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Responding to the new global security dynamic

Responding to the new global security dynamic

How should Australia prepare for the real possibility of an imminent war between major powers?

How should Australia prepare for the real possibility of an imminent war between major powers?

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has unsettled the global order, sparking fears of a prolonged conflict enveloping the world’s major military powers.

These fears have been heightened by the threat of nuclear war, with Russian President Vladimir Putin ordering the nation’s nuclear forces to be on high alert.

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This was followed up by a test launch of Russia’s new nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), known as “Sarmat”.

The missile reportedly travelled nearly 6,000 kilometres, hitting targets in the Kamchatka Peninsula.

Russia’s geostrategic partner, China, has also shown no signs of scaling back its aggressive posture in the Indo-Pacific.

Beijing has continued to leverage its economic might to coerce smaller nations while also rapidly modernising its military and openly heralding its ambitions to absorb Taiwan.

China’s threat to Australia, in particular, has been amplified by a recent security agreement signed with the Solomon Islands, which could see Chinese troops station in the island nation.

Against this backdrop, Australian policymakers have placed the nation’s defence and security at the forefront of their policy priorities.

Ahead of the upcoming federal election, both the Coalition government and Labor opposition have acknowledged an urgent need to bolster investment in defence capability.

But according to Ashley Townshend, director of foreign policy and defence at the United States Studies Centre, policymakers need to act faster.

“As Ukraine slowly turns the tide on Russia’s assault, Australian leaders must quickly heed the warning of their resistance,” he writes.

“War between major powers is no longer a remote possibility in the 21st century.

“But Canberra isn’t moving fast enough to prepare for a future in which our sovereignty and strategic interests are directly challenged by a hostile great power.”

Townshend calls for “more robust and imaginative statecraft”, proposing five initiatives which could “chart a more decisive regional strategy”.

Capability investment

He begins by calling on policymakers to “follow Berlin’s lead” and establish a “one-off, multibillion-dollar fund” to strengthen the Australian Defence Force for the 2020s.

“Today’s ADF lacks the range and depth to pose dilemmas for a highly capable adversary in Australia’s immediate region,” Townshend continues.

“Although Defence has dismissed its longstanding assumption that Australia would have a 10 years’ strategic warning in advance of conflict, too many of its planned military investments are set to deliver in the never-never of the 2030s and 2040s.”

Townshend urges Defence to purchase more “diversified” capabilities off the shelf, including “large stocks of long-range missiles”, supported by increased investments in mobility, theatre-level logistics and forward basing.

“The ADF should buy the US Army’s long-range hypersonic weapon, further expand its electronic warfare portfolio, rapidly field lethal autonomous platforms, and develop more counter-space means,” he adds.

While welcoming the $10 billion investment in the Australian Signals Directorate’s offensive cyber and signals intelligence capabilities, he calls for new “unorthodox manoeuvre and intelligence options” for Australia’s own grey-zone challenges.

ADF restructure

Secondly, Townshend calls for an independent critical review of the ADF’s force structure, size and operational fighting concepts to reflect the threat specifically posed by China.

“While the 2020 defence strategic update brought a sober and clear-headed strategy, the accompanying force structure plan was a misfire,” he writes.

“The ADF can’t afford to perpetuate a legacy ‘balanced force’ in which all services are made to feel special.

“Instead, hard choices must be made to design a force and way of fighting tailored to Australia’s strategic geography.”

Reflecting on the Commonwealth government’s target for a 30 per cent increase in the size of the ADF by 2040, Townshend claims this plan should be expedited to lift personnel numbers to a minimum 80,000 this decade.

He also urges Canberra to scrap “non-performing or irrelevant capabilities”, referencing investment in heavy armoured vehicles and the $45-billion Hunter Class frigate program.

This, Townshend contends, would allow the ADF to prioritise investment in other capabilities and lift total spending to 3 per cent of GDP.

Regional engagement

Next, the US Studies Centre analyst proposes Australia deepen and diversify defence partnerships across the Indo-Pacific.

“While progress is being made with established partners like Japan and Singapore, it’s far too slow and, in key aspects, continues to favour form over substance,” he argues.

“Australia must pick up the pace to transform these relationships into vehicles for coordinated regional strategy, both bilaterally and with the US and other partners.”

Townshend adds Australia should also be “humble” and explore the possibility of establishing deeper defence ties with Indonesia, India, Vietnam and the Philippines.

“This means providing more of the direct and tangible collaboration these nations want, such as expanding military intelligence sharing, routinely conducting combined operational activities and increasing the sophistication of exercises,” he writes.

“Buying Australian military hardware and supplies also needs to be made easier.

“Realising two-way trust in this process will be hard and require more discipline. But it’s only by offering practical cooperation that exceeds expectations that Canberra can build the robust alignments essential for defending and preserving a resilient Indo-Pacific order.”

Ambitious diplomacy

Townshend goes on to suggest Canberra consider bolder diplomatic strategies to expand its influence in the region and foster meaningful engagement.

“Diplomacy needs to be valued as a national capability, like military and intelligence means, led by seasoned professionals and funded accordingly,” he argues.

Improving Australia’s diplomatic strategy, he writes, should involve better resourcing the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

“Dismantling AusAID, the Australia Network and Radio Australia during the Abbott era was an own goal that squandered established advantages, especially in the Pacific,” Townshend continues.

“While infrastructure financing initiatives have delivered some results, the Solomon Islands’ security pact with China highlights the limits of this tool in the absence of a comprehensive Australian statecraft.”

Townshend backs the establishment of a “regional influence agency” to “synchronise” public narrative, broadcasting, financing, humanitarian aid and disaster recovery efforts.

“Here, business, cultural and sporting bodies are Canberra’s best tools. But Australia’s regional interests demand a hybrid approach that brings the nation’s mandarins and non-government leaders under one roof,” he adds.

The government could also expand civil crisis capability beyond the ADF for fast and sustained deployment overseas.

“So long as global temperatures and sea levels continue to rise, the incidence and severity of climate-related disasters impacting our Pacific neighbours will increase – and Australia has a moral and strategic responsibility to do more,” he claims.

Advisory War Council

Finally, Townshend advocates for the re-establishment of a bipartisan Advisory War Council mechanism.

“By bringing together the cabinet’s National Security Committee with two or three opposition representatives, Australia could pursue an integrated, long-term strategy more effectively,” he writes.

“A new national security council-like organ should enable this approach, organising Australian statecraft at a whole-of-nation level.”

He stresses the council would need a flat structure, remain small in size and have a “top-down mandate” for conducting net assessments and grand strategy.

Townshend also suggests it is staffed with experts from across politics, government, think tanks, business, the sciences and academia to redirect what he described as an “unimaginative interagency process”.

He concludes: “These aren’t the only answers. But they will help Canberra accelerate preparations for a more perilous future.

“Australia must leverage its strengths, exploit its asymmetries and genuinely invest in its Indo-Pacific neighbourhood.

“If Ukraine’s resistance teaches Australia anything, it’s that now is the moment to get ready for great-power competition in our region. This is a race, and time is against us.”

Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on Australia’s future role and position in the Indo-Pacific region and what you would like to see from Australia's political leaders in terms of partisan and bipartisan agenda setting 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.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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