Australia’s national security environment is about to get a major shake-up.
The defence strategic review ordered by the Albanese government – and what the government plans to do about it – will be publicly released on Monday in what is being touted as the biggest defence overhaul in nearly four decades.
Ordered just 73 days into the Albanese government, the review was conducted by the former chief of defence Air Chief Marshal Sir Angus Houston AK AFC and former Labor defence minister Prof Stephen Smith. They handed their completed review to Anthony Albanese and Richard Marles on 14 February.
A month later, Albanese, US president Joe Biden and UK prime minister Rishi Sunak officially unveiled details of Australia’s acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines under the Aukus agreement, locking in a new direction for Australia’s defence, which had been set in motion even before the strategic review had been ordered.
So what can we expect from the defence review? Here is some of what we know so far.
1. Not all programs will survive
There have been limited leaks of the review, but in a pre-emptive release of information ahead of Monday, it was made clear that just because the Morrison government may have announced something, doesn’t mean it was funded.
Among the recommendations are a scaling back of the infantry fighting vehicle project, known within defence circles as “Land 400 Phase 3”.
The army had planned to acquire up to 450 infantry fighting vehicles at a cost of up to $27bn to replace Australia’s Vietnam war-era vehicles – the review recommends reducing that number to 129.
The review is also expected to recommend the immediate cancellation of the second phase of the army’s self-propelled howitzer project (Land 8116 Phase 2). This project had been set to begin in the late 2020s.
The Albanese government, burned by a decade of Coalition attacks that Labor cut defence spending while last in power, has committed to an increase in defence spending overall – but that doesn’t mean every project is an automatic starter.
Between the Morrison government’s defence reviews of 2020 and the Albanese defence strategic review, $42bn in additional defence spending over the decade was greenlit, but without allocated budget funding. Those fundings gaps are now under a spotlight.
2. Some programs will be accelerated
In the yin and yang of defence spending, programs going down mean other programs must go up.
Other projects that the review argues should be “accelerated and expanded” include one to acquire a land-based maritime strike capability. The project (Land 4100 Phase 2) will enable ground forces to strike ships at sea.
Projects to be fast-tracked and expanded also include the acquisition of army landing crafts and long-range fires (Himars).
The Aukus agreement will also play a role in what gets fast-tracked. Asked by the Guardian in January whether subsidising the expansion of US shipyards in Australia was under consideration, Marles said “we need to be growing the net industrial capability of the three nations [the US, the UK and Australia] if we want to have this capability in a timely way.”
3. It’s not, not about China (but it’s also not about China)
Defence watchers don’t expect China to be too impressed with the defence strategic review recommendations, but then China isn’t too happy with the Aukus agreement either.
The 110-page document to be released on Monday, titled National Defence, includes a declassified version of the review and the Australian government’s response.
Marles says the review is about updating Australia’s defence for the new world and the world we are heading into. The last time a review of this scope was entered into was the 1985-86 Dibb review – when the cold war was still under way and Indonesia was Australia’s biggest concern.
Protecting trade routes is now one of the top priorities. As Marles said on Sunday: “Trade as a proportion of our economy today is far higher than it was in 1985. That means that we’re much more reliant upon those sea lanes, which in turn means we’re much more reliant upon the rules of the road, the global rules-based order.
“If you think about the South China Sea as an example of this, the majority of our trade goes through that body of water. That’s what happens today. That body of water is now clearly central to Australia’s national interests in a way that it wasn’t back in 1985.
“And so, all of that shapes the strategic landscape in which we exist, and therefore the strategic posture that we need to adopt. And what the DSR is going to do is articulate that posture in, kind of as a thesis, if you like, but then underneath that have a whole lot of recommendations around the shape of the defence force we need to give effect to that posture.”
4. The implications of climate change are also a factor
The government does acknowledge the climate crisis is a national security threat. It has indicated that the implications of the climate crisis will be factored into the review, including what increasing natural disasters mean for the pressure on the ADF to respond (at home and within the region).