Defence Minister Linda Reynolds is expected to finesse the picture of Australia’s future defence strategy and acquisition plan as painted by the Prime Minister, however there are growing concerns that the $270 billion may not be enough to ensure Australia’s defence response to great power competition.
Many within Australia's national security and strategic policy communities would argue that from the moment of its release, the 2016 Defence White Paper was obsolete – overshadowed by the rapidly evolving geo-strategic landscape of the Indo-Pacific.
Nevertheless, the Defence White Paper and subsequent supporting Defence Industry Plan, Naval Shipbuilding Plan and Sovereign Industrial Capability Priorities have all served as critical foundational documents for the 2020 Defence Strategy Update and Force Structure Plan announced by Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Defence Minister Linda Reynolds.
These respective documents are designed to account for the rapidly deteriorating economic, political and strategic environment in both the Indo-Pacific and the broader globe as nations continue to struggle with the impact of COVID-19, economic devastation, social upheaval and mounting great power tensions characterised by increased 'grey-zone conflict' and 'whole-of-government' attacks on the post-Second World War order.
This emphasis is highlighted by the Prime Minister, who stated, "This simple truth is this: even as we stare down the COVID pandemic at home, we need to also prepare for a post-COVID world that is poorer, that is more dangerous, and that is more disorderly.
"We have been a favoured isle, with many natural advantages for many decades, but we have not seen the conflation of global, economic and strategic uncertainty now being experienced here in Australia in our region since the existential threat we faced when the global and regional order collapsed in the 1930s and 1940s.
"That is a sobering thought, and it's something I have reflected on quite a lot lately, as we've considered the dire economic circumstances we face. That period of the 1930s has been something I have been revisiting on a very regular basis, and when you connect both the economic challenges and the global uncertainty, it can be very haunting.
"But not overwhelming. It requires a response."
Accordingly, while the implementation of the 2016 Defence White Paper has seen substantial progress in building a more potent, capable and agile Australian Defence Force – important adjustments to defence policy are set out in the 2020 Defence Strategic Update to respond to the rapid changes in the strategic environment.
The Strategic Update replaces the Strategic Defence Framework set out in the 2016 Defence White Paper with three new strategic objectives:
- To shape Australia’s strategic environment;
- To deter actions against Australia’s interests; and
- To respond with credible military force, when required.
Expanding on the Prime Minister's statements, Minister Reynolds has used an address to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute to paint a broader picture of the capabilities and focus of the $270 billion worth of investment over the next decade, however, not everyone within Australia's strategic policy and defence communities are certain the investment will be enough.
Responding to the changing reality
Minister Reynolds is quick to identify the primary factors influencing the government's decisions and approach to Australia's role, responsibilities and strategic position within the Indo-Pacific.
"Today, Australia’s strategic environment is complex, is contested and is changing. Major power competition, militarisation, disruptive technological change and new threats are all making our region less safe," Minister Reynolds said.
"In 2016, the government’s Defence White Paper identified these trends and the profound consequences for Australia’s economic and strategic interests. And it also pointed to the risks to Australia’s national interests where other countries seek to advance their own interests – outside the established rules-based order.
"An order that has been fundamental to regional stability, and agreed rules that have underwritten Australia’s remarkable economic success."
Enter ASPI's Michael Shoebridge and Marcus Hellyer, and the head of the Australian National University's National Security College, Rory Medcalf, all of whom have raised serious questions about the government's defence expenditure, the capabilities, platforms and broader national security implications outlined in the 2020 Defence Strategic Update and Force Structure Plan, respectively.
Shoebridge states, "This change comes from US–China strategic competition, together with China’s assertion of influence and use of coercive activities. Now prominent are ‘grey zone’ activities designed to coerce in ways that stay below the threshold of military conflict — think of China’s militarisation of the South China Sea.
"It’s big news to recognise that the region is undergoing a fundamental strategic realignment, because it kills the idea that Australia now has a decade of ‘warning time’ to prepare for credible military conflict. It also tells us that we don’t yet know the outlines of the new international order that will develop. It’s an experiment that’s underway, and Australia has a part in shaping the results.
"With further refreshing frankness, the update acknowledges that the 2016 approach of giving equal priority to events around the globe, the region and the near neighbourhood is no longer appropriate.
"Instead, ‘Australia [intends to] take greater responsibility for its own security.’ That means the military must focus its plans and resources on our near region — which is still a huge expanse, stretching from the northeastern Indian Ocean through south-east Asia and across the south Pacific — as well as be able to contribute to domestic priorities."
Expanding on the sobering point of Australia's now, frankly, non-existent warning time, Shoebridge states, "If Australia no longer has 10 years’ warning time to prepare for potential major conflict, the fact that much of the new force structure won’t be ready for at least 10 years is simply not good news."
This is something Minister Reynolds actively recognises and articulates, stating, "Historically, Defence planning has assumed a decade-long warning period for any major conventional attack against Australia. This is no longer valid.
"Defence thinking, strategy and planning have accordingly shifted gears. Right across the Indo-Pacific, countries are modernising their militaries and increasing their preparedness for conflict.
"Nations in our region now have advanced capabilities such as submarines, next generation air combat, and highly capable land forces. New weapons and technologies – including hypersonic glide and long-range missiles, autonomous systems, space capabilities, AI and cyber capabilities.
"These have increased range, speed, precision and lethality. They are transforming the characteristics of warfare. Nations are increasingly employing coercive tactics that fall below the threshold of armed conflict. Cyber attacks, foreign interference and economic pressure seek to exploit the grey area between peace and war."
Despite reassurances, Hellyer raises budgetary concerns over the capacity for Australia to maintain the level of investment in these long-term capabilities, while juggling the acquisition of defence's 'bit ticket' mega-projects like the F-35, Hunter Class frigates, Attack Class submarines and Army's future armoured vehicle fleets and investing in advanced hypersonics and missile defence capabilities concurrently.
"If you start to take more pessimistic views of GDP growth, it is conceivable that in a prolonged recession defence spending could hit 2.4 or 2.5 per cent of GDP, as the GDP pie grows more slowly than the defence budget," Hellyer told The Australian.
Rory Medcalf is, however, a little more optimistic about the impact and the precedent the announcements have on Australia's future defence spending and strategic planning, particularly as the regional situation continues to deteriorate, saying, "The difference here is it is saying that deterrence is the primary business of the Australian Defence Force, and it is outlining the beginnings of a shopping list to equip the defence force to do that.
"We have relied very heavily on the Americans in the past for targeting. Here we are beginning to talk about Australia operating independently in high-intensity combat, even though at the moment we don’t envisage that happening without the Americans. It just gives us a bit more leeway to defend ourselves over a longer period of time before the alliance would come in."
However, in light of these differing points of view, is the $270 billion announced by the Commonwealth enough to put Australia ahead of the curve, or is it simply a case of getting the nation's defence capability to where it needed to be at the beginning of the 2010s?
Australia’s position and responsibilities in the Indo-Pacific region will depend on the nation’s ability to sustain itself economically, strategically and politically.
Despite the nation’s virtually unrivalled wealth of natural resources, agricultural and industrial potential, there is a lack of a cohesive national security strategy integrating the development of individual yet complementary public policy strategies to support a more robust Australian role in the region.
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.
However, as events continue to unfold throughout the region and China continues to throw its economic, political and strategic weight around, can Australia afford to remain a secondary power or does it need to embrace a larger, more independent role in an era of increasing great power competition?
Further complicating the nation’s calculations is the declining diversity of the national economy, the ever-present challenge of climate change impacting droughts, bushfires and floods, Australia’s energy security and the infrastructure needed to ensure national resilience.