Defence Strategic Review calls for significant overhaul with China looming large

Australia’s military will be significantly reshaped to deal with the profound risks the nation faces from the rising might of China, in response to a landmark strategic review.

The advice comes in a declassified version of the Defence Strategic Review by former ADF chief Angus Houston and former minister Stephen Smith, released by the Federal Government on Monday.

It calls for a new approach to defence planning and strategy, labelled National Defence, that goes back to fundamentals to avoid the prospect of major conflict in our region that directly threatens our national interest.

The 80s-era Defence of Australia doctrine is “no longer fit for purpose” while the concept of a “balanced force” where the ADF works at home, in the region and in conflicts further afield “reflects a bygone era”.

It uses sharper language on China than the 2020 strategic update, pointing to the Asian giant’s military build-up, assertion of sovereignty over the South China Sea and strategic competition in Australia’s near neighbourhood.

“Intense China-United States competition is the defining feature of our region and our time,” it says.

“Strategically, we may have already entered a decisive period for the Indo-Pacific.

“This necessitates a managed, but nevertheless focused, sense of urgency. It is clear that a business-as-usual approach is not appropriate.”

It notes there is currently “only a remote possibility” of a power contemplating an invasion of the Australian continent, but warns “the threat of the use of military force of coercion against Australia does not require invasion”.

The rise of cyber warfare, the proliferation of long-range strike missiles and Australia’s reliance on maritime trade routes for its economic prosperity mean it can be threatened from afar.

Camera IconFormer ADF chief Angus Houston helped lead the review. Credit: Simon Santi/WA News

The review says the US alliance remains central but Australia must also be more self-reliant so it can contribute to regional stability.

It also states climate change will increase the challenges for Australia, including putting more call on the need for humanitarian responses at home and abroad, but the ADF must be the last resort for responding to disasters.

The Government has agreed or agreed in principle to all 62 public recommendations.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said this represented Australia’s most significant defence overhaul since WWII.

“In a world where challenges to our national security are always evolving, we cannot fall back on old assumptions,” he said.

“We must build and strengthen our security by seeking to shape the future rather than waiting for the future to shape us.”

Former minister Stephen Smith.
Camera IconFormer minister Stephen Smith. Credit: Danella Bevis/The West Australian

The new approach calls for a more integrated defence force that works across sea, land, air, space and cyber domains.

The ADF would focus its mission more narrowly on five areas: defending Australia and the immediate region, deterring any adversary that sought to project power against Australia’s northern approaches, protecting Australia’s economic connections, assisting with the collective security of the Indo-Pacific, and maintaining the global rules-based order.

“We are facing the most challenging set of strategic circumstances that we have for decades, and we do so at a time where Australia’s economic connection with the world has never been greater,” Defence Minister Richard Marles said.

“All of this is a watershed moment for Defence policy in our country’s history and what it will provide for is an Australian Defence Force befitting of a much more confident and self-reliant nation.”

There will need to be a continuous shipbuilding program; beefed up bases and ports in northern Australia, including at Curtin and Learmonth in WA; a significant recruitment drive; and a changed focus to acquiring equipment more quickly rather than pursuing the “perfect solution or process”, including manufacturing munitions domestically.

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