Australia’s Strategic Review and the implications for its maritime security

Australia’s Strategic Review and the implications for its maritime security


15 | 06 | 2023


The document has a clear focus on the growing Chinese military threat and stresses that Australia is no longer isolated from competition in the Indo-Pacific

En la imagen

Satellite imagery [Australian gov.]

The Australian government has just released its ‘Defence Strategic Review 2023’, which will be the guiding document for Australia’s defense reform over the following years. Reflecting upon the numerous changes the region is experiencing –and will keep experiencing–, the 116-page document has a clear focus on the growing Chinese military threat across the Indo-Pacific region, while also acknowledging the fact that Australia is no longer isolated from strategic competition in the Indo-Pacific. Although in previous documents this was also reflected, in this last report the emphasis on growing uncertainty in the Indo-Pacific theater has a much greater emphasis.

The document represents a major milestone for Australian strategic though, acknowledging for the first time in many years the challenging nature of their strategic landscape, and the imminent need to react against all growing threats and risks found within it. As defined by the Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles, “it is the most ambitious review of Defence’s posture and structure since the Second World War.”

In the light of this, it is worth analyzing the main features of the new document, addressing some of the sections in it. Together with it, the maritime component of the document must also be reviewed, describing the role of the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) and the value of the Strategic Defence Review for Australian naval strategic thought.

The National Defence Strategic Review 2023

The document is divided into several subsections: current strategic circumstances, the defense strategic environment, national defense, deterrence and resilience, climate change and disaster relief, defense partnerships, defense strategy and force design, force structure, and several others. In general terms, it is a very complete document, published at the right time, and more importantly, it is a step in the right direction for the Pacific nation.

The first section, on “current strategic circumstances”, highlights the “radically different” circumstances and risks faced by Australia, with major power competition threatening their current security landscape. China’s military buildup, happening at a staggering pace, and with no transparency, linked to the now-characteristic assertion of sovereignty over the South China Sea region pushes Australia to “seek to avoid the highest level of strategic risk we now face as a nation: the prospect of major conflict in the region that directly threatens our national interest.”

As a direct result of this landscape, the government acknowledges the need to increase defense spending, for which the new report has changed the “10-year warning time” present in previous editions, to adopt instead a model of three periods of planning: “the three-year period 2023-2025 (for those matters which must be prioritized and addressed urgently); the five-year period 2026-2030; and the period 2031 and beyond.” The new approach will require a higher level of military preparedness for Australian military forces, and an accelerated pace of capability development.

The following section, “Our defence strategic environment”, describes the current features of the Indo-Pacific region, with an obvious focus on Chinese buildup and Australia’s concern over it as a potential destabilizer in the region. As indicated, “the Indo-Pacific is defined by a large population, unprecedented economic growth, major power competition and an emerging multipolar distribution of power, but without an established regional security architecture.” And Australia finds itself at the crossroads of this region, with the use of coercive tactics, nuclear weapons proliferation, or an increased risk of miscalculation as common traits to it. With this in mind, the report recommends the region encompassing the north-eastern Indian Ocean through maritime Southeast Asia as its primary area of military interest.

In the “National Defence” section, the concept is understood to encompass a wide variety of aspects, among which is worth highlighting: an enhanced and expanded Alliance with the United States, including key force posture initiatives in Australia; a new approach to critical defense capabilities that drives force structure; a whole-of-nation effort to develop strategic resilience; and a renewed focus on national planning for defense preparedness. Additionally, the document underlines that “the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade should be appropriately resourced” to lead the national statecraft effort.

On deterrence and resilience, the document defines the former as “compelling an actor to defer or abandon a planned strategy or activity by having in place steps and responses to change its risk assessment and, therefore, decision-making.” It is understood that a proper military deterrence strategy must encompass all domains (maritime, land, air, space, and cyber). In the current context of growing threats to their national security, deterrence represents a vital element to be exploited and strengthened, as the section reflects when stating “A high level of resilience would signal to an adversary the extent of Australia’s resolve to defend itself.”

The following sections follow a similar line, urging to devote national efforts top strengthening Australia’s posture in the region so that it serves as a proper deterrent against hostile actors. It defines the specific objectives for each of its military branches, and in doing so, the Royal Australian Navy has a major role to fulfill: “Navy faces the most significant workforce challenges of the three services.”

Implications for Australian maritime security

As a maritime nation highly dependent on the sea for its survival, the RAN has an enormous importance in preserving Australian waters free from any hostile activities that may otherwise threaten their national security. As such, the report underlines that it “must be optimized for operating in Australia’s immediate region and for the security of our sea lines of communication and maritime trade.”

The report lists a series of investment priorities for its maritime domain, among which we find the new AUKUS Agreement to acquire nuclear submarines as the most prominent of them. Under it, Australia will become the first non-nuclear nation operating nuclear-powered submarines. Yet, it is also emphasized that for this to be effective, there needs to be a fleet design that enables a more effective use of their naval assets.

In order to support their primary maritime strategic objectives, the defense strategy advocated in the report is none other than the one used by China, and many others before, have come to master: a strategy of denial, otherwise known as Anti-Access and Area Denial (known as A2/AD). Such approach is designed to stop any potential adversary from succeeding in their goal of threatening a nation’s maritime security, and is generally built through coastal missile defenses (anti-ship and anti-air missiles) that can target any vessel or aircraft entering into a defined region. This prevents the enemy forces from penetrating the defined area, effectively reducing the risk of it launching an amphibious invasion or a missile attack.

To meet this, the report advocates for strengthening the surface fleet so that it can support the role of nuclear submarines, and doing so by carefully assessing the specific needs required to meet the strategic objectives set for the Navy. It proposes a model for the fleet that divides the forces into Tier 1 and Tier 2 (with forces under Tier 1 having a higher readiness than those in Tier 2), based on a strategy of mounting a Navy with larger number of smaller vessels. Such a model is expected to “increase Navy’s capability through a greater number of lethal vessels with enhanced long-range strike (maritime and land) and air defense capabilities.”

Yet, this is easier said than done, and it requires making a proper assessment of “cost, schedule, risk, and shipbuilding;” which has a high economic cost overall. To this regard, the document underlines that the Navy has a hard task ahead, as “assuring an adequate workforce to sustainably meet enterprise priorities and transformation, government-directed tasking, readiness for future contingencies, and transitioning new and technologically advanced capabilities into service is Navy’s biggest challenge.”

In sum, the Australian Defense Forces are aware that the task they face will be a hard one, requiring significant investments and careful examinations of current and future needs. The challenge posed by China across the Indo-Pacific region has grown to be quite strong, and Australia is ready to step up its defense forces to face it. The new Defence Strategic Review is a step in the right direction, providing with valuable insights and recommendations on how to prepare for the future, and a fleet design that allows a better management of national resources.