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Crucial details are MIA from the Defence Strategic Review

by ANZDD on 26-Apr-2023

Defence Strategic Review

The much-anticipated Defence Strategic Review has finally been released, the day before Anzac Day.

It's an interesting move. It appears to be calculated to ensure the report receives minimal scrutiny ahead of the April 25 commemorations.

This is a shame because the review is something deserving of close scrutiny. 

It was hyped by Defence Minister Richard Marles in a February 2023 speech as the "blueprint for defence thinking for decades to come", though that is a big claim given the Defence Department has released similar strategic reviews in 2009, 2013, 2016 and 2020. 

That the review was completed so quickly is a good thing, and has set a good example for Defence to emulate. Its recommendation of a more integrated national defence approach is welcome, as is the discarding of white papers. 

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The DSR's clarification of the five key missions for the Australian Defence Force (ADF) are similarly welcome. Calls for an expanded air and missile defence network in Australia, more long-range strike weapons, and for reassessing Defence's role in disaster relief are appropriate.

However, other aspects of the review require a deeper examination. Here are five:

Australia's strategic threats

First, a key objective for the review was to explain to Australians how significantly the security environment has changed. It should cover the profound and, for some countries, existential threat posed by authoritarian regimes like China.

Only with this frank and honest narrative can the government then describe to Australians the resources required to respond to such a deteriorating environment.

The review does this, but only to a degree. Threats are generically described, similar to those in previous white papers.

Lessons from one of the most consequential wars of the 21st century so far, Ukraine, are totally absent.

And, unlike the public versions of US and Japanese national defence strategies released in 2022, the new Defence Strategic Review makes very little mention of more specific threats posed by China.

This denies a full understanding of the strategic factors driving the need for the fundamental changes described in the report. The government owes Australians a more substantial conversation about strategic threats to our nation than the DSR provides.

Who are we deterring?

A second objective for the review was to enhance Australia's conventional deterrence capability in the short term.

Being able to design a force to deter potential adversaries means Australia needs to be able to threaten to reach out long distances against a potential adversary. And that adversary has to actually think that Australia has the will and capacity to hurt it should it decide to engage in aggression against our country. 

That the review goes into some detail about the requirement for a new approach to deterrence is a positive. However, deterrence by denial rests on clear purpose — particularly about who is being deterred and why — and founded on an understanding of an adversary's risk calculus. 

But exactly who is being deterred is conspicuously absent from the review. 

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Understanding Deep-Close-Rear battles

Third, the review needed to balance what are called Deep-Close-Rear battles.

In essence, this is the capacity to engage in long range strike (deep), while also being able to fight battles at close range and support them logistically with tactical and national sustainment (rear). Effective military forces must be able to do all three concurrently in the air, land, cyberspace and sea domains. 

The review manages to detail the deep fight with appropriate coverage of long-range strike, while also discarding the option for B21 bombers. The rear battle has some focus, particularly with sovereign munitions, but logistics gets just half a page.

The close fight, an integral part of war with crewed and uncrewed systems, appears to receive little attention. This capability is vital because the ADF should be able to deter an adversary, as well as fight them if deterrence fails (as it did in Ukraine).

The ADF's ability to do this, other than in a lightweight, littoral way, appears to be missing in action. 

A properly integrated joint force

Fourth, the review needed to build a more effective joint force able to engage in this Deep-Close-Rear fight, and capable of responding to surprise through adaptation.

The DSR covers this through its description of an integrated force, which is welcome.

However, this integrated force lacks any mention of the two key integrating mechanisms in contemporary military operations: enhanced development of joint leaders, and the development of a secure, AI-enabled digital battle command and control network to link all the nodes in this integrated force.

The need for speed

Finally, the review needed to explain the challenges of recruiting, training, educating, leading and retaining sufficient people in a more technologically sophisticated Australian Defence Force.

The review covers this complex topic in a page and half. There is no discussion about the size of the future force and its funding, nor about the rationale for recruiting reform.

The transfer of military personnel policy and management away from the public service and back to the Chief of Defence Force is, however, a positive development.

The review was led by former defence minister Professor Stephen Smith and former Chief of the Defence Force, Air Chief Marshal Sir Angus Houston AK AFC (Ret'd).

Perhaps the most vital of the review's other themes is the requirement for speed. This makes sense; the world is changing quickly, and Defence has been historically risk-adverse and slow to change. This urgency applies to the procurement of military equipment, but also investing in the Australian defence industry. 

In implementing the report's recommendations, the Government will ideally ensure this "need for speed" will also apply to the leadership of Defence, as well as completing the other subsequent reviews it urges. 

Given the pace of change in our regional security environment, largely driven by Chinese coercion and military aggression not mentioned in the review, documents like this play an important role in informing Australians about defence issues. 

The DSR's call for change and speed are crucial. But there are aspects of the review that require closer attention if Australia is to build the lethal, deployable and supportable integrated force — and defence industry — it needs in the coming years.

Mick Ryan is a strategist and recently retired Australian Army major general. He served in East Timor, Iraq and Afghanistan, and as a strategist on the United States Joint Chiefs of Staff. His first book, War Transformed, is about 21st century warfare.