As Ukraine slowly turns the tide on Russia’s assault, Australian leaders must quickly heed the warning of their resistance. War between major powers is no longer a remote possibility in the 21st century. But Canberra isn’t moving fast enough to prepare for a future in which our sovereignty and strategic interests are directly challenged by a hostile great power.
Right across the Indo-Pacific, China’s growing military presence and aggressive grey-zone coercion are threatening the regional order, undermining Australia’s security from the South China Sea to Solomon Islands. Faced with the most dangerous strategic environment since 1942, Australia urgently needs a more robust and imaginative statecraft.
Regardless of who wins the 21 May federal election, at least five things are needed to chart a more decisive regional strategy.
Today’s ADF lacks the range and depth to pose dilemmas for a highly capable adversary in Australia’s immediate region. Although Defence has dismissed its longstanding assumption that Australia would have a 10 years’ strategic warning in advance of conflict, too many of its planned military investments are set to deliver in the never-never of the 2030s and 2040s.
More diversified capabilities are needed now—purchased off the shelf—to expand the options available to future governments. This includes large stocks of long-range missiles for deterrent effect, enabled by larger investments in mobility, theatre-level logistics and forward basing.
The ADF should buy the US Army’s long-range hypersonic weapon, further expand its electronic warfare portfolio, rapidly field lethal autonomous platforms, and develop more counter-space means. Expanding the Australian Signals Directorate’s offensive cyber and signals intelligence capabilities is a welcome start. But new unorthodox manoeuvre and intelligence options are also needed for the ADF to pose its own grey-zone challenges—going beyond the window-dressing reforms in the wake of the Brereton inquiry into special forces.
Second, the ADF’s force structure, size and operational fighting concepts must be critically reviewed against the principal adversary that Australia faces: China.
This review should be conducted externally, akin to Paul Dibb’s seminal mid-1980s work, and occur early in the new term of government. While the 2020 defence strategic update brought a sober and clear-headed strategy, the accompanying force structure plan was a misfire.
The ADF can’t afford to perpetuate a legacy ‘balanced force’ in which all services are made to feel special. Instead, hard choices must be made to design a force and way of fighting tailored to Australia’s strategic geography.
ADF personnel growth needs to be a quick march to a minimum 80,000 this decade, not a ‘strollout’ by 2040. Crucially, if spending 3% of GDP on defence is to be fiscally credible, Canberra must stop wasting billions on non-performing or irrelevant capabilities like heavy armoured vehicles and a $45-billion Hunter-class frigate program that won’t deliver its first ship until 2033, with the last to arrive in 2047.
Third, Australia must expand its value proposition as a ‘partner of choice’ to deepen and diversify its defence partnerships across the Indo-Pacific.
While progress is being made with established partners like Japan and Singapore, it’s far too slow and, in key aspects, continues to favour form over substance. Australia must pick up the pace to transform these relationships into vehicles for coordinated regional strategy, both bilaterally and with the US and other partners.
Elsewhere, Australia must be humble and strive to build deeper defence ties with Indonesia, India, Vietnam and the Philippines. This means providing more of the direct and tangible collaboration these nations want, such as expanding military intelligence sharing, routinely conducting combined operational activities and increasing the sophistication of exercises. Buying Australian military hardware and supplies also needs to be made easier.
Realising two-way trust in this process will be hard and require more discipline. But it’s only by offering practical cooperation that exceeds expectations that Canberra can build the robust alignments essential for defending and preserving a resilient Indo-Pacific order.
Fourth, Australia must pursue a more ambitious diplomacy and bolster its capacity to wield regional influence and foster meaningful engagement.
Diplomacy needs to be valued as a national capability, like military and intelligence means, led by seasoned professionals and funded accordingly. But the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has been under-resourced for too long.
Dismantling AusAID, the Australia Network and Radio Australia during the Abbott era was an own goal that squandered established advantages, especially in the Pacific. While infrastructure financing initiatives have delivered some results, the Solomons Islands’ security pact with China highlights the limits of this tool in the absence of a comprehensive Australian statecraft.
A regional influence agency should be considered to synchronise Australia’s public narrative, broadcasting, financing, humanitarian aid and disaster recovery efforts. Here, business, cultural and sporting bodies are Canberra’s best tools. But Australia’s regional interests demand a hybrid approach that brings the nation’s mandarins and non-government leaders under one roof.
A larger civil crisis capability is also needed, beyond the ADF, that can be deployed quickly and sustained overseas for longer. So long as global temperatures and sea levels continue to rise, the incidence and severity of climate-related disasters impacting our Pacific neighbours will increase—and Australia has a moral and strategic responsibility to do more.
Finally, the bipartisan Advisory War Council mechanism that guided Australia’s World War II effort should be reprised and adapted for today’s challenges.
By bringing together the cabinet’s National Security Committee with two or three opposition representatives, Australia could pursue an integrated, long-term strategy more effectively. A new national security council–like organ should enable this approach, organising Australian statecraft at a whole-of-nation level. To be effective, it must have a flat structure, be small in size and have a top-down mandate for conducting net assessments and grand strategy. Like its international peers, it should be staffed with leading talent from across politics, government, think tanks, business, the sciences and academia, bringing foresight and direction to what is currently an unimaginative interagency process for driving Australia’s regional strategy.
These aren’t the only answers. But they will help Canberra accelerate preparations for a more perilous future. Australia must leverage its strengths, exploit its asymmetries and genuinely invest in its Indo-Pacific neighbourhood.
If Ukraine’s resistance teaches Australia anything, it’s that now is the moment to get ready for great-power competition in our region. This is a race, and time is against us.
Ashley Townshend is director of foreign policy and defence at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney. Thomas Lonergan is a former Australian Army officer.
This article was printed in the latest Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s magazine The Strategist
Disclaimer: “The comments expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the RAR Corporation”.