Australia's new (but not so much) defense doctrine looks to China

(To Enrico Magnani)

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese announced the country's biggest defense overhaul with the publication of the Defense Strategic Review (DSR), announced on April 24th. This document, a symbolic act of the new Labor government, aims to mark the difference with the previous one (Conservative). In reality, the announced structural changes are very few and there are many confirmations, with modifications and adaptations to Australia's strategic reality.

In general terms, the document, the indications of which will have to be translated into reality, underlines the new national defense priorities, where the acquisition of nuclear-powered attack submarines, long range attack capability and strengthening military installations in northern Australia.

The political strategy would be to increase national self-reliance and capabilities to deal with evolving threats. The DSR attributes a greater importance to continental defence, To internal production and a capability acquisition process stricter, but its central thesis is to redirect the ADF (Australian Defense Forces, which include the AA - Australian Army, the RAN - Royal Australian Navy and the RAAF - Royal Australian Air Force) on preparation for the conflict with China, considered as Very likely.

Canberra, in addition to strengthening the links between the defense and foreign departments, continues to link national security to the decisions taken by and with allies and partners, primarily Washington*, but also Tokyo, New Delhi, Seoul, Paris, London , EU, NATO and not counting the renewed understanding with Wellington, which seems to have come out of a long pacifist tunnel, above all thanks to the departure of former Prime Minister Jacinda Arden.

But Australian security is based also on a network of agreements and understandings, old and new, such as the FPDA (Five Powers Defense Agreement which includes Australia, New Zealand, Great Britain, Malaysia and Singapore), what remains of the ANZUS (USA, Australia, New Zealand), Indonesia and Vietnam and the newly established AUKUS (Australia, UK, USA).

Leaving aside the ideological difference with the previous government, Albanese too is conditioned by the structural terms (very large territory and air-sea spaces and scarce population, dependence on markets and international air-sea traffic) which have always characterized Australia and have guided its choices over the course of years, especially since the Second World War.

Geography is a strong parameter in the definition and implementation of Australia's national security and economic planning, and while technology and globalization have made the world much smaller, geography seems to matter even more in this period of major competitions.

Australia's approach stems primarily from concerns about China's greater military power and ambitions, whose military buildup is the largest and most ambitious of any nation since the end of World War II, such as the rapid buildup of nuclear weapons by of Beijing (with the passage from about 350 current warheads to 1.500 by 2035), and the formation of the largest navy in the world (numerically speaking, also there is constant technical improvement), together with advanced precision attack capabilities radius even with hypersonic systems.

The new strategy will shift the center of gravity of the ADF, and make it a whole focused on the projection of long-range and high-intensity combat capabilities, with an amphibious, air-sea and insular operational prevalence. In particular, the DSR points out that the RAN, being in the forefront of long-distance defense needs more lethality, despite massive reinforcement programs, and this will materialize in the nearly 9 billion US dollars that will be spent on the purchase of a maximum of eight nuclear-powered submarines, defined following the signing of AUKUS**.

In recent years, Australia's political and military leadership has recognized that strategic certainties were eroding both in the Indo-Pacific and globally, which is not to say war is inevitable. But a conflict, catalysed by a strategic miscalculation (as it blatantly happened in Ukraine due to Moscow's misjudgment) or that could recur between Taiwan, the South China Sea and the Korean peninsula, it is now more likely.

Consequently, the DSR emphasizes the need for rapid acquisition of the necessary military capabilities for coastal operations in Northern Australia and regional sea spaces, as well as long-range strike capabilities; for example, the Australian Army will suspend the purchase of South Korean-built self-propelled artillery (similar to the M109 Paladin) with M142 rocket launchers High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) increasing its lethality range from 40 to 300 kilometres, while the RAN and RAAF will be equipped with precision attack missiles, with a range of over 500 kilometres.

A question of costs and people

The Australian government will operate a two-year review of the DSR, which has a project to spend almost 13 billion US dollars over four years (almost 9 of which, however, for the aforementioned nuclear submarines).

The DSR is presented for political reasons as a big change; in reality, for several years the ADF has been engaged in a massive program to strengthen all its components.

This program sees a progressive approach of the ADF to the US ones in terms of weapon systems (the RAAF and the RAN fixed patrol boats already use almost exclusively systems of US origin), this to improve their interoperability given that they will probably have to operate together in the area and also in the case of distant projections. A sign of this choice of proximity, confirmed by the DSR, has seen the thinning of the presence of weapon systems of European origin, above all in the sector of transport, naval and attack helicopters. There are obviously notable exceptions, such as the major surface units see two aircraft carriers/amphibious assault ships and three Spanish-built fighters (the latter of the US model), the 9 frigates, of the English model (the flagship is under construction), the 12 offshore patrol vessels (German model, modified) and the project for the acquisition of tracked and wheeled infantry fighting vehicles.

But DSR also focuses on staffing needs. In fact, the ADF counts between regular personnel and reserves, less than 100.000 units. To cope, and as a first initiative, pending a more organic package, a bonus equivalent to over 33.000 US dollars will be immediately offered for each soldier who wants to sign another three-year contract. The positive economic situation in Australia and the better contracts offered by the civilian labor market are draining the availability of personnel.

The DSR indicates that the readiness, readiness and strengthening of Australia's northern bases is a priority; the strategic value of Tindal and Darwin airbases, given the proximity to possible operational areas, is recognized by the ADF and the US military, who are working to install a rotating detachment of B-52 strategic bombers in the former and strengthen the contingent of marines (also on rotation) in the second.

However, even this northward shift, emphasized by the DSR, although not so massive, had been underway for some time with the progressive shift of various installations concentrated in the area of ​​maximum population of Australia, i.e. its south-eastern part, towards the north eastern and northern.

Beijing has, of course, swiftly and harshly condemned the DSR saying it hoped that “some countries will not use China as an excuse for military buildup and will refrain from glorifying the 'China threat' narrative… China pursues a defensive national defense policy and remains committed to peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific and in the rest of the world". (sic)

The First Test

The Australian Armed Forces conducted war games, with scenarios such as China activating a military base in a South Pacific nation. However, the exercises, described in a "confidential" version of the DSR, found it difficult to respond to certain plausible and specific scenarios. Among the scenarios analyzed in detail by the security experts are a war between the United States and China over Taiwan while Beijing establishes a military base in the Solomon Islands (where, however, a mission of police 'advisers' to the local security forces is already operating and the Hoinara government has a friendship treaty with Beijing), bordering Australia. In the latter scenario, the People's Liberation Army-Navy (PLA-N) would be only 2.000 kilometers from the Australian mainland.

The tutorial will probably be repeated as soon as possible to improve the performances of the ADF and time is running out, given that the critical moment, according to consistent sources, should be between 2025 and 2027.

A history of - and in - documents

Since World War II, Australia's strategic outlook and defense planning have been fundamentally shaped by the global distribution of power, and in particular by the strategic primacy of the United States, which has played a stabilizing role throughout the world and particularly in the Asia-Pacific region.

The Australian defense policy debate has often been framed as a choice between approaches "continental" or "defence of Australia" and an approach "global" or "shipping". Between 1945 and 1949, a foreign policy develops whose main characteristic was that of idealism based on a notion of liberal internationalism and the search for an independent identity and the resolute disentangling from ties to Great Britain. This emerged on the occasion of the poisonous controversies over the establishment and participation in the British-led BCOF (British Commonwealth Occupation Force) in Japan, or the Australian diplomatic initiative, uncoordinated with London, for the resolution of the Greek civil war at the United Nations or, finally, the perplexities of Canberra for the inclusion of Australian units in the 1st British Commonwealth Division, again under British command, during the Korean War.

Even the separation from Great Britain has never been complete and Australian forces have been operating alongside the British in Malacca and Borneo against the communists since 1948 and again in Borneo to deal with the Indonesian threat in the 60s. The rapprochement with Washington that takes the form of participation in the war in Vietnam, however, did not end very well especially when Canberra was not consulted by Washington when the USA decided to disengage (there were also New Zealanders in Japan, Korea, Malacca and Borneo).

Among the various Australian white papers, the 1976, as the first true declaration of policy to place Australia's self-sufficient defense of the nation and its interests as a central theme, reflecting the polemical closure of the Vietnamese affair. Furthermore, defense industrial policy was in a difficult phase of transition: the simplistic approach of the past to the licensed production of aircraft, ships and military vehicles (especially of British origin) in Australia was no longer economically or technologically feasible and we begin to look at Europe (as for the purchase of wagons Leopard I, however preceded by a good ten years earlier by Mirage III) ***.

The 1987 white paper is perhaps the one with the strongest strategic gaze, with a twenty-year vision and develops a 1986 report that looks at industrial projects for local defense that enhance national capabilities (such as Collins submarines, ANZAC frigates). The 2009 white paper, 'Defending Australia in the Asia Pacific Century: Force 2030', outlines and looks at a horizon later confirmed by that of 2016 and that of 2020, all outlining the challenges that were beginning to emerge with ever greater clarity and concern .

Between dialogue and cooperation

As always, international relations, and today even more so, oscillate between confrontation and dialogue and commercial interests are one of them which seems unavoidable. Australia not only strengthens its defenses and extends military cooperation throughout the Indo-Pacific (and beyond), but also keeps the door open for dialogue with Beijing. Don Farrell, the Australian trade minister, after returning from a trip to Beijing (held in early May) hailed "a positive phase" in relations with China, aimed at putting an end to existing trade tensions between the two countries since 2019. The two sides have agreed to start negotiations to resolve the (many) outstanding issues and Chinese Commerce Minister Wang Wentao will visit Australia to address, among other things, the issues of Rare lands and exports of vehicles and electronic equipment.

In 2020, China imposed heavy tariffs on important sectors of Australia's exports, such as beef, wine and barley, at the height of a political crisis with the then-ruling Conservative government in Canberra. Beijing had acted in retaliation for an Australian law against foreign influences, which had stripped China's Huawei of 5G phone contracts, and was intending to protest Canberra's repeated calls to the World Health Organization for an independent investigation into the origins of the Covid-19.

China then stopped buying important raw materials, including coal, from Australia, depriving the country of billions of dollars in revenue. And the issue of economic solidity is one of the pillars for the Australian Labor government's search for consensus, in a country that has had uninterrupted growth since 1991 and which this year has recorded, despite large spending programs for the social, educational and armaments, an important budget surplus.


The news of the Australian DSR is actually less than announced, and as this type of document often happens, they have an internal value and in support of one's general approach to national security policy. Despite the desire to distance itself from the previous (conservative) management, the Labor-led government actually confirms all aspects and approaches (not only those, but also the highly controversial ones regarding migration and reception policies), starting with proximity to the USA.

* On a more strictly technical level, the ADFs are part of the multilateral agreements in the so-called 'Anglosphere': ABCANZ (American, British, Canadian, Australian, and New Zealand Armies' Program) for the land forces; AUSCANNZUKUS, for naval ones; ASIC (Air and Space Interoperability Council) for air and space; CCEB (Combined Communications-Electronics Board) for communication and electronic activities; TTCP (Technical Cooperation Program); UKUSA (United Kingdom – United States of America Agreement) for electronic wiretapping, also known as Echelon or Five Eyes.

** AUKUS, is a trilateral security pact between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States, announced on 15 September 2021 for the Indo-Pacific region. Under the pact, the US and UK will assist Australia in acquiring nuclear-powered submarines. The pact also includes cooperation on advanced computing mechanisms, artificial intelligence, quantum technologies, submarine, hypersonic and counter-hypersonic capabilities, electronic warfare, innovation and information sharing. The pact will focus on military capability, but separate from UKUSA/Echelon/Five Eyes. The establishment of the pact marked the end of the Franco-Australian agreement to build 12 submarines (Attack class), conventionally powered versions of the Barracuda-class nuclear submarines under construction for the Marine Nationale. The Australian decision, taken by Albanese's predecessor, gave rise to a diplomatic and political crisis with France. Although the Labor-led government has maintained its commitment with AUKUS on submarines, during a visit by Albanese to Paris in July 2022, the reconciliation with Paris, already begun during the NATO Summit in Madrid, was fully sanctioned. a few days earlier, in which the Australian prime minister had taken part (Canberra is a partner of the Atlantic Alliance). In addition, Australia paid the French shipbuilding company Naval Group more than 616 million dollars for the cancellation of the contract. But the RAN's ambitions to build nuclear submarines preceded them, with Australian naval chief Vice Admiral Michael Noonan meeting in London with his British counterpart Admiral Tony Radakin in March 2021 and asking for assistance. to the United Kingdom and the USA for the acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines. This was followed by a trilateral discussion between British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, President Joe Biden and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison at the June 7 G2021 summit in Britain.

*** It is useful to underline that the issue of the defense industry, its development and its link with the more general one of the national economy has not always received consistent attention from policy makers, in fact the most recent white paper, specifically intended for this issue, dates back to 2007 and was preceded by another document dating back to 1998.

Photo: Royal Australian Air Force