The Challenge to Design the Force Australia Needs, Not Deliver the Toys Defence Really Wants
Defence is in a big hole and true to form, continues to dig itself deeper.
The capability design of the Australian Defence Force (ADF) – known as “force structure” – is severely mismatched to conditions and trends emerging within the Indo-Pacific region. Put more simply, the ADF is buying too many of the wrong capabilities and perpetuating a legacy force.
Australia needs more diversified military capabilities to be fielded within this decade in order to expand the choices and options available to future governments. As it stands now, the Morrison Government has invested too heavily in too few exquisite weapons systems, at eye-watering costs, for delivery in the never-never of the 2030s and 2040s.
The Liberals’ plan is a recipe for obscene waste and invites failure unless decisive action is taken.
What has changed strategically?
Australia today is facing the greatest uncertainty in its region since 1942. China’s aggressive military expansionism and revisionist behaviours are the foremost concern. New capabilities – including long-range anti-ship ballistic and cruise missiles, hypersonic and orbital space weapons, and layers of offensive cyber and electronic warfare means – are dramatically changing the Indo-Pacific military balance. And it’s just not what can be easily seen and traditionally measured in grey hulls, missiles, jets, bombers, tanks and so on.
“Grey-zone” coercion – the use of asymmetric tactics to achieve strategic goals without the overt use of military force – has increased in intensity over the past decade. Land reclamation in the South China Sea, cyber-attacks, political interference, hostage diplomacy and hiding military activities behind civilian fronts all contribute to destabilising regional order. Based on the ADF’s current force structure and posture, these combined developments are accelerating trends which impact Australia’s capacity to defend and secure its immediate region and its sea and air approaches. These trends are real, notwithstanding the significant harm caused by Morrison’s gormless diplomacy and Dutton’s boorish scaremongering.
The Liberals’ legacy of failure
To its credit, the Morrison Government’s 2020 Defence Strategic Update (DSU20) was a mature and sober judgement about Australia’s strategic environment. It told the ADF to focus on Australia’s immediate region, to build greater deterrent and grey-zone capabilities, and to increase self-reliance and resilience. But despite conceiving a reasonable strategy, the Liberals failed to coherently plan the force needed to execute it. The accompanying 2020 Force Structure Plan (FSP20) squibbed hard decisions. For many defence experts, it’s as if the strategy (DSU20) and materiel (FSP20) plans were written in splendid isolation.
Should it win office in 2022, Labor’s immediate defence priority must be to recast the ADF force structure plan. As a nation of modest strategic weight and finite resources, we can’t allow Defence to continue wasting billions and billions of dollars on irrelevant, non- performing capabilities. Defence’s fiscal slice is now $44.6 bn in FY2021/22 or 2.09 percent of GDP. In real terms, this is forecast to reach $49.7 bn (2.23 percent) by 2024/25.
Future governments (of any persuasion) will likely need to sustain defence spending at these levels, as a minimum, for at least the next two decades. Achieving greater self-reliance and resilience will only strengthen the imperative for further defence spending increases beyond 2.5 percent of GDP before 2030.
Yet, thanks to the Morrison Government’s profligacy, debt is forecast to peak by mid-2025 at $980.6 bn, or 40.9 percent of GDP. That’s not to mention growing unfunded superannuation liabilities, nor the expanding pressures of the age pension, Medicare, the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme and the National Disability Insurance Scheme.
A new Labor government can decisively reorientate Australia’s defence settings through these five prudent actions.
1. Hard choices must be made
Existing or planned ADF capabilities not suited to Australia’s immediate region, or that are mismatched to adversary trends, should be completely divested, scaled down in size or transferred to the reserves. Resource savings made – in cash and workforce – can be harvested and reinvested into more essential capabilities.
Besides the well-chronicled submarine debacle, several other projects already stand out as deeply troubling. Army’s tank, heavy infantry fighting vehicle and self-propelled artillery investments, together worth around $40 bn, do not match Australia’s littoral and archipelagic surrounds. Navy’s Hunter-class frigate program, nine ships planned for $45 bn, is already running late despite the first ship being not expected until 2033 (and ninth in 2047). Despite their cost and large 10,000-ton size, each ship will only be armed with a paltry 32 missile cells.
2. Prioritising what we need for the 2020s first
Today’s ADF lacks the means for long-range strike and area denial which can help deter destabilising behaviours. New long-range firepower, mobility and collection capabilities are needed so the ADF can credibly pose dilemmas against more capable adversaries in a future crisis. This is a race, and time is against us.
Ground-based air defence, land-based missile, offensive cyber and electronic warfare, and counter-space capabilities, planned for the 2030s, should be accelerated for entry before 2025 and expanded in scale to overcome some of the ADF’s existing vulnerabilities. These should be purchased through a “military-off-the-shelf” approach to reduce risk and meet timeframes, particularly those proven in-service and which have commonality with US, British and Japanese forces. These would also offer an immediate value demonstration of the new AUKUS defence technology pact.
For grey-zone coercion, the ADF needs new intelligence and influence options, extensively underpinned by regional languages. National intelligence agencies have finite resources which ought to be prioritised towards problems of the highest risk and sensitivity based on their specialised roles. While the atrocities and toxicities revealed by the Brereton inquiry demand an urgent re-imagination of Australia’s special operations approach.
Elsewhere, large unmanned underwater vehicles and other novel undersea options should be pursued as cheap mitigations for Morrison’s submarine disaster.
Army needs to embrace becoming an archipelagic force with an irregular mindset. Australia’s maritime surrounds need agile land forces which can seize chokepoints, move rapidly and work closely with local partners in order to pose dilemmas against adversary air and naval forces.
Air Force needs to hasten procurement of unmanned aerial vehicles and widen its use of small commercial-based aircraft. These are both cheap, easily sustainable and offer many uses in the Southwest Pacific – including for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief as climate risks exacerbate.
3. Becoming more self-reliant to sustain our advanced capabilities
What’s the point of buying the best equipment – like the F-35 joint strike fighter or AH-64E Apache attack helicopter – if we can’t maintain, update or fix them ourselves? In a crisis, there won’t be the time to send them back to the US or Europe for deep repair.
To create new long-term defence jobs and overcome sovereign vulnerabilities, Labor should deepen the domestic technical and industrial base needed to sustain advanced ADF capabilities. An accord between government, unions, industry and universities would fast- track a targeted training initiative, through sponsored technical apprenticeships and advanced higher degrees, to help overcome short-term skilled labour shortages. These science and technology investments would also deliver cascading effects into the wider economy.
The Singaporean and Israeli models are worthy examples to learn from. Both have long demonstrated that small nations can develop advanced defence industries and achieve high degrees of sovereign autonomy. But in pursuing greater self-reliance, a conscious acquisition policy choice must be made.
Defence projects should no longer be distorted to pork-barrel ephemeral local manufacturing jobs, like the 30 self-propelled artillery guns to be shortly built in Geelong (under licence from South Korea). In past projects, jobs dividends have invariably been short-lived; production inefficient and behind schedule; the long-term benefits illusory.
If an advanced capability can be bought from an established production line overseas – with less technical and schedule risk, at a cheaper rate – then that’s what Defence should buy. In the current budget context, establishing complex limited-run production lines at home is simply unaffordable. For example, regardless whether a US or British nuclear submarine is chosen for Navy, it should be built in either Groton or Barrow-in-Furness, with decades of expertise and mature build efficiencies.
4. Deepening resilience to make more here at home
As an “end of the line” nation, Australia is vulnerable to global supply shocks. For defence, that means ammunition, fuels, oils and lubricants, batteries and holdings of unique spare parts. As examples, what’s the point of buying the best equipment if we don’t have the missile stocks on hand or the unique fuel types in abundance?
The recent initiative establishing a $1 bn sovereign guided weapons enterprise is a welcome start. But more political clout will likely be needed in Washington to enable licensed manufacturing of sensitive types here, like the SM-2 or SM-6 surface-to-air missiles.
On fuel security, Angus Taylor’s pitiable answer was to buy two days’ supply within the existing US strategic petroleum reserve. How such fuel is supposed to quickly be shipped to Australia in a crisis situation has never been explained.
Labor needs to efficiently re-establish lost refining capability in Australia, as well as quickly commence building a national fuel reserve. Ideally, the private sector should lead these initiatives. Given the market failure in domestic refining, a future Labor government should not be afraid to directly intervene to ensure strategic needs are fully met.
5. Defence can’t be relied upon to change itself
Successive governments have tried to reform Defence’s bureaucracy and culture with questionable success. Reform fatigue, coupled with a lack of available time, impel a markedly different approach to realise this agenda.
A new Labor government should appoint a Royal Commission – a strategic “red team” legally empowered to cut through Defence’s torpor and obstinance – to plan a new ADF force structure and determine national-level changes needed to deepen Australia’s self- reliance and resilience. Its commissioners should be experts who are clearly divorced from status quo bureaucratic and commercial interests. Within four months of appointment it should make recommendations on divestment, within six months on a new force structure, and no longer than twelve months on self-reliance and resilience.
Fundamentally, strengthening Australia’s defence is about our sovereignty first amidst diminishing security trends.
It is responsible, not fatalistic. Nothing is assumed as inevitable.
Labor, historically, has been strongest in defending our home shores and in resisting military adventurism further abroad. From Curtin’s wartime leadership, Whitlam’s Vietnam withdrawal, Beazley’s 1987 Defence of Australia white paper, to Simon Crean’s principled stance on the 2003 Iraq invasion.
The next Labor government must harness this tradition to build the ADF that’s most needed.
A strong ADF helps underpin how Australia can “expand its power and influence” to ensure security and “shape the world for the better”, as Penny Wong has argued. It helps gird the “restraint” and “creative diplomacy” sagely counselled by Bob Carr over Taiwan tensions and China-US power competition. And a strong ADF helps foster closer strategic relationships with friends in Southeast Asia, particularly Indonesia, which Paul Keating has wisely long advocated for.
Progressives must no longer cede defence thinking to conservatives. The new statecraft that Australia needs demands a more imaginative military approach to support leading diplomatic, influence and trade initiatives. Thus, it’s time for progressives to “school up” on defence matters, take responsibility and lead.
Thomas Lonergan is a former Australian Army officer with previous operational service in Afghanistan, East Timor and the Philippines.