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Defence Strategic Update 2020: A first assessment

A candid assessment of Australia's challenges, but will the planned measures be enough?

Royal Australian Navy East Asia Deployment 2019 (Department of Defence)
Royal Australian Navy East Asia Deployment 2019 (Department of Defence)

The Defence Strategic Update 2020 launched yesterday in Canberra is a notably candid assessment of the strategic challenges Australia faces and the measures with which the government plans to meet them. It explicitly declares “Australia’s ability – and willingness – to project military power and deter actions against us”. This is a sweeping agenda and the update is as ambitious in its strategic scope as in its capability plans.

That said, while it does not reject the possibility of Australia’s involvement in US-led coalition operations further afield, the update is explicit in focusing defence planning “on our immediate region: ranging from the north-eastern Indian Ocean, through maritime and mainland South East Asia to Papua New Guinea and the South West Pacific”. If Australia’s “backyard” still encompasses a significant percentage of the earth’s surface, there is nevertheless recognition of the vital interests at stake and – to an extent – of Australia’s own limitations.

The analysis of the immediate region in the update proposes a whole-of-government approach that will be central to effective management of our situation. Notably, the update reflects the intent to focus on the protection of a geostrategic ecosystem, rather than territory, and thus sensibly rejects some of the continentalist ideas which have dogged the Australian defence debate over many years. The update stresses the requirement for self-reliance in deterrent effects, as well as the need to ensure that Australia’s operational access to its area of direct strategic interest cannot be constrained by an adversary. It calls for greater readiness for high intensity operations as well as the ability to deal with “grey zone” conflict – and deal with it across the technology spectrum. Cyber threats and the vulnerability of both civil and military activities to network attack are clearly at the forefront of the government’s mind.

The implication of the government’s judgements is that the units already in service are increasingly likely to be going in harm’s way. They must be equipped accordingly.

Although the update is careful with its language, there is a much greater emphasis (compared to much of the past) on Australia’s need to develop independent capabilities as well as international partnerships in addition to that with the United States. The alliance with the US is in no way rejected, but the requirement to enhance relationships with such countries as Japan, India and Indonesia receives considerable attention. As it should.

China is named only seven times in the update and then implied in general references to strategic competition or possible conflict with the US, as well as its more active presence in the region. Nevertheless, the update is explicitly a response to the reality that “habits of cooperation in the Indo-Pacific are being challenged” and it makes the cause obvious.

In launching the update, the Prime Minister suggested that there are echoes of the 1930s in the present day. The update’s rejection of the ten years of strategic warning time used in the past is perhaps the clearest example of this. Notably, the government has been much more explicit than the British were when the latter made the same call in November 1933. Then, the “Ten Year Rule was quietly allowed to lapse”, as historian Stephen Roskill describes it. 

Although platforms remain the focus of much planned expenditure, Defence clearly intends to achieve a much more credible total capability for sustained conflict, with greater priority being given to long-range sensors and strike weapons, as well as increased stocks of munitions and improved logistic support. There also is a desire to create more Australian-controlled national capabilities in the form of satellite communications and improvements to systems such as over-the-horizon radar. Significantly, the latter will be looking in directions additional to its existing northern outlook. Maritime manoeuvre capabilities will continue to be improved, as well as the Army’s waterborne elements for coastal and riverine operations.

Secretary of Defence Greg Moriarty, Chief of the Defence Force General Angus Campbell and Minister for Defence Linda Reynolds (L-R) at the Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra, 1 July 2020 (Department of Defence)

The breakdown of funding allocations between the various domains that the update sets out over the next decade is much more closely balanced than some critics of the national shipbuilding program might think. At 28%, the maritime domain leads those of the air (at 24%) and land (at 20%). This is significant but not disproportionate – and reflects the fact that much naval new construction will only enter service well after 2030. This makes the promised updates for the Hobart- and Anzac-class surface combatants, as well as the effective sustainment and life extension programs planned for the Collins-class submarines, even more important. The implication of the government’s judgements is that the units already in service are increasingly likely to be going in harm’s way. They must be equipped accordingly.

Improvements in their defences are not being ignored, but the update’s main priorities are shown by the intent to provide our naval forces with increased long-range strike capabilities. The 2020 Force Structure Plan promises investment in advanced maritime guided weapons, both for anti-ship and land strike, as well as long-range surface-to-air weapons. Added to this will be the longer-range strike weapons and loitering munitions planned for the air combat forces, as well as a regiment of land-based strike weapons.

One of the most important new acquisitions will be smart sea mines. These are identified as being intended to “secure Australia’s maritime approaches”, but such weapons will have considerable potential for offensive deployment much further afield, even to the entrances of an adversary’s own naval bases. Alongside the increased emphasis on defensive mine warfare, this recognition of the potential of such undersea weapons is long overdue.

There have been economies, particularly in the air domain. Some are not unexpected, such as the decision not to acquire additional C-17 transport aircraft. The government has also left the final form of the future maritime surveillance capability to be defined. The apparent absence of the intended additional three P-8A Poseidon aircraft from the table of planned expenditure may be significant.

There are inevitably other unanswered questions. While the government has set out spending plans and openly decoupled them from GDP at a time when the latter is diminishing, if economic problems continue, Defence will come under intense pressure to make reductions. But the more critical uncertainties are these: will the planned measures be enough, and will they be in place in time to achieve the deterrent effects now deemed so necessary?

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