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Defence Strategic Update makes progress, but needs more clarity: Strategic policy analyst

Defence Strategic Update makes progress, but needs more clarity: Strategic policy analyst

When Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced the 2020 Defence Strategic Update and supporting Force Structure Plan with a commitment to “Shape, Deter, Respond” to the changing geo-strategic environment, many saw it as a breath of fresh air, however, some allies still see a lot of ambiguity and wishful thinking.

When Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced the 2020 Defence Strategic Update and supporting Force Structure Plan with a commitment to “Shape, Deter, Respond” to the changing geo-strategic environment, many saw it as a breath of fresh air, however, some allies still see a lot of ambiguity and wishful thinking.

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.  

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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.

In light of this positioning from the Australian Government, many around the Indo-Pacific region have had mixed feelings about the nation's renewed and overhauled strategic positioning in the rapidly deteriorating geo-strategic paradigm, and importantly how Australia is responding to the great power rivalry between the United States and China. 

Explaining this, New Delhi-based strategic policy and security analyst Abhijnan Rej, writing for The Diplomat, has raised some concerns about the Australian government's commitment, some of the capability announcements and asks an important question; is it enough?

Some progress, but Australia continues to defer to larger powers

Interestingly, the positioning comes from the Indian perspective, as Australia and the region's other rising power, India, seek to expand the economic, political and strategic relationships between the two nations, while also placing greater emphasis on a degree of strategic balancing provided by the sheer demographic weight of India. 

In particular, Rej cites the nation's continued dependence upon larger, 'great and powerful' allies, in the UK and the US to guarantee the nation's security at the strategic level, despite growing strategic policy community concerns about the capacity and willingness of the US to intervene on behalf of Australia.

"While pursuing policies independent of Washington’s stated preferences – over the South China Sea, or inquiry on the origins of the novel coronavirus – the Scott Morrison government remains fundamentally committed to the US-Australia alliance and the strategic bet that entails," he adds.

"The 2020 Defence Strategic Update is far from being accommodating toward this point of view. It categorically notes, for example, 'Australia is a staunch and active ally of the United States, which continues to underwrite the security and stability of the Indo-Pacific'. That said, there are shades of [Hugh] White in it, with an observation that 'habits of cooperation in the Indo-Pacific are being challenged, leading to uncertainty and complicating security partnerships'."

Despite these realisations, Rej does highlight that Australia is in some part seeking to take some of the responsibility for its security into its own hands, with the increased focus upon long-range strike and area denial capabilities potent examples of such a shift in Canberra. 

"The strategic goals that the document sets are expansive: 'to shape Australia’s strategic environment; to deter actions against Australia’s interests; and to respond with credible military force, when required'," he says.

"As a demonstration that Australia intends to walk the walk, the update also committed to the spending of 575 billion Australian dollars (US$416.5 billion) over the next 10 years, through 2029-30. The supporting Force Structure is striking (pardon the pun), with a pronounced focus on long-range missile capabilities.

"Not only would these long-range conventional missiles significantly deter China from probing Australia’s immediate neighbourhood, they could also be used to shape Beijing’s behaviour in the South China Sea.

"In turn, these capabilities reduce Australia’s dependence on the United States and other allies; they would help prepare Australia for a world without the United States. Strike capabilities are an essential component of an area denial capability, something the 2020 update notes. That said, for a maritime power keen on denying sea to an adversary’s surface fleet, submarines form another crucial component.

"Prospects for Australia’s future submarines fleet has been openly brought to question in the recent past. Analysts have also pointed out that the Force Structure Plan accompanying the update has left expenditure details around future maritime surveillance capabilities — yet another important piece of a sea denial strategy — unspecified."

Is it enough?

Rej throughout his analysis comes to an important conclusion, particularly for Australia as it seeks to balance its response to emerging traditional and grey zone tactical and strategic threats, the first recession in three decades and a slowing global economy:

"To be sure, the update recognises the challenges posed by grey zone actions. It notes that: '[Australian Department of Defence] must be better prepared to respond to these activities, including by working more closely with other elements of Australia’s national power'.

"Grey zone deterrence is the stuff of grand, and not military, strategy. Unfortunately, that is easier talked about than created. Exactly how to integrate economic sanctions with proportionate retaliatory military threats – and the exact 'mix' – sufficient enough to deter or roll back grey zone actions, such as those undertaken by China in the South China Sea or Russia in Crimea in 2014, remains an open question.

"Insofar as satisfactory solutions have been proposed to this problem (such as by Brookings’ Michael E. O’Hanlon in a recent book) it has been in the US context, where Washington comes to the aid of an ally in Asia or Europe in face of a near-peer adversary’s actions. In turn, these solutions crucially depend on the unmatched capability of the United States to economically coerce other states. How middle powers like Australia (or India, for that matter) practice economic statecraft without necessarily seeking the help of a stronger ally or partner remains to be seen."

Interestingly, Rej leaves us with a poignant final paragraph, worthy of prolonged and deep consideration, "So: Are long-range strike systems and area denial capabilities necessary for Australia to deter creeping Chinese aggression in its sphere of interest? Yes. Are they sufficient? The answer is no."

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.