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How Will the Defence Strategic Review Impact Australian Society?

09 May 2023
By Dr Federica Caso
Marines from the Ground Combat Element arrive at Royal Australian Air Force’s Base Darwin to join the Marine Air-Ground Task Force as a part of Marine Rotational Force – Darwin. Source: Defense Visual Information Distribution Service/

The DSR articulates a change in doctrine that expands the role of the military and security apparatuses in the national interest. It calls for a whole-of-government approach that will involve civil society organisations and industry to bolster military defence.

The Defence Strategic Review (DSR) contributes to the militarisation of Australian society. In Feminist Security Studies, the concept of “militarisation” refers to the societal changes ensuing from military build-up and defence strategy. The DSR recommends the repositioning and prioritisation of Australian defence forces to prepare for a new and potentially conflict prone strategic environment in the Indo-Pacific. It envisions an Australia that projects force with long-range missiles, maritime capabilities enhanced by nuclear-powered submarines, and the expansion of a Defence-oriented workforce. To achieve this vision, the DSR calls for a whole-of-government approach that will inevitably involve the private sector and civil society organisations. A lingering question in the public debate is to what extent such changes will militarise Australian society?

Part of this answer will become clearer later in the year with the release of the Defence Industry Development Strategy (IDS), which will outline how the Australian industrial base and workforce will be reprioritised to support sovereign defence. The IDS will be based on the recommendations made in the DSR, which underscores the involvement of partners outside of Defence.

The DSR articulates a change in doctrine that prioritises military security in the national interest and expands the role of the military and security apparatuses. The former doctrine, outlined in the Defence of Australia, conceived of small, yet advanced military and intelligence services equipped to respond to low-level regional security challenges and, following the War on Terror, conflict in the Middle East. It was anchored on the principle that Defence was in the service of a civilian national interest focused on social cohesion and regional prosperity. The new doctrine, National Defence, is more ambitious. It is designed with a larger and more imminent threat in mind and aims to maintain the regional balance of power and deter conflict from great powers such as China. It envisions a larger role for intelligence services and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and specifically the Department of Defence. It calls for a whole-of-government approach to harness all elements of national power to support national defence as a central matter of national interest.

National Defence envisions an Australian statecraft that spearheads military preparedness. This is most evident in the fact that although the DRS mentions the need to increase Australia’s diplomatic efforts, it conspicuously lacks a section on how diplomacy, and what kind of diplomatic activity, will support a new defence doctrine. The few times it mentions diplomacy is with reference to the Defence Cooperation Program, which promotes defence diplomacy with the Pacific and Southeast Asia. We can expect that the promise of a heightened focus on diplomacy will prioritise military training, the delivery of military infrastructure, and the development of joint military capabilities with Pacific and Southeast Asian nations. What the document misses is that Australia’s commitment to the Pacific, and especially to Pacific women, requires a civilian-focused diplomatic agenda so as not to reduce women to targets of military and security recruitment and training.

The DRS speaks about the importance of Australian statecraft and recommends “the harmonisation of domestic and external portfolios” relevant to national security, including trade and investment, education, minerals and resources, clean energy, climate, industry, and infrastructure. Throughout the document, there is a discussion of how these areas can be aligned with military modernisation and the projection of force to “deter adversaries through denial.” This involves increasing the demand for university research to create a defence capability edge, and the establishment of an innovation and manufacturing centre, the Advanced Strategic Capabilities Accelerator. This will be outside of Defence and will work with industry while receiving priority spending  from the Force Design Division, a section of Defence. In this respect, we can expect that what little government funding is designated to research and innovation will be driven by defence considerations.

This creeping militarisation of Australian society is further evident in the discussion about the future workforce that Australia needs to operationalise the National Defence doctrine. The DSR emphasises that the Australian Defence Force (ADF) and Australian Public Service (APS) are understrength and that there is too much reliance on contractors. The shortage of ADF personnel hinders the realisation of the Integrated Force envisioned by National Defence. The DSR notes that current policy, process, and risk appetite slows down and limits recruitment and calls for streamlining the onboarding of ADF and Defence APS, such that workers can begin their new roles within days rather than months.

The ADF Reserve must also be made more readily operational and supportive of the ADF. It will be interesting to see how this will affect the Regional Surveillance Units, specialised infantry units of the Australian Army Reserve operating in the top end of the country with a significant number of Indigenous personnel. From the DSR, it is evident that National Defence needs more military personnel, and we can expect a more robust recruitment campaign, especially in the North of Australia and in non-urban areas where employment opportunities are less and poverty is higher, especially in Indigenous communities.

The DSR also outlines the imperative to develop a non-military workforce adjacent to Defence.  The sectors recommended for development are space, engineering, cyber technology, shipbuilding, and defence related ICT (information and communications technology). As the government has approved all of the recommendations made in the DSR, we can expect investment in these sectors to be dictated by defence considerations. Another sector where we should expect defence-driven investment is nuclear engineering, safety, and regulation. The DSR calls for the establishment of an Australian Defence Nuclear Regulator within the Defence portfolio and specialised facilities on the east-coast of Australia to accommodate nuclear-powered submarines, including nuclear waste. This last point must prompt community consultation that includes Aboriginal people to avoid repeating nuclear colonisation, such as it existed at Maralinga, Emu Field, and Portobello where Indigenous land was contaminated following nuclear testing and Indigenous communities displaced.

Finally, the DSR points to the further militarisation of the north of Australia. National Defence requires an enhanced network of bases, ports, and barracks across northern Australia. The government has committed AUD$3.8 billion to upgrade military bases across the north of Australia with the goal to acquire the capabilities and infrastructure to operate long-range missiles. This will consolidate the dependency of the region on Defence as one of the largest business providers, supporting wages, businesses through operational support, and businesses related to military culture, such as medals and military antiques.

Dr Federica Caso is a lecturer in International Relations at La Trobe University. Her research examines gender and race in military, war, and peacebuilding. She is currently pursuing two research projects on Indigenous military integration and on Feminist Foreign Policy as a tool of peacebuilding. Her book Settler Military Politics: Militarisation and the Aesthetics of War Commemoration will be published next year by Edinburgh University Press. 

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.