The United States’ shooting down of a Chinese spy balloon off the coast of South Carolina over the weekend points to international security affairs being on a knife edge.
It follows a surge in crises and tensions over the past few years, including Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, prompting the Albanese government to commission an accelerated Defence Strategic Review in August 2022. This is expected to be handed to the government as early as this week, and the government’s response to the review is expected in March.
Albanese is also scheduled to meet with US President Joe Biden and UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in the US next month to deliver the much anticipated AUKUS announcement, detailing Australia’s submarine plans. A US Congressman has recently suggested it could provide Australia with a jointly-operated submarine while we wait for the eventual acquisition of nuclear-powered subs.
So how did we get here, and what can we expect from these upcoming announcements?
How did we get here?
In 2007, Kevin Rudd, sensing the need to bolster Australia’s defence, initiated the Defence White Paper, which was published in 2009. This called for replacement submarines, but the Global Financial Crisis derailed the plan.
Another White Paper was released in 2016 under Tony Abbott, then again in 2020 under Scott Morrison.
By then, the rhetoric was sharper-edged and more regionally focused, recognising “grey zone” competition in the air, sea and land, as well in space and online.
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Yet for all that, Australia has little to show for it, with no new submarines and a boutique defence force that looks much like that retained over the preceding half century.
The Department of Defence appears to have had little sense of urgency to muscle up, belying the rhetoric of official pronouncements on increased defence spending. Some acquisitions have occurred, but essentially they’ve replaced like for like, with only incremental increases.
The assumption has long been that there’s no real threat to Australia within the next ten years. Failing this, Australia would look after itself and its immediate neighbourhood and make only niche and carefully calibrated force contributions to calls for support further afield.
But this thinking is now being challenged. There’s growing recognition of the need for urgency to prepare for potential threats in a dynamic and more uncertain security environment.
Accepting the Morrison legacy
The federal government has accepted the defence legacy of the Morrison government, including
the Pacific Step-up, increasing Australia’s diplomatic presence in the region
the Quadrilateral network (“the Quad”), which involves India, Japan, Australia and the US collaborating in tackling security, economic and health issues, and contesting China’s regional dominance
and AUKUS, a technical agreement between Australia, the US and UK to supply Australia with nuclear-powered submarines and other hi-tech military systems.
Advanced surveillance technology has meant diesel electric submarines can no longer undertake long transits without being detected. A partial surfacing for a “snort” to recharge batteries is unavoidable, even for transits between Australian ports, but is now detectable. Without stealth, a submarine is redundant. That’s why there’s a push for nuclear-powered subs, which can operate underwater for far longer than their diesel electric counterparts.
The Albanese government accepts the rationale for these initiatives. But it’s had to recover from the collateral damage caused by Morrison’s blunt implementation of AUKUS and the Pacific Step Up that downplayed regional environmental concerns, offended France, upset Indonesia, and infuriated China.
Confronting China and Russia
While the new Labor government has adopted a less antagonistic tone, it remains wary of China’s aggression and its “no limits” friendship with Russia.
The rationale for the Defence Strategic Review was reinforced by events including
- Russia’s invasion of Ukraine
- a fiery display of Chinese military might around Taiwan
- a series of ballistic missile firings from North Korea
- ongoing Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea
- a surprise China-Solomon Islands security pact
- and a series of cyber attacks targeting Australia’s industries, government entities, media, civil society, and educational institutions.
Chinese President Xi Jinping’s rhetoric calling for preparations for war over Taiwan suggests his patience is wearing thin.
Though its assertive displays of power doesn’t mean it wants war, at least not yet. Its approach seems inspired by notions of “unrestricted warfare”, referring to media, political and legal warfare (perhaps best described as “unrestricted competition”), as opposed to conventional military battle.
Its reminiscent of ideas espoused by ancient Chinese strategist Sun Tzu, who said “To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill”.
Read more: China does not want war, at least not yet. It's playing the long game
Defence’s acquisition stasis
In light of these challenges, the Albanese government is right to make the Defence Strategic Review a priority. The key questions are, of course: what will it recommend, how quickly will it be enacted, and how much will it cost?
Defence industry insiders have suggested to me privately that the Department of Defence is in stasis, waiting for the report to be endorsed by government before proceeding – a process which may take years.
Few expect a dramatic surge in funding.
Meanwhile, plans to acquire armed drones and armoured vehicles have been cancelled or delayed rather than accelerated.
There seems to be a freeze on purchasing decisions in anticipation of the results of the review. The problem is reinforced by issues with Defence’s acquisition arm, which struggles to deliver efficient, effective and timely projects.
The recently announced purchase of new Blackhawk helicopters and high mobility artillery rocket systems suggest otherwise, but they were decisions that effectively predate the review.
Meanwhile, the Australian ship building industry faces a “valley of death” experience. Australia has planned to build nine new warships in South Australia as part of the future frigates program, but the industry is waiting for a not-yet finalised design to materialise.
Major multinational corporations can sustain this process. But Australian-owned small to medium enterprises, so critical for a sustainable defence industry, are buffeted by the uncertainty and delays.
The Defence Strategic Review is expected to emphasise the AUKUS nuclear-powered submarines as a priority, along with guided weapons and explosives.
As the government weights up its options, it should consider all aspects of national security, including climate change and governance problems. It should also consider mounting a national and community service scheme to more inclusively engage a broad element of society in response to the suite of emerging challenges.