As regional tensions continue to mount, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has moved to reaffirm the nation’s commitment to defence expenditure, with an additional $1.3 billion ear marked for offensive cyber capabilities as part of an extra $15 billion allegedly on the table.
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.
Australia is unlike virtually every other developed nation; it has enjoyed a record near three decades of economic prosperity and stability, buoyed by the immense mineral and resource wealth of the landmass and the strategic benevolence of the post-Second World War political, economic and strategic order.
Across the Indo-Pacific, competing economic, political and strategic interests, designs and ambitions are beginning to clash, flying in contrast to the projections of many historians at the end of the Cold War – further compounding these issues is the continued instability caused by the coronavirus and concerns about ecological collapse.
Driven by an unprecedented economic transformation, propelling once developing nations onto the world stage, the region, the globe and its established powers are having to adjust to a dramatically different global power paradigm – one committed to undermining and influencing the fabric of Australian and Western democracies.
Without sounding like a broken record, in this era of increasing nation-state competition, driven largely by the great power competition between the US and China and the subsequent impact on nations, Australia is finding itself at the epicentre of the new global paradigm with unique economic, political and strategic implications for the nation’s national security.
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) and the supporting Force Structure Review will be tasked with responding to the challenges of an ever changing regional and global geo-political and strategic environment.
Moving to respond to this myriad of mounting challenges, Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Defence Minister Linda Reynolds are expected to announce a suite of funding packages to enhance Australia's defence capabilities, with particular emphasis on cyber security and a yet to be described package over the next decade.
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Responding to cyber security challenges
Following a recent spate of cyber security threats to Australia's economic, political and defence apparatus, the Prime Minister and Defence Minister have hit the ground running in order to respond to the mounting threats.
Minister Reynolds explained to Channel Nine's Today Show, "There are many malicious cyber actors active globally and here in Australia. There could be anything from cyber criminals to other nations. The threats are many and varied.
"Ultimately cyber security and cyber defence of our nation are increasingly the same thing. If you attack, for example, our power grid or a water company or our banking system, whether you do it as a scam or whether you do it to actually bring down that system, they are both attacks on our national sovereignty," Minister Reynolds added.
This round of funding is expected to benefit the Department of Defence, the Australian Signals Directorate and the Australian Cyber Security Centre as the government steps up its focus on protecting Australia's strategic and tactical security interests.
This announcement builds on statements previously made by the Prime Minister in mid-June, when he stated, "This activity is targeting Australian organisations across a range of sectors, including all levels of government, industry, political organisations, education, health, essential service providers and operators of other critical infrastructure."
Minister Reynolds told The Daily Telegraph's Charles Miranda, "The package will put our nation on the front foot in combating cyber threats and our investment in a cyber security workforce will help ensure we have the people we need to meet future cyber challenges.
"For example, this package will enable ASD and Australia’s major telecommunications providers to prevent malicious cyber activity from reaching millions of Australians by blocking known malicious websites and computer viruses at speed."
Time for a new Force Structure Review?
The changing regional and global dynamics mean the foundational principles upon which the 2016 Defence White Paper and the preceding 2011-12 Force Posture Review, which was conducted under the previous Labor government.
As Australia’s traditional strategic benefactors continue to face decline and comparatively capable peer competitors, the nation’s economic, political and strategic capability are intrinsically linked to the enduring security, stability and prosperity in an increasingly unpredictable region.
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.
As it stands, the personnel budget for the Australian Defence Force for 2018-19 is $11,776 million, supporting 14,689 for the Royal Australian Navy; 14,295 for the Royal Australian Air Force; and 30,810 for the Australian Army – for a total ADF strength of 59,794 personnel. Additionally, the budget supports 16,393 within the Australian Public Service and 19,850 reservists.
In light of the relatively small numbers fielded by the ADF, the question about personnel numbers becomes an increasingly important one – with the key question becoming: as the Indo-Pacific becomes increasingly contested and Australia’s interests are challenged, is the ADF large enough to reliably execute the mission in a radically evolving geo-political and strategic order?
Dr Malcolm Davis of ASPI reinforced this, telling Defence Connect at the Avalon Airshow in late February, "The government aspiration of spending 2 per cent of GDP on defence is simply not enough any more. We need to look at planning our force structure, our capability requirements and spending on a number of factors, including allied strengths and potential adversarial capabilities, not arbitrary figures.
"It is time for us to throw open the debate about our force structure. It is time to ask what more do we need to do and what do we need to be capable of doing."
Questions to be asked
The growing challenges to the Indo-Pacific region are raising questions about whether Australia’s commitment to 2 per cent of GDP is suitable to support the growing role and responsibilities that Australia will be required to undertake as regional security load sharing between the US and allies becomes a reality.
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.
Traditionally, Australia has focused on a platform-for-platform acquisition program – focused on replacing, modernising or upgrading key capabilities on a like-for-like basis without a guiding policy, doctrine or strategy, limiting the overall effectiveness, survivability and capability of the Australian Defence Force?