The Australian Government commissioned an Independent Defence Strategic Review to assess whether Australia had the necessary capability to best meet the threats in the current environment. The review was undertaken by Ex Australian Defence Minister Stephen Smith and retired Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston. The report is in the public domain and the Australian government has declared its support to the strategic direction and key findings of the report. As such, the report provides a window into the envisaged course that Australian defence preparedness is likely to undertake in the next decade or so.
The report bases its approach on its assessment of the strategic environment in the Indo-Pacific, and recognizes the necessity to ensure it remains rules based and predictable. According to the assessment of the authors of the report, large scale force buildup without strategic reassurance, together with shorter warning time, risks of military miscalculations, combined with climate change effects, are encroaching on strategic decision-making areas of countries in the region. Further, the surging Australian trade and commerce requires its connectivity with other countries remaining durable. The requirement for Australia is to use all elements of its national power, statecraft, partners and strengthening of its defence forces to ensure stability and predictability in the region.
Australian Defence Posture
Australians feel their defence lies within the ambit of collective defence of the Indo-Pacific. Australia must contribute with its partners to the collective security and rules-based order in its region, while keeping its connectivity with the world, open. The study seems to identify the northern approaches to Australia as the greater risk. The focus is apparently on Australia developing anti-access and area denial capabilities. The bulwark of such strategy will be long range missile systems to contest inimical forces from closing in within their operational range and a strong submarine force for area denial.
The study recommends a departure from a ‘Balanced Force’ to a ‘Focused Force’ structure. The balanced force structure was a response to meeting a host of contingencies when the strategic situation remained uncertain. Its design is more for the continental defence of Australia and low-level threats. The Focused Force structure will be designed to address ’Australia’s most significant military risks’. The forces have also to transform from being joint forces to an integrated force and thus be able to address the new domains of warfare, including space and cyber. They would also need to ensure National Defence.
Domain Specific Implications on Force Structures
The dual task and ability to operate in ‘Australia’s immediate region’ and also protect sea lanes of communications and ‘maritime trade’ imposes major demands on the Navy. The study confirms the moves to acquire nuclear powered, conventionally armed submarines as a strength in the ‘strategy of denial, anti-submarine warfare and long-range strike’ options.
There is also a need for better surface combat fleet to enhance long range strike, and air defence capabilities. Keeping in view the tasks of the Australian Navy, to include SLOC protection, a true-blue water navy with capabilities extending beyond regional limits, and dissuasive area denial wherewithal is required.
The land forces need more littoral maneuver capabilities, long range fires, new Infantry Combat Vehicles (ICV), their numbers however have been reduced from an earlier projection of 450 to 129. The priority has obviously been given to quality over quantity. The study also recommends the induction of HIMARS and cancellation of plans for lesser range gun systems in the induction pipeline.
The Australian Air Force needs to focus on developing it northern airbases. It has to enhance Air Defence, Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance and Anti-Submarine Warfare capabilities. The Air Force also requires air-to-air refueling and air mobility. Long Range Anti-Ship missiles on F 35s and F 18F Super Hornets, has been identified by the study as necessary options.
An important area addressed in the Cyber domain is the creation of a Cyber Work Force. The study calls for enhancement of Cyber and Information operations capabilities to be scaled up to meet current and emerging challenges. It recommends the existing,’Space Command to be re-postured within the Defence to maximise its effectiveness’.
The study also takes into consideration climate change, equipment procurement, man power induction and training.
Analysis of the Review
The report focuses greatly on development of Naval power and nuclear submarines, the role of AUKUS and technology development and its induction has been stressed upon. The report is critical of the procurement system and calls for a more responsive process. The land forces have been given comparatively lesser resources. The objective being to fight the battle decisively at a distance from its land mass.
The rise of China and its increased belligerency has served as a primer to countries in the Indo-Pacific region to boost their military capabilities at a rapid pace. Australia enjoys the benefits of its borders being mostly along sea waters. As already stated, the Australian endeavour seems to be directed at contesting the aggressor at deep distances to disallow the threat to manifest on its shores. Should such an eventuality be the case, Australia will cater for it with its mechanized forces. An armoured brigade with state-of-art infantry combat vessels integral to it, caters for such an eventuality.
Australia’s long term strategic threat perception post World War II visualised the warning time for a strategic threat in a 10-year timeframe. Today, with technology developing at a far more rapid pace, such calculations don’t hold good. The possibility of the Taiwan issue blowing up earlier and the battlespace in such a case extending to Australia shores, cannot be put aside. The threat to Sea lanes of Communications in the Indo-Pacific in such an eventuality pushes Australia to participate in endeavours to curtail the threat, thereby making its own territories, susceptible to aggressive designs by an opponent.
Along with India, Australia is a part of the QUAD. Australia evolving into a more powerful State, would be welcomed by the other members of QUAD – Japan, US and India. The current threat perception of QUAD countries needs to retain convergence when it comes to the issue of China. Australia has re-initiated its participation in the Indian Navy hosted Ex Malabar. QUAD has definitely also increased the meetings between the senior leaderships of both countries.
There is however a lot more ground to cover and trust to build within the alignments and between the alignments and countries in the region. The advantage that AUKAS or QUAD members enjoy in the South China Sea Region is based on the fact that every other State has a dispute with the Chinese because of its unsubstantiated territorial claims. These smaller countries would also like to see a tighter alignment of major powers to keep the Chinese at bay, and serve as a stabilising force in the region.
Brig SK Chatterji (Retd)