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The most significant defence review in 40 years positions Australia for complex threats in a changing region


For the publication of the government’s strategic review today, Defense Secretary Richard Marles said it would be the most significant survey of Australia’s defense capabilities since the 1986 “Dibb Report” written by Professor Paul Dibb.

As such were direct comparisons of the two documents already made before today’s release.

The Dibb report told a fascinating story. It started by stating unequivocally that Australia “one of the safest countries in the world” and argued that we have a “strategy of denial“, which would

allowing our geography to impose long lines of communication on an adversary and force an aggressor to consider the ultimate prospect of fighting in unfamiliar and generally inhospitable terrain.

The Dibb report maintained the naval and air gap in northern Australia that could be rendered impassable if the Australian Defense Force (ADF) exploited its technological lead in naval, air and surveillance capabilities. In turn, the ADF’s demonstrated ability to sink or shoot down enemy units attempting to cross the moat would deter other nations from attacking.

Unsurprisingly, the Australian Army saw itself as the big loser in the Dibb report, having been relegated to collecting stray enemy forces that washed up along Australia’s northern coast.

Three different schools of thought on defence

Today’s Defense Strategic Review begins by outlining the fundamental geopolitical changes that have occurred in Australia’s region over the past few decades. The assessment is important because it openly states that the US no longer enjoys hegemony in the region, while China is now a major power peer and competitor.

In my book Australian defense strategyI identify different traditions within Australian defense policy.

The first is that the defense of the continent must be Australia’s main strategic objective. There is some disagreement within this school of thought about whether Australia needs the ability to outright stop an adversary when they cross the sea, sky or cyber rift to attack Australia.

Or, as a defense expert Hugo White tends to argue, simply making it too risky and expensive for an enemy is enough to deter an attack.

Read more: ​​​​The highly anticipated defense review is here. So what does it say, and what does it mean for Australia?

Another school of thought, which I call the ‘status quo defense policy’ tradition, argues that as long as there is a favorable balance of power in our region, Australia will remain relatively safe.

This logic was once linked to Imperial defense – as long as Britain ruled the waves, Australia would be relatively safe from attack.

Later, this thinking was redirected to the American primacy in the Asia-Pacific region. This position argued that Australia’s defenses were maintained by throwing our weight behind our guarantee of security from the Great Power, even if it meant fighting far from our shores.

Finally, there is a tradition that argues that defense thinking has been too focused on traditional threats from other nations. Defense policy should be treated as “national security”, better mitigating threats from non-state actors, such as terrorists, failed states, infectious diseases and climate change.

The USS Antietam conducted operations in the Taiwan Strait last August.
US Navy handout/EPA

A convergence of the three traditions

We can clearly see the influence of these three traditions in the new defense strategic review.

First, the “strategy of denial” returns to the center of Australia’s defensive position. Consequently, there is a strong emphasis on the safety of the waters around Australia and our ability to prevent enemies from operating here.

The army sees itself pushed aside again and is not happy about it. For example, retired Major General Mick Ryan describes the government’s planned reduction in the number of infantry fighting vehicles from 450 to 129 as “a kick in the guts for the military”.

While the strategic defense review means the Army will be asked to move in a very different direction from the one it had hoped to take, it shouldn’t believe it’s being relegated to Australia’s strategic goalkeeper once again.

The review calls for the accelerated procurement of medium and heavy landing craft and the US-made High Mobility Artillery Rocket (HIMARS) system currently used with great success by the Ukrainian military against Russian forces. This would give Australia an unprecedented ability to attack long range missiles from land.

The intent is clearly to send the military forward to deny adversaries far from Australia’s own coastline the sea, air and land. Rather, my research team and I have the geostrategic importance of Manus Island for such a role.

This reflects think similar in the US Marine Corps, under the Force Design 2030 restructuring plan, deploying land forces in maritime environments armed with long-range precision strikes to limit an opponent’s maneuverability.

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A HIMARS missile is launched during a joint military exercise between the Philippines and the US in March.
Aaron Favila/AP

Doubling the US alliance

The defense strategic review also doubles down on Australia’s alliance with the US.

The 1986 Dibb Report argued that the US was a global power with global interests and therefore Australia would be wise to emphasize “self-reliance” for all potential low and medium level conflicts.

The assumption in the current strategic review is that China is the biggest geopolitical challenge for both Washington and Canberra, and this convergence of strategic interests and focus will result in a closer alliance between the two.

This section of the document reflects the tradition of “status quo defense policy” within Australian strategic thinking – if US power alone cannot maintain a favorable balance of power in the region, then Australia, Japan, India and other like-minded nations would put their weight on the scales.

A new threat: climate change

Finally, one of the most notable features of the review is the amount of time devoted to the impacts of climate change on the Australian Defense Force.

Although climate change has been mentioned in previous defense whitepapers, these references are generally only made in passing. The review goes much deeper and even advocates forgoing fossil fuels in defense purchases, which could have both positive operational and environmental effects.

This follows the latest train of thought on the importance of recognizing non-traditional threats to our security, such as climate change.

Read more: Climate change poses ‘immediate threat’ to Australia’s national security. It must be a political priority

Why the review is happening now

Overall, the Defense Strategic Review had very ambitious objectives and was prepared within a very tight timeframe.

A comparison with the Dibb report makes it possible to identify some strengths and weaknesses in the current review. Ironically, these strengths and weaknesses can be seen as different sides of the same coin.

The main strength of the review is in combining the main traditions of Australian strategic thinking into one document. The main weakness is that some of these traditions pull in different directions. The kind of capabilities Canberra would likely need to defend the Australian continent would not be best suited to contribute to US-led multinational coalitions in the Indo-Pacific.

1986 was a simpler time. The Defense Strategic Review makes that clear a new multipolar Asia will require a more nuanced and sophisticated defensive posture.

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