On Monday, the Australian Government published its latest Defence Strategic Review (DSR). Ordered by the government of Anthony Albanese, the Australian Prime Minister, shortly after taking office in May 2022, the new review moves Australia decisively away from the 1986 ‘Review of Australia’s Defence Capabilities’, which has defined Australian strategic thinking for more than 30 years.
In 1986, the Review of Australia’s Defence Capabilities explained:
Australia is one of the most secure countries in the world. It is distant from the main centres of global military confrontation, and it is surrounded by large expanses of water which make it difficult to attack. Australia’s neighbours possess only limited capabilities to project military power against it.
This assessment no longer applies. Not only has Australia’s geopolitical environment worsened, but a major centre of military and economic power has emerged within the country’s neighbourhood. For this reason, the DSR outlines how Australia’s Armed Forces must be repurposed to meet the growing challenge.
The DSR in a nutshell
Australia is preparing for a period of intense geopolitical struggle in the Indo-Pacific, where it lies at the intersection of the Indian and Pacific oceans. The potential aggressor Australia has in mind is the People’s Republic of China (PRC): Chinese naval and air modernisation programmes continue unabated. No longer is the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) investing in small tranches of experimental gunboats as it did during the 1990s and 2000s; every year for the past decade, the PRC has commissioned numerous new destroyers, frigates and nuclear submarines, as well as large auxiliaries, amphibious assault ships and aircraft carriers. Not only are these warships designed to secure Chinese coasts or adjacent waters, but they are also intended to project power far from the Chinese homeland.
Along with a military island-building spree in the South China Sea, the PRC has signalled its willingness to act unilaterally by negating international treaties such as the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea. It has established the Global Security Initiative and the Belt and Road project to draw Eurasia into its orbit while offering incentives to smaller South Pacific island states, such as the Solomon Islands, to encourage their alignment with Chinese preferences. Chinese power has begun to encircle Australia.
Under these circumstances, Australia’s two strategic advantages have been rapidly eroded. First, the dominant power of the United States (US) in the Indo-Pacific has waned, reducing stability and order. Second, Australia is no longer so far from potential aggressors, meaning it has less warning time in the event of conflict. Australia may still be relatively immune from invasion, but the PRC, much stronger than in the mid-1980s, may now be able to sever the maritime communication lines the country relies on for its prosperity and well-being. If the PLAN were to secure control of Australia’s northern approaches, the PRC might even be able to deter Australia from adopting policies Chinese leaders disfavour. That Australia recently felt the PRC’s hierarchical approach to international relations has focused attention in Canberra.
By working with close allies and partners with shared interests, such as Poland and the Baltic and Nordic states on land, and Australia, Japan and the US at sea, expansionist autocracy can be contained and rendered less destructive than it might otherwise be.
In response, Australia will adopt a new and sophisticated military posture. If the world caught a glimpse of this in September 2021 with the announcement of AUKUS, the DSR takes it far further. The review ruthlessly repurposes the Australian military to meet the new geostrategic requirements by transforming it from a ‘balanced’ to a ‘focused’ force. An army with numerous tanks and infantry fighting vehicles has little utility in a maritime environment; for this reason, the DSR cuts the number of fighting vehicles the Australian Army is due to receive by over 70% and calls for the procurement of new long-throw, land-based maritime strike forces. More importantly, it reorients Australia’s defence posture towards naval modernisation to provide greater range and enhanced lethality for Australian warships and aircraft so they can offset the PLAN’s growing maritime capabilities.
Map 1: Australia’s centrality to the Indo-Pacific
Given the speed of geopolitical change in the Indo-Pacific, the DSR’s maritime orientation makes sense. With it, Australia will develop a ‘force-in-being’ similar to Germany’s ‘fleet-in-being’ before the First World War. Reinforced on either flank by British and American naval power (see Map 1), Australia will then form the centrepiece of a new geopolitical constellation which will be able to control the gateway between the Indian and Pacific oceans should aggressors seek to use force to settle disputes or expand their power. This strategy allows Australia to invest its defence resources most effectively and secure the greatest strategic advantage.
Lessons for the United Kingdom
As it refreshes the Defence Command Paper, what can the Ministry of Defence learn from Australia’s DSR? Quite a lot. Like Australia, Britain is insular, entirely dependent on the sea and undersea infrastructure for its prosperity and well-being. While His Majesty’s (HM) Government has a treaty obligation to defend allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), the strategic situation in the Euro-Atlantic has, counterintuitively, moved in Britain’s favour since Russia’s renewed aggression towards Ukraine.
For starters, Finland has joined NATO, adding a sophisticated defence force with over 200 modern tanks to the alliance’s arsenal. Poland has sped up its substantial military build-up; the Polish Army will procure over 1,300 modern battle tanks by 2030, further reinforced by new artillery and fighting vehicles. It will eventually possess more armour than Britain, Germany, France, Italy and Belgium combined. And Germany has promised €100 billion – the so-called ‘Zeitenwende’ – of new investment into the Bundeswehr. Given the country’s geographical position, it is hard to imagine Germany will invest this money in modernising the Deutsch Marine.
Under these new circumstances, the UK should draw inspiration from Australia and move from a ‘balanced’ to a more ‘focused’ force itself. If the British Army has a purpose in a maritime century where NATO allies have large numbers of modern armour, it is surely not the need to deploy a heavy sovereign division. Instead, the British Army should get better at empowering regional NATO allies through forward deployment to consolidate the extension of the British nuclear deterrent. If an armoured division is required, the Joint Expeditionary Force – potentially expanded to include Poland – would be a better framework for its realisation. Germany should be pressed, unrelentingly, into meeting its ‘Zeitenwende’ commitments.
As it becomes more focused, the UK could even push the Euro-Atlantic geopolitical balance further in NATO’s favour by donating more ‘sunset’ capabilities to Ukraine. Older Typhoon fighter jets, the remaining Challenger 2 main battle tanks and additional artillery and fighting vehicles could be gifted to the Ukrainian Armed Forces as quickly as they can be trained to use and deploy them. In Ukraine’s hands, these capabilities will degrade Russia far more effectively than through deterrence or exercising on Salisbury Plain. They may even accelerate Ukraine’s victory, saving the lives of potentially tens of thousands of Ukrainians and reducing the threat Russia poses to NATO’s eastern flank for a generation or more.
Most importantly, a ruthless repurposing of the British Armed Forces will prepare them for the same maritime century Australia is now getting ready for. While Russia’s aviation and naval forces may be infected by the same corruption as the Russian Army, those capabilities remain largely unharmed and could still challenge British interests in the North Atlantic. And given the rate of the PRC’s maritime build-up, it may not be long until PLAN naval groups start appearing in Euro-Atlantic waters – Britain’s neighbourhood – to assert Chinese interests.
Like Australia, Britain needs to target its resources more aggressively. The UK now requires a focused force – especially a stronger navy, backed up with the best technology, new overseas facilities, and long-range surveillance – to deny opponents access to the deep ocean, littorals, and choke points through which global trade flows. By working with close allies and partners with shared interests, such as Poland and the Baltic and Nordic states on land, and Australia, Japan and the US at sea, expansionist autocracy can be contained and rendered less destructive than it might otherwise be.
James Rogers is Co-founder and Director of Research at the Council on Geostrategy.
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