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Discipline needed to secure Australia’s Defence Strategic Review

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Australian Defence Force provides aid to Tonga after the devastating volcanic eruption and tsunami, 21 January 2022 (Photo: Reuters/Australian Defence Force).

In Brief

Over the last 50 years, Australia has produced seven Defence White Papers and dozens of smaller reviews and updates. But however proudly governments announce new policy, Cabinets can change their mind at any time, on any part of the plan.


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This, as Michael Evans famously put it, is the ‘tyranny of dissonance’ in Australian strategy. It is a central challenge facing the newly-published Defence Strategic Review (DSR), which was commissioned by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s Labor Party government after its election in 2022. If the DSR is to achieve its lofty aims of securing Australia in a hostile new era and building an Australian Defence Force (ADF) fit for that purpose, the government’s willingness to be bound by this review will be essential.

Most obvious is the challenge of budgeting. The 1986 Review of Australian Defence Capabilities led by Paul Dibb is held up as the gold standard of force structure reviews. It was based on a modestly growing defence budget. Yet over the next few years, spending as a per cent of GDP would steadily decline from 2.6 to 2.3 per cent, directly cutting funds for new capabilities.

This was at least a better outcome than the ill-fated 2009 Defence White Paper. Its ambitious spending was being cut back as the document went to print. The need for change in the face of the global financial crisis was understandable, but left the document reliant on efficiencies that could never be realised.

Already the signs for the 2023 DSR are troubling. The Albanese government has repeated the need for urgency, yet no extra funding is provided over its four-year forward budget projections. To their credit, they have been willing to make hard cuts within the Department of Defence. But to achieve the full aims of the review, money will have to be found elsewhere in the budget.

Another temptation is opportunistic equipment purchases. Australian governments have a reputation for ad hoc approaches to defence force design. Purchases such as Boeing’s F/A-18F Super Hornets and C-17s may have proven worthwhile, but can also leave the armed forces with a strange assortment of equipment, not entirely designed to meet Australia’s security challenges.

The AUKUS conventionally armed, nuclear-powered submarines certainly fit this bill. As useful as they could be, they are a case of Australia pursuing equipment first and worrying about how to use it later. The DSR endorses their acquisition, though how these submarines support the DSR’s broad strategy of archipelagic deterrence is unclear. In one intriguing passage, the logic runs the other way, stating that the government should review the Navy’s surface combatants so it ‘complement[s] the capabilities provided by the forthcoming’ AUKUS submarines.

The biggest cause of divergence from strategy to practice has been opportunistic deployments of the ADF themselves. Cabinets have committed massive funding and years of effort to developing the ADF to achieve particular tasks, then pivoted to send them on unexpected missions.

Sometimes, this is unavoidable. The 2000 Defence White Paper said nothing about Afghanistan, but the ADF would be there before the end of 2001. But it often reflects an unwillingness to prioritise the important over the urgent. Since the 2020 Defence Strategic Update, the ADF has hardly had a chance to train for war given the demands of helping with fires, floods, quarantines and even Australia’s nursing homes.

The 2023 DSR provides a welcome statement that defence ‘must be the force of last resort for domestic aid to the civil community’. But will the government hold to this principle next time there’s a fire or cyclone and a desperate community demands ADF help?

Making decisions is the prerogative of Cabinet. The military role must be one of ‘service’. Yet the cumulative effect of this ill-discipline over preceding decades means when all indicators for reduced warning time were tripped in 2020, the ADF was no longer designed to defend Australia.

Some believe the real flaw is having strategic documents at all. Why bother if governments change their minds? The Albanese government has taken a different view. It selected two outstanding experts in former defence and foreign minister Stephen Smith and former ADF chief Angus Houston to lead the review, and has been diligent in its involvement. It has also embraced biannual ‘National Defence Strategies’ and made noises about whole-of-government coordination.

The tension here is between discipline and responsiveness. For the last 50 years, Australians were comfortable with a government that was highly responsive and pragmatic. It made sense to adjust the forces to address immediate or unexpected changes. But while there will always be surprises, today there is one overriding challenge — deterring China while helping it find a stable place in the regional order. Only a disciplined approach can meaningfully achieve this.

The authors of the DSR are very aware of this challenge. Their approach is a ‘focused force’ designed for specific scenarios. They place limits on forms of cooperation, such as engagements with European countries, but only in relation to their contributions to the Indo-Pacific. The authors explicitly warn that ‘the review makes significant recommendations … It is therefore critical that a disciplined approach to implementation is undertaken’.

Prior to Australia’s 2022 election, Anthony Albanese demonstrated his discipline. His well-publicised diet was not simply about losing weight, but showed he could forgo the pleasures of today for longer term goals. It is a great principle for today’s circumstances. Australia now has a new defence plan. Hopefully the government can be similarly disciplined in sustaining it over many years to come.

Andrew Carr is a Senior Lecturer at the Strategic & Defence Studies Centre, The Australian National University.

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