Australia’s Defense Strategic Review 2023 – OpEd
By Sher Bano
Australia’s federal government released the Defence Strategic Review on April 24, 2023, which is part of a larger classified version that will guide Australian defense thinking for at least the rest of the decade. The review has been driven by both strategic and political imperatives, with the government needing to reprioritize the defense budget and address unfunded defense projects while also establishing its credentials as a reliable government for national security. The review acknowledges that Australia can no longer rely on warning time for conflicts as it has in the past and that urgent action is needed to achieve higher levels of military preparedness and accelerated capability development.
The report suggested that the government firstly needs to reallocate its defense budget due to unfunded defense projects left by the previous coalition government, which requires cutting funding. Adding to this challenge, the announcement of the AUKUS submarine plan in March 2023 means that the government must secure up to 360 billion AUD to fund its nuclear-powered submarine program. Secondly, the left-of-center Albanese Labor government wants to establish itself as a reliable government for national security, as conservative governments have traditionally been seen as stronger in this area in Australia. Thus, the government hopes that the report will help shift citizens’ sentiment on this matter.
Secondly it highlights the need for urgent action as the current strategic situation requires higher levels of military preparedness and accelerated capability development. The review acknowledges that Australia can no longer rely on warning time as it has in the past. Furthermore, it suggests a departure from the typical approach to policy development, risk management, and Defence preparedness, which may require subsequent reviews, including one on the size of the naval fleet. However, the review’s proposals may be hindered by the previous defense reviews’ failure to bring about significant changes in the department. Additionally, the left-of-center government hopes that this review will help shift public sentiment on national security and establish itself as a reliable government for national security.
As far as deterrence is concerned, the review endorses deterrence by denial strategy. To accomplish this, Australia must develop a force capable of projecting power over longer distances against potential adversaries. Missiles are the preferred means to achieve this, while the USAF B21 bomber is specifically excluded. The review provides detailed guidance on the need for a new deterrence approach. However, the effectiveness of deterrence by denial hinges on a clear purpose, particularly regarding the target and the reasons behind it, as well as an understanding of an adversary’s risk calculation. Unfortunately, the review is missing information on who is being deterred, which is a significant oversight.
The Defence Strategic Review endorses investing in long- and medium-range missiles and advocates for the widespread deployment of autonomous systems, as well as advanced capabilities like nuclear-propelled submarines and collaboration on advanced technologies through AUKUS Pillar 2. The review also suggests establishing a new government program, the Advanced Strategic Capabilities Accelerator (ASCA), to address an existing gap between the Department of Defence and Australian companies. This program will likely operate outside of the Department of Defence and receive government priorities, working with industry to develop innovative asymmetric capabilities.
The review reaffirms the focus on its immediate region in the north-eastern Indian Ocean, maritime Southeast Asia, and the Pacific, as previously stated in the Defence Strategic Update 2022. The ADF’s efforts will concentrate on the eastern side of the Indian Ocean to avoid commitments in the western Indian Ocean. While the review mainly centers on Australia’s capabilities rather than regional relationships, it proposes expanding Australia’s Defence Cooperation Program in the Indian Ocean region, which may involve expanding the Pacific Maritime Security Program, also known as the Pacific Patrol Boat Program.
The review proposes several significant changes to Australia’s defence posture. It suggests moving away from the “Defence of Australia” strategy, which the Australian Defence Force (ADF) has employed for decades, to a focus on “National Defence.” This will involve a comprehensive effort by the whole nation and government to improve resilience across all domains, including sea, air, land, cyber, and space. The review also advocates for a deterrence strategy through denial, which will prioritize anti-access/area denial capabilities such as long-range strike and undersea capabilities. Additionally, the alliance with the United States will remain central to Australia’s security and strategy, and investing in other Indo-Pacific partnerships, including with India, is essential. The ADF will be transformed from a Balanced Force to a Focused or a Balanced Force, and Australia will develop indigenous long-range missile manufacturing. The review also notes that Australia’s strategic posture is no longer based on a 10-year warning time, and instead, it identifies three periods: 2023-25 for urgent matters, 2026-2030, and 2031 and beyond.
The writer is working as a Research Officer at the Strategic Vision Institute (SVI), a non-partisan think-tank based out of Islamabad, Pakistan.