Australia’s new defence strategy is big on ideas, but lacks one key ingredient: well-trained soldiers

There have been a lot of defence announcements recently about buying new equipment, building up Australia’s manufacturing capabilities, creating local jobs, new legislation to support AUKUS and even a new defence chief.


  • Peter Layton

    Visiting Fellow, Strategic Studies, Griffith University

In many respects, these simply reflect that the Department of Defence is busy, regularly spending a lot of money on a lot of things, and that ministers like announcing good news. However, the latest news related to Australia’s National Defence Strategy this week is of a different kind.

What does the new strategy call for?

The title of the new National Defence Strategy draws attention to defence now being a matter for all Australians, not just the professionals of the Australian Defence Force (ADF).

It also takes the long view, well into the next decade. The strategy replaces the sporadic defence white papers and will be revised every two years to keep up with changes in the Indo-Pacific. It was accompanied this week by an Integrated Investment Program, which lays out where $330 billion will be spent over ten years.

Together, these two announcements chart the future course for a high-spending and sizeable Department of Defence at a time of major wars in Europe and the Middle East, a massive Chinese arms build-up, and growing uncertainty about how tensions over Taiwan and in the South China Sea might play out.

These global risks underline the focus on the “strategy of denial” in the new national blueprint, which aims to deter and prevent hostile forces from attacking Australia.

More mundanely, both of these documents, together totalling almost 200 pages, are the government’s way of controlling the sprawling Department of Defence. More pointedly, they set out the Albanese government’s vision on defence policy in time for the next federal election.

As such, both the gravitas in the documents and the planned expenditures have near-term domestic purposes, as well as long-term geo-strategic ones.

The backbone of the strategy is perhaps unsurprisingly the nuclear submarine acquisition program under the AUKUS alliance with the US and UK. As time goes on, the submarine program is increasingly dominating defence in terms of ministerial interest, budget allotment, industry development and workforce allocation.

But there are five other “immediate priorities” tacked onto this one very big acquisition:

  • buying and building long-range missiles

  • building up northern defence base infrastructure

  • improving workforce pay and conditions

  • boosting innovation

  • deepening Indo-Pacific partnerships.

The Integrated Investment Program will mostly be of interest to Australia’s defence industry as it tries to gain new multi-year goods and services contracts, as well as state governments keen to have that money spent locally on jobs.

Such a public spending document is a good idea. It was initially introduced by the Howard government, at least partly to try to keep defence projects on-time through public scrutiny.

Since then, these kinds of investment documents have provided increasingly less information. This may be intended to maintain security, but it also limits the publication’s usefulness and the possibility of external critique, somewhat diminishing the accountability for the very large sums of public money spent.

Less urgency, more longer-term preparedness

Together, the strategy and investment program will restructure the ADF to be more focused on operations in the waters immediately to Australia’s north.

To fund this shift to a more maritime focus, the government has reduced the army’s heavier forces, cut a naval project for sea lift ships and delayed buying additional F-35 fighter aircraft. Nevertheless, over time, the future army will be more mobile and amphibious, the navy’s fleet will be modernised, the air force will get sophisticated long-range missiles and the nation’s cyber capabilities will be enhanced.

Such changes, though, take time. In ten years, Australia may have just received one second-hand former US navy nuclear submarine, but little else will have changed from now. This government and its predecessor made various rhetorical statements stressing the need for speed, given the increasing security concerns in the region. However, neither government took actions suggesting such urgency.

Only two weeks before releasing the new documents, Defence Minister Richard Marles quietly signalled that short-term defence improvements were now less needed. He asserted that this kind of focus “lacks wit”.

It misses the point that no middle power in the Indo-Pacific is solely capable of developing or deploying the scale or breadth of military forces that powers like China and the US can.

Australia’s challenge lies in the future beyond this. And here we must invest in the next-generation capabilities the ADF needs.

Shortcomings of the strategy

However, even if the overall defence direction appears logical in design and has supporting budgets laid out, there are still doubts over whether this newly focused ADF is achievable. Military forces are more than hardware. Well-trained people are essential to their effectiveness.

The strategy is pleasingly honest in noting a shortfall of around 4,400 ADF personnel, some 10% of its total workforce. This problem has been long known, but only marginal changes have been made.

Given ADF personnel take many years of training to reach a high standard of combat proficiency, it’s unlikely our forces will be back up to their full strength this decade. New equipment is arguably being bought that won’t be able to be used as there will be no crews.

The personnel shortfall issue inadvertently throws up another surprising shortcoming of the strategy and investment plan. These documents appear not to take into great account the operational innovations and rapid technology developments being demonstrated in the war in Ukraine.

These include attack, reconnaissance and electronic jamming drones, highly effective ground-based air defence systems and an artificial intelligence-enabled surveillance system that allows no one to hide.

There is a danger the National Defence Strategy and the Integrated Investment Program may create an ADF better suited to 2015 than 2025 – and will potentially be rather dated in 2035. The future is coming, but there is little indication of it in these plans.

The Conversation

Peter Layton does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

/Courtesy of The Conversation. View in full here.