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Echidna or Combat Wombat? Preparing for the Defence Strategic Update

Echidna or Combat Wombat? Preparing for the Defence Strategic Update

As Australia’s public and strategic policy community wait with bated breath for the release of the new Defence Strategic Update in response to the changing strategic environment the nation finds itself in, Sam Roggeveen of Lowy Institute and Greg Sheridan of The Australian have entered the debate with interesting points for consideration.

As Australia’s public and strategic policy community wait with bated breath for the release of the new Defence Strategic Update in response to the changing strategic environment the nation finds itself in, Sam Roggeveen of Lowy Institute and Greg Sheridan of The Australian have entered the debate with interesting points for consideration.

Global history has been defined by the competing economic, political and strategic ambitions and the ensuing conflagrations of “great powers” as these interests bring them into direct, kinetic confrontation with one another. 

These powers typically combine a range of characteristics that set them apart from lower-tier middle and minor powers, including a complementary balance of hard and soft power dynamics, such as military and economic strength and diplomatic and cultural influence.  


Australia as both a continent and a nation is unique in its position, enjoying relative geographic isolation from the flash points of global and regional conflagration of the 20th century. Blessed with unrivalled resource wealth and industrial potential, the nation has been able to embrace vastly different approaches to the nation’s strategic role and responsibilities. 

The nation’s history of strategic policy has evolved a great deal since the end of the Second World War – when the nation was once directly engaged in regional strategic and security affairs, actively deterring aggression and hostility in Malaya during the Konfrontasi and communist aggression in Korea and Vietnam as part of the “Forward Defence” policy.

However, growing domestic political changes following Vietnam saw a dramatic shift in the nation’s defence policy and the rise of the “Defence of Australia” doctrine – a doctrine that advocated for the retreat of Australia’s forward military presence in the Indo-Pacific and a focus on the defence of the Australian continent and its direct approaches.

This shift towards focusing on the direct defence of the Australian mainland dramatically altered the nation’s approach to intervention in subsequent regional security matters.

These included Australia’s intervention in East Timor and later, to a lesser extent, in the Solomon Islands and Fiji during the early to mid-2000s.

Each of these missions were further followed by subsequent humanitarian and disaster relief deployments throughout the region, each stretching the Australian Defence Force’s capacity to juggle multiple concurrent operations. 

Further complicating the nation’s strategic capabilities is the evolution of modern warfare, with high-tempo, manoeuvre-based operations that leveraged the combined capabilities of air, sea, land and space forces to direct troops, equipment and firepower around the battlefield yielding to low-intensity humanitarian and peacekeeping operations in southern Europe and the south Pacific, and the eventual rise of asymmetrical, guerilla conflicts in the mountains of Afghanistan and streets of Iraq.

However, the rise of China as a peer or near-peer competitor, driven by its unprecedented military build-up – namely, the development of key power projection capabilities, including aircraft carriers and supporting strike groups, fifth-generation combat aircraft, modernised land forces, area-access denial and strategic nuclear forces – combined with growing political and financial influence throughout the region is serving to shake up Australia’s way of thinking.

In response, Greg Sheridan of The Australian and Sam Roggeveen for The Lowy Institute have presented two individual responses to an as yet unreleased precursor to the next Defence White Paper, the Defence Strategic Update (DSU). 

Reassessing the realities of a post-COVID world

For Sheridan, the DSU presents an opportunity to address a number of challenges emerging throughout the Indo-Pacific and more broadly, the global balance of power, an increasingly unpredictable and neutralised United States, asymmetric state and non-state actions, mounting Chinese assertiveness and an isolated Australia. 

Sheridan states, “This is a kind of defence mini-white paper. It doesn’t purport to take decisions on specific equipment purchases. But it does interrogate and update all the basic strategic analysis that drove the 2016 defence white paper.

“The document is fairly frank. It is likely that a milder public version will be released in due course. There is no serious criticism of the government for not having yet completed its consideration of this document. The government has been busy trying to avert a pandemic disaster, and trying to do so at the lowest economic cost. But, ultimately, nothing is more vital than national security. We need to be able to take care of ourselves.

“The best thinking in the federal government today accepts that the virus has changed the ­security environment. But a particular line of analysis is becoming popular: that the virus doesn’t necessarily change the direction of history, or the drivers of history, but it does accelerate history and it heightens pre-existing tensions.

“The defence strategic update suggests that, even before the virus, all the drivers identified in the 2016 white paper have been accelerated in the past three years. Most important, the strategic competition between Washington and Beijing is intensifying.”

In response to these challenges, Sheridan believes there is a perfect opportunity for the nation to respond to these challenges, by breaking down, analysing and responding to the individual challenges from a uniquely Australian perspective, while also incorporating an example from our region: the Singaporean doctrine of the “poison shrimp”.

“The paper looks to see where Australia can maximise the advantages of asymmetry through using key assets, namely, technology, geography and relationships with allies and partners, chiefly of course with the US. Asymmetry means imposing unreasonable costs on an enemy at a small cost to ourselves.

“Australia’s defence strategy is often misunderstood. People can conclude that with just 26 million people, Australia is too big a country to defend. This is dead wrong. It is true that ultimately Australia could be overwhelmed by a determined superpower that didn’t care how many casualties it took.

“A coherent defence strategy can make it impossible for us to be overwhelmed by any but a determined superpower, and can make the cost even to a superpower unacceptably high.

“Lee Kuan Yew, the legendary Singapore statesman and – historically – Southeast Asia’s most sagacious strategic thinker, described the strategy for his small city-state nation as making itself into a ‘poison shrimp’.”

What this fails to account for is that Australia is tactically, strategically and materially far removed from Singapore and presents unique challenges that a small, condensed city-state cannot hope to comprehend, rather, Australia is an entirely different beast and requires a hybrid approach to cohesive defence policy and posture. 

The echidna – making Australia unpalatable, even for a superpower 

Enter Sam Roggeveen, writing a preliminary analysis for the Lowy Institute’s Interpreter who continues to further his belief that Australia should embrace a force posture, doctrine and capability equivalent to that of an echidna, which Roggeveen describes as: “Echidnas are cute and benign, a threat to none except ants. But they can hurt you if you get too close. In other words, while echidnas aren’t equipped to seek out and destroy enemies, they can impose unacceptable costs on a predator should it try to attack. 

“As I have argued previously in a debate with ASPI’s Marcus Hellyer, that’s exactly how Australia should position itself.

“Given our proximity to Indonesia (which will be a great power by the middle of the century), the relative decline of our major ally, and the fact that China will soon be the leading strategic power in Asia, any long-range strike capability we can muster will be easily overmatched.

“It will also generate uncertainty and distrust in Jakarta, when our aim should be to work as closely as possible with Indonesia to make sure China does not dominate maritime Southeast Asia.

“Instead, our emphasis should be on making it unacceptably costly for a powerful adversary to project force against us, and if Sheridan’s report is accurate, that seems to be the emphasis in the Strategic Update. Sheridan says a key concept in the update is area denial: ‘That means our military force may not be able to control an entire area such that it can impose its will, but it does have the ability to deny any other power from operating freely in the area’.”

Roggeveen is correct when he states that the DSU details revealed by Sheridan is a major win for the likes of Hugh White, which means that Australia continues to embrace and double down on a strategic policy first designed and implemented toward the end of the Cold War, at a time when Australia’s geostrategic environment was vastly different and predisposed unrivaled American dominance in our corner of the world. 

“For those keeping score in the defence debate, this looks like a significant victory for Hugh White’s blueprint for Australian defence.

“More importantly, it is welcome news for Australian defence policy. In October last year, when Defence Minister Linda Reynolds announced the update, she said Australia needed the ability to control its oceans, a massively costly and risky enterprise given the adversaries we are likely to be up against, and given the US will be a less reliable and capable ally in future. Focusing to denial would be an important shift – instead of trying to impose sea control, we would concentrate our efforts on denying an adversary the ability to impose their control,” Roggeveen states. 

This blind faith leaves Australia dangerously exposed to the rapidly evolving regional and global environment and fails to account for the vastly different realities Australia must contend with when compared with our regional neighbours. 

“It’s a more modest ambition but more economically achievable for Australia, and a better fit for a country with an emerging great power immediately to its north.

“All of this will disappoint those who have advocated for a more expansive Australian defence policy, including the ability to impose ourselves on our surrounding seas and conduct strikes against land targets thousands of kilometres away. On the evidence of Sheridan’s piece, it looks like Australia is not going to be south-east Asia’s apex predator,” Roggeveen adds. 

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 not only as a powerful symbol of Australia’s sovereignty and evolving responsibilities in supporting and enhancing the security and prosperity of Indo-Pacific Asia.

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.

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