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‘Best defence is a good offence’: So why aren’t we going on the offensive?

It has often been said that “the best defence is a good offence”, and while the government’s recent $270 billion announcement takes steps towards shifting the dial, the foundation remains firmly based upon the defensive posture outlined in the ‘Defence of Australia’ doctrine, something highlighted in part by journalist Paul Kelly.

It has often been said that “the best defence is a good offence”, and while the government’s recent $270 billion announcement takes steps towards shifting the dial, the foundation remains firmly based upon the defensive posture outlined in the ‘Defence of Australia’ doctrine, something highlighted in part by journalist Paul Kelly.

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. 

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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.

Across the globe, the post-Second World War economic, political and strategic order appears to be in tatters, the impact of COVID-19 has exposed a startling over-dependence on global supply chains, with the continued threat of asymmetric competitors, political warfare and broader global trends each serving to impact the security and sovereignty of many nations, including Australia. 

Adding further fuel to the fire are the global and more localised impacts of COVID-19, which range from recognising the impact of vulnerable, global supply chains upon national security as many leading nations, long advocates of "closer collaboration and economic integration", grasp at the life boats of nation-state to secure their national interest. 

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Despite its relative isolation, Australia's position as a global trading nation, entrenched in the maintenance and expansion of the post-Second World War order, has left the nation at a unique and troubling cross roads, particularly as its two largest and most influential "great and powerful" friends – the US and the UK – appear to be floundering against the tide of history. 

With the spectre of COVID-19 far from diminished across the globe and waves of civil unrest and violence tearing their way across the US, and the UK still under strict lock downs, these two great powers are limited in their capacity to actively and assertively intervene on behalf of their allies around the world, despite intent. 

In light of these challenges and threats to the nation's long-term economic, political and strategic security and interests, Australia needs to clearly identify what role it needs to play: that of a minor, middle or regional great power.

Recognising this important question, journalist Paul Kelly, in his article 'Australia's best defence is a good offence as China flexes muscles in the region', has inadvertently raised an important question about Australia's defence and strategic policy, particularly the nation's continued adherence to the largely defensive late-Cold War era 'Defence of Australia' doctrine. 

Kelly builds on the Prime Minister's statements at the launch of the 2020 Defence Strategic Update and supporting Force Structure Plan, stating, "Scott Morrison has warned the Australian people the deepest recession for decades now runs in parallel with a heightening risk of military conflict as the sinews of regional prosperity face 'almost irreversible strain' — demanding a revamped defence posture and strategy.

"Drawing parallels with the 1930s and resorting to rhetoric not heard from an Australian prime minister for several decades, Morrison is determined to avoid the grand folly of the '30s — sacrificing defence capability to the economic depression and leaving Australia unprepared when war came.

"Interviewed by Inquirer, Morrison said: 'There are no leave passes for national security. You must defend and protect it. That’s what we are doing in a transparent and determined way. Many others in a crisis like this might have looked for an excuse to step back (on defence). Not us'."

Is it just a case of 'Defence of Australia 2.0'?

Since the 1960s, Australia's defence policy and long-term planning has been based on the fallout following Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam conflict at the behest of our "great and powerful" friend, the US. 

However, domestic political backlash following the nation's disastrous involvement in the Vietnam War and a changing geo-strategic environment would see Australia adopt an arguably more isolationist policy, focusing almost entirely on the "Defence of Australia".

This shifting domestic and regional environment saw the formalisation of the Defence of Australia (DoA) policy in the 1986 Dibb report and the subsequent 1987 and 1994 Defence White Papers, which established the sea-air gap as a strategic "buffer zone" for Australia, enabling the reorientation of Australia’s strategic and broader defence industry posture, shifting away from what Dibb identifies:

"Until the late 1960s, Australian defence planning and policy assumed that our forces would normally operate in conjunction with allies, and well forward of the continent. We saw our security inextricably linked with the security of others."

The relatively benign economic, political and strategic order of the Indo-Pacific since the end of Vietnam means that Defence of Australia doctrine continues to serve as the basis for Australia's strategic doctrine, which is focused heavily upon 'dominating' the sea-air gap, this concept was expanded upon by the Prime Minister, where he stated: "Our region is in the midst of the most consequential strategic realignment since the Second World War, and trends including military modernisation, technological disruption and the risk of state-on-state conflict are further complicating our nation’s strategic circumstances.

"The Indo-Pacific is at the centre of greater strategic competition, making the region more contested and apprehensive. These trends are continuing and will potentially sharpen as a result of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic."

To this end, both documents articulate a key focus for the government and ADF moving forward, namely: 

  • To shape Australia’s strategic environment;
  • Deter actions against Australia’s interests; and
  • Respond with credible military force, when required.

Building on this, the 2020 Force Structure Plan states: "The range of capabilities that Defence will maintain, develop, enhance and acquire under the 2020 Force Structure Plan will provide the government with a flexible range of options to deliver the government’s objectives to shape Australia’s strategic environment; deter actions against Australia’s interests; and respond with credible military force." 

However, if these three principles are the new basis upon which Australia will engage with the Indo-Pacific, particularly as potential adversaries increasingly leverage 'whole-of-government' power to influence and shape the regional strategic environment, is Australia's still overwhelmingly defensive posture enough to ensure the national interests?

Deterrence is emerging as critical

A core component of the Prime Minister's announcement is the focus upon developing what amounts to a level of conventional deterrence and area-denial capabilities, largely through the research and development of land-based hypersonic missiles and the acquisition and sustainment of extensive stockpiles of advanced anti-ship and long-range, stand off munitions like the LRASM.

Kelly articulates, "The capacity to deter action against our interests by, in Morrison’s words, holding adversaries 'at much greater distance' thereby 'helping to prevent war'. This means investment in long-range strike weapons and missiles, offensive cyber capabilities and area denial.

"Third, when required, responding with credible military force that Morrison says means strengthening capability, support systems, fuel holdings, technology enhancement and innovation. These three objectives are amb­itious in scope and cost implications."

However, these capabilities are still framed within the lens of a largely defensive conflict scenario, whereby Australia's critical economic, political and strategic interests in the region, namely the critical sea-lines-of-communication are still at the mercy of regional partners and a limited level of Australian area-denial, while Australia's major military platforms remain committed to the defence of the continent. 

This approach fails to acknowledge that Australia's limited military capabilities, largely limited as a result of the budgetary and doctrinal constraints established by dogmatic adherence to the now clearly outdated 'Defence of Australia' doctrine and the arbitrary 2 per cent of GDP defence expenditure rate and relegates Australia to a protracted period of isolation, until larger allies either in the region or beyond come to our aid. 

In doing so, this not only leaves Australia at the mercy of these 'great and powerful friends', who may have conflicting tactical and strategic interests thus stretching their capabilities and means, Australia's 'commitment' to the Indo-Pacific once again defers all the heavy lifting in the region to other nations, while we continue to believe that we can dictate the balance of power, economic relationships and security partnerships for our own interest and benefit without any real skin in the game. 

So, with the $270 billion announced, is our force structure and capability acquisition roadmap enough as Australia seeks to navigate a period of growing geo-political, economic, political and strategic competition?

Your thoughts

Australia’s position and responsibilities in the Indo-Pacific region will depend on the nations ability to sustain itself economically, strategically and politically.

Despite the nations 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, Australias energy security and the infrastructure needed to ensure national resilience. 

Let us know your thoughts and ideas about the Prime Minister's $270 billion announcement and the Force Structure Plan and Defence Strategy Update in response to Beijing's economic and strategic coercion and ambitions, and what you would like to see from the nation's leaders 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 This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

‘Best defence is a good offence’: So why aren’t we going on the offensive?
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