Despite the findings of the Defence Strategic Review and the seeming reorientation of Australia towards a concept of “National Defence” and the creation of a “Focused Force”, the eternal question of “What is our strategy?” continues to shape the nation’s response to great power competition and its implications on the Indo-Pacific, drawing on mixed foundations, delivering mixed outcomes.
Australia, like many nations around the world, is at the edge of a precipice of immense economic, political, and strategic change.
The post-Second World War order, established in the dying days of the war and formalised with the Bretton Woods Conference and the formation of the United Nations, set the stage for the period of stability, prosperity, and growth which transformed the world despite periods of tumult.
In putting an end to the often-ancient rivalries between varying imperial powers, the United States, through its post-war might, guaranteed the freedom of the seas and promoted an explosion of free trade across the globe, paving the way for the modern, interconnected global economy and period of innovation we enjoy today.
Through this might, both conventional in its strategic arsenal, the United States established what has become known as a “strategic umbrella” where for greater input into their ally’s security policy and easier access to their markets, the United States would do the heavy lifting on the global geostrategic stage.
Australia, the United Kingdom, Canada, Western Europe, and parts of north Asia, in particular, have served as the major beneficiaries of this new globalised world and radically new approach, ironed out at the Bretton Woods Conference, and then more drastically implemented through policies like the Marshall Plan to reconstruct Europe following the devastation of the Second World War – this golden era of the Pax Americana is now coming to an end.
After all, this recognition forms the foundation of both the 2020 Defence Strategic Update and the recently released Defence Strategic Review which establishes a number of key factors shaping the development and implementation of “National Defence” and the resulting creation of a “Focused Force” to reshape the nation in the era of great power competition.
The Defence Strategic Review details: “Australia’s region, the Indo-Pacific, faces increasing competition that operates on multiple levels – economic, military, strategic and diplomatic – all interwoven and all framed by an intense contest of values and narratives. A large-scale conventional and non-conventional military build-up without strategic reassurance is contributing to the most challenging circumstances in our region for decades. Combined with rising tensions and reduced warning time for conflict, the risks of military escalation or miscalculation are rising.
“In this environment, we must sharpen our focus on what our interests are, and how to uphold them. Our focus needs to be on: how we ensure our fate is not determined by others; how we ensure our decisions are our own; and how we protect our way of life, our prosperity, our institutions and our economy,” the Review articulates.
It can now be safely said that the foundational assumptions of 2020 Defence Strategic Update and the Defence Strategic Review, like virtually every Defence White Paper, have their foundation in two separate doctrines, the first being the post-Second World War doctrine of Forward Defence and the 1987 Paul Dibb-authored Defence White Paper, titled Defence of Australia.
However, for the Australian National University’s senior lecturer in the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Andrew Carr, the Defence Strategic Review and its doctrine of “National Defence” appears to present some degree of hybridisation of the concepts and doctrines of Forward Defence and Defence of Australia with varying degrees of success.
Enter the era of ‘archipelagic deterrence’
There is no escaping the geographic reality that is Australia’s location at the edge of Southeast Asia and at the fulcrum of the Indian and Pacific Oceans, which has long formed the basis of the nation’s defence strategy, that being the “tyranny of distance” which has now, as a result of the economic, political, and strategic rise of the Indo-Pacific, transformed into a “predicament of proximity”.
Highlighting this epoch-defining shift, the Defence Strategic Review articulates: “The Indo-Pacific is the most important geostrategic region in the world. It is a region whose stability and global integration has ushered in decades of prosperity and enabled the incredible growth of regional economies, including China … For military planning, in terms of our strategic geography, the primary area of military interest for Australia’s National Defence is the immediate region encompassing the north-eastern Indian Ocean through maritime Southeast Asia into the Pacific. This region includes our northern approaches.”
Despite identifying this broad geographic area of responsibility, much of the public commentary has focused on Australia’s role in the Pacific, essentially abrogating our national responsibility in the north-eastern Indian Ocean and Southeast Asia (although you could make legitimate claims for this area if responsibility is to be extended to the east coast of Africa and the Persian Gulf, and up into the global maritime commons of the contested South China Sea) seemingly adding credibility to claims made by Carr.
Carr states, “First, Australia has steadily pulled back its zone of concern in response to the threat from China. The 2013 Defence white paper identified Australia’s region as the Indo-Pacific. While a vast region, this excluded the Middle East from Australian strategic concern. The 2016 white paper kept the Indo-Pacific, but emphasised an ‘inner ring’ in maritime Southeast Asia and the Pacific. The 2020 Defence strategic update made that shift explicit, stating that ‘defence planning will focus on our immediate region’, a zone running from the Indian Ocean through Southeast Asia and into the South Pacific, which the 2023 Defence Strategic Review has embraced.”
Where Carr’s first point falls down is the fact that he overlooks the reality that Australia has been withdrawing from its responsibilities across the Indo-Pacific since the shift from “Forward Defence” to “Defence of Australia” in the late-1980s and the nation’s departure from maritime and aerial power projection capabilities with the retirement of the Navy’s two aircraft carriers without replacement in the late-1980s and the retirement of the Air Force’s F-111 bombers in 2010.
This reality is only further compounded by Australia’s glaring lack of amphibious power projection capabilities as typified during the 1998 East Timor intervention and explained by John Blaxland in his report, Information-era Manoeuvre:The Australian-led Mission to East Timor, in which he states, “The East Timor effort also severely strained the limited resources of the Australian Defence Force” following years of scale backs as a result of the 1987 Defence White Paper and its shift towards a posture of purely continental defence.
As part of this broader realignment and restructuring of the Australian Defence Force under the Defence of Australia doctrine, each of the respective branches was fundamentally reshaped to emphasise continental defence through the vaunted “Sea/Air Gap” and provide niche, high-impact forces and capabilities to larger, Coalition forces in support of the post-Second World War order.
In today’s world, this force structure and doctrine approach is no longer fit for purpose, the Defence Strategic Review recognises this, prompting the major realignment of the Australian Defence Force and its capabilities to better meet the tactical and strategic realities of the Indo-Pacific.
Carr highlights this, stating, “Second, the purpose of the Australian Defence Force has firmly shifted from being able to complement Western coalition forces to becoming a ‘focused force’ designed for specific scenarios across the archipelagos to Australia’s north. The ADF’s primary responsibility is to establish an anti-access/area-denial shield across this zone, protecting the Australian continent and – so the government hopes – contributing to the regional balance of power. This involves not only new systems (hence the steady drumbeat of announcements on new missiles, for instance), but also a historic shift in strategy.”
Denial v punishment and deterrence
For the Albanese government, the concept of “Impactful Projection” which is explained by Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Richard Marles, who states, “I think increasingly, we’re going to need to think about our Defence force in terms of being able to provide the country with impactful projection, impactful projection, meaning an ability to hold an adversary at risk, much further from our shores, across kind of the full spectrum of proportionate response. Now, that is actually a different mindset to what we’ve probably had before”, will form the basis of a new emphasis on deterrence as a matter of doctrine.
Yet for Carr, Australia has little-to-no experience in deterrence doctrine or the capabilities required to implement such a strategy.
Referring to Australia’s Cold War-doctrines of Forward Defence and Defence of Australia, Carr states, “Deterrence played almost no part in Australian defence policy during the Cold War. It was seen as inappropriate for a remote threat like the Soviet Union and too unwieldy as a basis for structuring force design. Outside of small deployments to Malaysia in the 1950s and Thailand in the 1960s, Australia didn’t practise or contribute to regional deterrence. Now, however, deterrence is the foundation of Australia’s new approach.”
This isn’t an entirely accurate statement, particularly during the era of Forward Defence in the immediate post-Second World War which saw Australia actively field a range of power projection capabilities, including two aircraft carriers strike groups (with one capable of deployment at any given time), a small fleet of highly capable Oberon Class submarines, a truly immense fleet of strategic bombers immediately post-war, that would then be scaled back to 28 F-111 bombers.
These capabilities supported the Army’s capacity to deploy in support of United Nations operations in Korea, taking a leading role in the Malayan emergency, effectively establishing an Australian strategic umbrella throughout Southeast Asia and across to the British-held islands of Diego Garcia in support of broader US-led efforts to contain the expansion of communism following the fall of China in 1949.
At its core, this strategy of Forward Defence combined elements of traditional power-projection capabilities, combing a degree of mass (especially compared to current personnel fielding) and technological overmatch as a form of deterrence, while leveraging the geographic confines of Southeast Asia and relative isolation from great power friends to defend and promote Australia’s interests in the Indo-Pacific.
In contrast, despite the protestations and rhetoric in the Defence Strategic Review, Carr correctly identifies that this “novel” approach is far from a departure of the Defence of Australia policy in favour of Forward Defence as we would be otherwise led to believe through the concept of “impactful projection”.
Carr states, “The word ‘archipelagic’ is used deliberately here. Australia isn’t trying to defend the entire continent, and nor does it need to. Instead, Australian geography is reconceived as if it is an archipelago of islands to protect and operate from, amid oceans of dirt. The Defence Strategic Review highlights the key ‘nodes’ in this ‘network’ as the ‘Cocos (Keeling) Islands in the northwest, through Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) bases Learmonth, Curtin, Darwin, Tindal, Scherger and Townsville’. This pattern extends north of our territory, though it’s obvious why the review cannot publicly say so.”
Unpacking this further, Carr adds, “Most of the world’s archipelagic states are in our region, and the ADF will have to be able to operate seamlessly in this zone across sea, air and land (as well as underwater, in cyber space and in outer space) to identify and respond to threats. What matters is not whether we can protect every inch of territory – we can’t in the missile age – but whether we can utilise our advantageous distance, while also maintaining and exploiting the connections between.”
With this understanding, it is easy to see how the doctrine presented in the Defence Strategic Review could be interpreted as a hybrid of the doctrines of “Forward Defence” and “Defence of Australia”, however, without a publicly available force structure to interpret and unpack, it is hard to see how we have any real capacity to deliver on the requirements of either doctrine in their full capacity.
While the language used in the Defence Strategic Review and in shaping the development and implementation of both Forward Defence and Defence of Australia, particularly around the differing concepts of “our immediate region”, the sheer geographic scale of our region, as it is now defined, requires a fundamental overhaul of the Australian Defence Force and our primary area of responsibility.
Carr highlights this, stating, “While Australia’s public debate remains focused on Northeast Asian scenarios (Should we defend Taiwan? Are we trying to strike mainland China?), the meat and potatoes of Australian defence policy is back here in our immediate region. The primary features of the new strategy are a tight focus on our core strategic interests (our geography and people), an ADF redesigned for deterrence and warfare across the archipelagos to our north, and a bold shift to allow the US to project military power from our continent to secure the regional balance.”
Importantly, deferring all capacity to effectively “punch” to forward deployed forces from the United States, leaves Australia incredibly vulnerable in the event of hostilities breaking out in the Indo-Pacific, leaving Australia potentially isolated from our great and powerful friend for even short periods of time.
Despite the nation’s virtually unrivalled wealth of natural resources, agricultural and industrial potential, there is a lack of a cohesive national security strategy integrating the development of individual, yet complementary public policy strategies to support a more robust Australian role in the region.
While contemporary Australia has been far removed from the harsh realities of conflict, with many generations never enduring the reality of rationing for food, energy, medical supplies or luxury goods, and even fewer within modern Australia understanding the socio-political and economic impact such rationing would have on the now world-leading Australian standard of living.
As events continue to unfold throughout the region and China continues to throw its economic, political and strategic weight around, can Australia afford to remain a secondary power, or does it need to embrace a larger, more independent role in an era of increasing great power competition?