Australia’s Strategic Defence Review Divergence

Australia is favouring the HIMARS, like this USMC example exercising in Australia in 2023, over conventional tube artillery. (Gordon Arthur)

The military rise of the People’s Republic of China has been rapid, even though warning signals have existed for years. Such strategic competition has required Australia to conduct a serious makeover of its defence via its Defence Strategic Review (DSR), published earlier this year on 24 April.

Canberra trumpeted the fact that this is the most significant defence review since the Second World War. Yet this claim raises the question as to why Australian defence planners did not see this ‘change of winds’ coming. Surely, they should have anticipated an increasingly belligerent People’s Liberation Army (PLA) years ago, rather than suddenly veering in a new direction through the most recent DSR?

The 110-page document recommended major alterations for the Australian Defence Force (ADF), and the need to “hold an adversary at risk farther from our shores”. The ADF must defend the northern approaches, and transition to a strategy of denial. This will entail moving from a balanced force to a focused force, and simultaneously from a joint force to an integrated force.

However, the DSR avoided the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) almost totally. Instead, the results of a separate naval review is due in September. The looming expense of nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs) is going to dominate the defence budget for decades to come, and their tremendous procurement and sustainment costs will clearly mean huge sacrifices elsewhere. A cutback in Hunter-class frigates is likely, as the RAN seeks a larger number of smaller but lethal surface vessels.

The whole tri-lateral AUKUS proposal has not been thought through carefully. Canberra’s knee-jerk reaction cancelled French submarines, swapping over to AUKUS submarines with minimal consideration of the dire consequences for other defence programmes.

Perhaps the sharpest example is the plight of Project Land 400 Phase 3. This programme was slashed from 450 infantry fighting vehicles (IFV) to just 129 Hanwha AS21 Redbacks. This flippant dismissal of IFVs flies in the face of Ukraine’s war against Russia, where platform numbers are vital to overcome attrition.

Australian planners thus seem to have dismissed significant Ukrainian evidence, including the importance of artillery on the battlefield. The report thus cancelled Project Land 8116 Phase 2’s second regiment of Hanwha (K9) AS9 Huntsman self-propelled howitzers, instead putting its eggs in the Lockheed Martin HIMARS basket.

The army will move towards a single combined-arms brigade, and it will boost long-range fires (including coastal maritime strike), as well as air and missile defence. In its wisdom – which is questionable given that it did not sufficiently anticipate the PLA’s rise – the ADF believes combined-arms warfare (the dominant land warfare concept for the past several decades) is no longer relevant.

Changes to the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) are less controversial. Lockheed Martin F-35A and Boeing F/A-18F fighters will receive Lockheed Martin AGM-158C Long-Range Anti-Ship Missiles (LRASM), and Kongsberg’s Joint Strike Missile (JSM) will be integrated onto the F-35A. Fielding Boeing’s MQ-28A Ghost Bat UCAVs will also be prioritised.

The DSR listed six immediate actions: invest in SSNs; develop long-range precision strike capabilities and manufacture munitions domestically; improve the ability to operate from Australia’s northern bases; lift the ability to rapidly translate disruptive new technologies into the Australian Defence Force (ADF); grow and retain a defence workforce; and deepen Indo-Pacific diplomatic and defence partnerships.

However, does Australia’s long-range strike capability extend far enough? Practically all weapons have a range less than 540 nautical miles (1,000 kilometres), and air-launched ones are limited by fighter survivability in contested environments. Against the might of the PLA Rocket Force, it could be argued that Australia’s proposed “impactful projection” does not go far enough.

The following were listed as critical ADF capabilities: maritime unmanned surface and underwater vehicles (USVs and UUVs) for Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR); enhanced integrated targeting; long-range strike weapons for all domains; amphibious-capable combined-arms land system; all-domain sea denial operations; networked expeditionary air operations; integrated air and missile defence; joint and expeditionary theatre logistics system; theatre Command & Control network; and a network of northern bases for logistics support, denial and deterrence.

Ironically, the long wait for the DSR to be released slowed down ADF procurements. Its subsequent publication will likely cause even more delays, as officials rearrange priorities and implement recommendations. The DSR is also bad news for Australia’s defence industry, since off-the-shelf equipment will routinely be purchased offshore.

Furthermore, the elephant in the room is money. How is Australia going to pay for all this, and which programmes will be reduced in order to divert funds to its new priorities such as prohibitively expensive submarines?

by Gordon Arthur