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Preparing for the unthinkable, major war in the 2020s

Stephan Frühling has released his latest piece discussing the preparation of Australia to participate in a major war this decade, with some startling facts and bold suggestions to ensure that the Australian Defence Force is capable of meeting its primary mission, defending Australia and its national interests, while supporting allied tactical and strategic objectives.

Stephan Frühling has released his latest piece discussing the preparation of Australia to participate in a major war this decade, with some startling facts and bold suggestions to ensure that the Australian Defence Force is capable of meeting its primary mission, defending Australia and its national interests, while supporting allied tactical and strategic objectives.

Since its inception, the Defence of Australia concept has been contentious, focused too heavily on the defensive and containing adversaries until a great power could arrive to deliver the killing blow.

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As the Indo-Pacific has evolved, Australia’s core strategic policy, doctrine, posture and force structure haven't, leaving the nation now perilously exposed to a rapidly evolving paradigm and period of great-power rivalry. 

Indeed, Australia’s once insulating 'tyranny of distance' is rapidly being replaced by a dangerous 'predicament of proximity' to the fastest growing economies and militaries in an increasingly volatile part of the world.

The nation has long had a tough relationship with the 'tyranny of distance'. On one hand, the nation’s populace has treated it with disdain and hostility, while Australia’s political and strategic leaders have recognised the importance of geographic isolation.

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China, India, Indonesia, Thailand, Japan and several other regional nations are reshaping the economic and strategic paradigms with an unprecedented period of economic and arms build-up, competing interests and rising animosity towards the post-World War II order Australia is a pivotal part of in the region. 

Stephan Frühling’s has written a third piece in a series of analyses into the future of Australia's response to an evolving geostrategic paradigm and the need for Australia’s next Defence White Paper and supporting Force Structure Review to identify and account for shifting strategic priorities in a period of regional disruption.

The core basis of Frühling’s third piece, titled rather ominously 'Reassessing Australia’s defence policy (part 3): Preparing for major war in the 2020s', paints a startling image of the predicament of Australia's vulnerability in this new order, particularly as a result of lacking a long-term cohesive, national security policy and history of direct threat to the nation:

"While current concerns about Australian strategic policy are many, the underlying theme behind much of the disquiet is that we aren’t sufficiently prepared for the demands of major war in our own region, even before doubts about the extent of US assistance are taken into account. Australia doesn’t have the residual memory of Cold War organisation that the US and NATO now fall back on, and Australia’s Defence Department has been struggling in recent years to develop a concept for mobilisation," Frühling states. 

Major material vulnerabilities and counting down the clock

Frühling articulates the growing need for Australia's political, economic and strategic policymakers to accept the position of vulnerability the nation currently finds itself in, as the potential for 'competition' continues to evolve, particularly to the nation's north. 

"Still, there are good reasons to think that Australia should place more emphasis on preparations for major war than it has in the past: ‘competition’ is at least as much political, economic and diplomatic as it is military; the Australian Defence Force is already geared towards limited war, the outcomes of which will, however, continue to rest on US resolve; and developments in Moscow, Beijing and Washington since 2014 have all given greater credence to worst-case scenarios," Frühling said. 

Further compounding these challenges, Frühling stresses the importance that time is running out for Australia to mount a truly effective response and prepare, both the Australian public and Australian Defence Force for the coming conflagration. 

"But we don’t have the luxury of time – if there was a time to declare strategic warning, it was in 2009, rather than 2019. Bringing forward the frigate and submarine replacement programs by a few years wouldn’t make a significant difference to the ADF of the 2020s, so what we’re left with in terms of new platforms are the off-the-shelf purchases already planned for the air force – F-35s, MQ-4C and MQ-9 drones, and MC-55A electronic warfare support aircraft – and the Navy’s new offshore patrol vessels (OPVs). But even within the broad outlines of the force structure laid out in the 2016 defence white paper, Australia could make significant improvements focused on the possibility of major war during the 2020s," he wrote.

In particular, the growing proliferation of key force projection capabilities, ranging from aircraft carriers, fifth-generation combat aircraft, advanced conventional and nuclear-powered submarines to area-access denial systems and advanced ground forces, high-speed, precision munitions, space and cyber capabilities, is at the core of this paradigm-shifting reality and must be considered as part of Australia's response. 

Enhancing the look north with a greater punch

However, it would seem that Australia's core strategic policy, the Cold War-era 'Defence of Australia' policy and its subsequent impact upon force structure and development, hasn't evolved to account for the rapidly evolving regional and global dynamics, something Frühling seeks to exploit by advocating for an Australian capability to dominate the long vaunted 'sea-air gap'. 

"In particular, the government should consider making Australia’s air combat capability more resilient by acquiring additional KC-30A tanker aircraft; increasing munitions stocks and resupply capability; integrating Kongsberg’s Naval Strike Missile on the F-35; reviewing the number of pilots, base support personnel and battle-damage repair capabilities required to maintain continuous high tempos of operation, including dispersed from civilian airfields; and improving fuel stock and resupply infrastructure at air bases across the north of the continent," Frühling explains. 

Expanding on this, Frühling adds that a growing focus on the maximising the defence of vectors across Australia's northern approaches, while leveraging key technological advantages across sensors, weapons systems and platforms.

"We should also strengthen the ability to protect the sea lanes across the Pacific and Indian oceans that we would depend on for the war effort against long-range submarine operations by acquiring additional P-8A Poseidons and fitting towed arrays to the Anzac Class frigates," he wrote.

"If they’re equipped with towed arrays and a rudimentary self-defence capability, such as RAM or Phalanx systems, the new OPVs should also be able to make a meaningful contribution to antisubmarine operations in areas of limited air threat. If the OPVs were able to support lilypad operations of the MH-60R, additional antisubmarine helicopters may also be worthy of consideration.

"Defence should consider accelerating the acquisition of land-based anti-ship cruise missiles, additional short-range air defence systems, and the foreshadowed medium-range air defence capability. It should also consider using those capabilities to establish a permanent army garrison on the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, which lie close to areas that major Chinese naval forces now regularly transit through but would be very difficult to reinforce, let alone retake from mainland Australia." 

Your thoughts 

Dr Malcolm Davis of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute summarised the predicament perfectly when he told Defence Connect: "We need to burden share to a much greater degree than before and accept that we can no longer base our defence planning on the assumption that in a major military crisis or a period leading up to a future war, the US will automatically be there for us.

"In fact, if we want to avoid that major military crisis, we have to do more than adopt a purely defensive/denial posture, and be postured well forward to counterbalance a rising China or to be able to assist the US and other key allies, notably Japan, to respond to challenges. We can’t be free-riders."

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 this 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".

Enhancing Australia’s capacity to act as an independent power, incorporating great power-style strategic economic, diplomatic and military capability, serves as a powerful symbol of Australia’s sovereignty and evolving responsibilities in supporting and enhancing the security and prosperity of Indo-Pacific Asia.

Shifting the public discussion away from the default Australian position of "it is all a little too difficult, so let’s not bother" will provide unprecedented economic, diplomatic, political and strategic opportunities for the nation. 

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 increasing the budget, manpower and capabilities available to the ADF 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. 

Preparing for the unthinkable, major war in the 2020s
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