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What do Australians Need to Look for in the Defence Strategic Review

06 Apr 2023
By Nicholas Whitwell
Australian Army Aircrewman, Corporal Stewart Eddleston watches from the door of an MRH-90 Taipan helicopter as it comes in to land at Broome Airport after returning from a mission to Fitzroy Crossing, Western Australia. Source: SGT David Said/

Australia’s Defence Strategic Review (DSR) will become available to the public in early April. Analysts will certainly pore over its contents, but what does the Australian public need to see, what should they be looking for, and why should they care?

On 3 August 2022, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Defence Minister Richard Marles announced the DSR to examine the posture and structure of Australia’s defence force, including the composition, strategy, investment required, and necessary contingency responses. The completed DSR was submitted to the government on 14 February 2023 by the former chief of the Defence Force, Air Chief Marshal Sir Angus Houston AK AFC (Ret’d), and the former Minister for Defence, now High Commissioner to the UK, Stephen Smith. Soon, the Australian public will be able to see the report and recommendations themselves.

The 2023 DSR follows in the wake of the 2020 Defence Strategic Update, the 2020 Force Structure Plan, and the 2016 Defence White Paper. Very broadly, these preceding documents consistently outlined a “strategic realignment” of Australia’s region. This realignment is being complicated by ongoing military modernisation (and build up), technological advancement (Artificial Intelligence and cyberwarfare), and state-on-state conflict. The Indo-Pacific region has been destabilised and is now highly complicated for Australia to operate strategically within.

The Liberal governments in power when the 2016-2020 documents were created fundamentally came to believe that the Australian Defence Force (ADF), and the overarching Department of Defence (Defence), needed new capabilities, a more forward leaning posture, and a deeper preparedness for challenges requiring their unique equipment and skills. To convince Australians that Defence is heading in the right direction, the DSR will have to answer some core questions: how has the Australian government responded to past challenges, and where is it looking in the future?

Australians need to see in the DSR answers regarding critical ADF preparedness and reasoning for why the ADF is being prepared for certain challenges over others. Professor Richard Brabin-Smith wrote a framework for assessing the DSR. It is excellent for defence watchers looking to evaluate the document and hold the government to account. For the otherwise interested Australian to understand just what the government is doing with the ADF, alternate questions might be considered: What new challenges have been identified for ADF to respond to? Why is Australia changing its defensive posture to forward projection? What alternate options were/are being considered?

Former Prime Minister Paul Keating was roundly (and correctly) criticised for his views and approach to AUKUS. He did, though, raise a cutting point about why Australia is buying nuclear-powered submarines instead of following the 2016 and 2020 approach. The DSR must be able to explain to Australians what challenges the ADF is expected to respond to in this new environment. Furthermore, it must be clear, perhaps even explicit, on what contingencies Defence is preparing for, and why those specific contingencies. Failure on these two core points will be a failure of democracy. It will leave Australians blind to the use of their tax money and the monumental forces arrayed against them. Worse, it will leave those Australians within the armed forces blind to the dangers they are being expected to counter.

Australians should be looking for a clear and unambiguous answer to what exactly is the “China threat.” Laura Tingle pulled this question from Keating’s words before all others. Peter Hartcher and Matthew Knott ran a controversial three-part crisis piece without even explaining why China was the threat. In the words of Allan Gyngell, no amount of nose tapping and “if only you knew what we knew” is going to answer this question. The Australian public should not be content with shrugging their shoulders and accepting a dramatic aligning of the ADF against Australia’s largest trade partner without explanation. If the answer is simply that growing competition between China and the US may lead to conflict, and Australia has an alliance obligations with the US, then so be it. If the answer is that Australia is preparing for state-to-state conflict in defence of like-democracies, that is more complex but equally valid. There are manifold possibilities, and every single reader will have their own idea. The government must make their formulation clear and explain why it should be in Australia’s interests. Australians must look for this answer. If the government cannot provide it, then the DSR will have failed the Australian public.

The DSR may seem to many Australians as yet another political document compiled by technocrats and unimportant to their everyday lives. For most documents, this assumption would largely be correct. However, this DSR is not most documents. For the first time since the Cold War, Australia and Australians are looking at a seachange in regional security structures, from US global hegemony to two-state strategic competition. For the first time since the end of the War in Iraq, Australians are being asked to consider whether they support ADF forward deployment. This option wasn’t presented to Australians in 2001. John Howard took the country to a war without national input. This should not be repeated.

The DSR offers Australians a unique opportunity to peek behind the curtain, to perceive how and where their military force is heading, and understand the stage on which it will operate. National security may be a bipartisan field, but that does not mean it can sail into the next twenty years without debate or public opinion. This is why Australians should care, because failure to care now may result in ADF use that may become a regret in the future.

The 2023 DSR has a lot of questions that all Australians, across the aisle and up and down the generational divide, need answers for. It will have to answer for how the government has responded to the challenges of the recent past, and where it is looking in the future. It will have to make clear which contingencies the ADF is being expected to prepare for and why priorities are shifting. It should explain to Australians how the Albanese government characterises the “China Threat” and why that is so. It should be able to lay the groundwork for the Australian public to discuss why the structure of the ADF is changing from “fortress Australia” to “forward-deployed Australia.”

This is a lot to ask of any single document, but such is the importance of defence. Every single word in the 2023 Defence Strategic Review matters, and Australians should care about all of them.

Nicholas Whitwell is a graduate of the Queensland University of Technology and holds a Bachelor of Laws (Honours) and a Master of Education. In 2022, Nicholas was awarded a Japanese Government MEXT Scholarship to undertake a Master of Public Policy at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies. Nicholas has a particular focus on Southeast Asia, and the potential for minilateral cooperation. He is an active member of the #AIIANextGen Policy Experts Network.

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