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Australia’s 2024 National Defence Strategy

Bryden Spurling, Senior Research Leader in Defence and Security at RAND Europe, analyses Australia’s National Defence Strategy of 2024 and what it means for the United Kingdom (UK). William Freer, Research Fellow in National Security at the Council on Geostrategy, investigates what lessons Britain can learn.

What has happened?

Australia’s 2024 National Defence Strategy is another step in that country’s path towards a sharper defence policy. Gone is the long-held foundation of equally weighted priorities and a ‘balanced force’, replaced with a ‘Strategy of Denial’. 

While we can debate the importance of one threat over another, that Australia has made a choice is sensible. Governments around the world face converging strategic challenges, and too many put off the hard choices good strategy requires in such a difficult environment. With this document, Australia is choosing to prioritise its readiness for geopolitical competition, and it continues a recent willingness to lean into adventurous policy and the risks that come with it.

The Australian Air Force will miss out on its ambition for more F-35 aircraft, dropped in favour of retaining the existing F-18F Super Hornets. The Australian Army looks set to model the recent shift in the United States (US) Marines toward a lighter force which can deploy more rapidly into the maritime Indo-Pacific and engage adversaries at a distance. As announced previously, the Royal Australian Navy has reduced its planned acquisition of the expensive Hunter-class frigates. But it will become a larger force, with a significant increase in surface combatants overall. 

One of the more important elements of this strategy is its focus on enablers. Typically neglected in defence planning, underinvestment in these creates a hollow force. This document contains needed investment in munitions, fuel and logistics, the defence estate, situational awareness, and space and cyber. How it will gain the necessary personnel to create this punchier military is more vague.

The extent to which all of this will be delivered remains to be seen. The very strategic trends that have sharpened Australian thinking will likely generate economic and social headwinds that make the expense outlined here harder to support against other worthy calls on government funding in the future. But in its recognition that the world has changed, there is much to appreciate in this strategy.

Why does this matter for the United Kingdom? 

Australia’s 2024 National Defence Strategy contains many positives for the UK. There are few partners closer and more likeminded than these two nations, and that will only become more important in a world that is polarising along competing visions of ideology and influence. If this strategy creates an Australian military better able to contribute to security in a part of the world that is important to the UK economy, but one which London has less ability to shape than Canberra, that is firmly in Britain’s interests. 

The defence relationship between Australia and the UK has long been close – but it has waxed and waned over the years. AUKUS, however, has cemented this relationship. The National Defence Strategy reiterates Australia’s intent to host rotational UK submarines in Perth, Western Australia, from 2026, and to acquire the next generation of British-designed AUKUS-class nuclear-powered attack submarines. Australia’s contribution to the Five Eyes intelligence partnership will be strengthened, in particular with the significant investment in the REDSPICE package of cyber security capability. Also listed among the ambitions is the partnership between the UK, US and Australia on the ‘Deep Space Advanced Radar Capability’, for which Australia’s geographic position in the southern hemisphere will be critical.

Australia’s ambition to build out its defence industrial capability and stocks of munitions and fuel is also vital, and something Britain should be looking to support. Apart from the obvious commercial opportunities in this, it could lead Australia to eventually become another contributor to supply chains of munitions and parts to security allies and partners. We have seen just how precarious the supply of these can be in a crisis. The more likeminded countries invest in their ability to manufacture and store these supplies, the more resilient the total supply of these stocks will be. This kind of collective capability will become an increasingly more important asset as a force multiplier – and one at this stage available only to this West-aligned grouping of allies and security partners.

What are the lessons for the UK?

The UK will have a general election at some point in 2024, and Labour looks the most likely party to win. They have promised to ‘conduct a Strategic Defence and Security Review’ in their first year in government ‘to fully understand the state of our Armed Forces, the nature of threats we face and the capabilities needed’. Australia’s National Defence Strategy, both in its approach and its findings, has some interesting lessons which could be applied to this potential defence review.

In terms of approach, one thing which could be added to what factors Labour considers is the strategic, or geopolitical, environment more broadly – rather than just the threats. Without understanding the UK’s geopolitical disposition, it is difficult to accurately draw up key interests and understand what the threats to those interests are. It is telling that this is where Australia began its own strategy.

Beyond methodology, the UK should also consider what it can learn from Australia’s decision to move towards an ‘integrated, focused force’. In the era of American unipolarity immediately after the Cold War, many Western militaries built ‘balanced’ force postures. However, with authoritarian states across the globe building up their military power, these balanced forces no longer suit the rapidly evolving security environment. As Australia is shifting towards a force centred on a strategy of denial essentially configured towards the maritime domain (although Canberra stresses their strategy is not domain-centric), so too should Britain consider a similar approach.

Much like Australia, the UK relies on the seas for its security and prosperity, and both in the Euro-Atlantic and the Indo-Pacific, challenges to maritime security have grown at an alarming rate. Now is the time for Britain to move away from the legacies of the Cold War and ‘War on Terror’ and instead focus on ensuring the world’s seas remain open and peaceful; Australia’s National Defence Strategy provides a blueprint for how this can best be achieved.

Bryden Spurling is Senior Research Leader in Defence and Security at RAND Europe.
William Freer is a Research Fellow in National Security at the Council on Geostrategy.

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