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- The review found the ADF is not equipped for a “missile age” of modern warfare.
- It calls for major spending on long-range strike capability, hardening military bases in northern Australia and the development of a local missile manufacturing industry.
- It accuses China of damaging Australia’s national interests by threatening the rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific.
- The government has adopted all the review’s recommendations in full or in-principle and plans to spend $19 billion responding to it over the four-year budget forward estimates.
The nation’s military will receive a major boost in long-range strike power, allowing it to fire missiles across vastly increased distances in a historic $19 billion funding hike designed to prepare the Defence Force for a possible conflict between China and the United States.
Delivering a stark warning that the Defence Force is not equipped for a modern age of warfare, the federal government’s defence strategic review calls out China for threatening Australia’s national interests by undermining the rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific and failing to be transparent about its dramatic military expansion.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese with (from left) Defence Industry Minister Pat Conroy, Defence Minister Richard Marles, Defence Force Chief General Angus Campbell and Defence Department secretary Greg Moriarty.Credit: Alex Ellinghausen
Described by Defence Minister Richard Marles as a “watershed moment for defence policy”, the review, conducted by former defence minister Stephen Smith and former Defence Force chief Angus Houston, also calls for the urgent fortification of military bases in northern Australia and the rapid development of a local missile manufacturing industry.
The government’s response to the review has drawn fierce criticism from the political right and left, with the Greens charging Labor with pushing the nation towards a US-led war with China and the Coalition accusing it of “tricky politics” by releasing the review on the eve of Anzac Day.
The government has adopted all the review’s recommendations in full or in principle and will spend $19 billion responding to it over the four-year budget forward estimates. But this spending was already baked into the budget bottom line and will be offset by $7.8 billion in savings and reallocated priorities.
The review calls for the ADF to be used only as a “force of last resort” to respond to natural disasters amid concerns that the constant need to assist in bushfire and flood recovery was distracting the military from its core duties.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said the strategic review represented “a document for today and tomorrow”, describing it as the most comprehensive overhaul of the military since the Second World War.
“It demonstrates a world where challenges to our national security are always evolving,” he said.
“We cannot fall back on old assumptions. We must build the strength in our security by seeking to shape the future rather than waiting for the future to shape us.”
Opposition defence spokesman Andrew Hastie said the government had not matched the review’s urgent rhetoric with increased spending and enhanced capabilities for the Defence Force.
“The mission is clear: we must respond to our strategic circumstances yet there is no strategy, there is no new money and we are cannibalising capability,” Hastie said.
“They are using Anzac Day as a smokescreen, hoping the Australian people wouldn’t notice.”
Hastie said a reduction in infantry fighting vehicles from 450 to 129 would leave the nation’s soldiers vulnerable in close combat and reduce Australia’s ability to fight a land war.
China’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning said the nation did not pose a defence challenge to any country, adding: “We hope relevant countries won’t hype up the so-called China threat narrative.”
Defence spending will rise significantly in coming decades as a result of the review, well above 2 per cent of gross domestic product, but the government will not state a new GDP figure.
Difficult decisions about possible cuts to the navy’s fleet – including reduced numbers of frigates and offshore patrol vessels – will be delayed until a separate review is completed later this year.
RSL national president Greg Melick welcomed the plan to increase defence spending but warned against “robbing Peter to pay Paul” by redirecting resources away from the army to the navy and air force.
“While we support the broad thrust of the review recommendations and particularly the significant upgrading of our defence capability, including the construction of a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines, the RSL is deeply concerned at the decision to reduce the resources available to army,” he said.
“The maritime focus of the review is commendable, but land forces can be called on at short notice and it is discouraging to see the Army not adequately equipped and ready to go.”
Marles rejected suggestions the army was being sidelined, but acknowledged the government was “reshaping” the army to focus on long-range strike power and amphibious operations.
Defence Industry Minister Pat Conroy said the army was receiving a major firepower boost that will eventually allow it to fire weapons over 500 kilometres rather than 40 kilometres currently.
In the declassified version of their review, Smith and Houston call for upgrades to the network of bases, ports and barracks in northern Australia to “commence immediately”, including urgent improvements to fuel storage and supply.
They say the government should not seek to buy any new B-21 long-range strike bombers from the US but support the joint development of drone technology.
Smith and Houston argue the two dominant pillars of Australian defence policy since World War II – the “defence of Australia” doctrine and the maintenance of a “balanced” Defence Force – both need to be abandoned.
“The current Australian Defence Force structure is based on a ‘balanced force’ model that reflects a bygone era,” Smith and Houston state.
“It does not adequately address our new strategic environment.”
The “defence of Australia doctrine” held that the fundamental purpose of the Australian military was to respond to potential low-level threats from a small or medium power, a philosophy the reviewers say is no longer relevant in an era of great power competition.
Allan Behm, a former senior Defence Department official and adviser to Foreign Minister Penny Wong, said he was deeply disappointed by the eight-month review, declaring it “showed all the signs of being rushed”.
Behm, director of the international and security program at the Australia Institute, said the review failed to explain why China posed a major threat to Australia rather than simply a risk.
Malcolm Davis, a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said the review was a “step in the right direction” but said significant increases in defence spending would be needed in future years.
He said Australia could be drawn into a war with China over Taiwan by the second half of the decade, but Taiwan was “conspicuously absent” from the declassified version of the review.
Sam Roggeveen, director of the Lowy Institute’s international security program, said there was “a lot to like” in the review, praising it for the difficult decision to cut the number of infantry fighting vehicles.
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