more recent enmities, competing geopolitical, economic and strategic interests, places the nation at the centre of the 21st century’s “great game”.

As a nation, Australia is at a precipice, and both the Australian public and the nation’s political and strategic leaders need to decide what they want the nation to be – do they want the nation to become an economic, political and strategic backwater caught between two competing great empires and a growing cluster of periphery great powers? Or does Australia “has a crack” and actively establish itself as a regional great power with all the benefits that entails? Because the window of opportunity is closing.

Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on Australia's future role and position in the Indo-Pacific and what you would like to see from Australia's political leaders in terms of defining the nation's primary area of responsibility in the comments section below, or get in touch with 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.

Projecting Australian power from behind a continental shield
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