Australia’s defence force needs an urgent overhaul, with a shift towards long-range strike abilities and better bang for taxpayers’ bucks spent on military projects.
A declassified review of the Australian Defence Force says the nation cannot rely on long warning times for a conflict given the ability for adversaries to strike rapidly from afar or through non-conventional means such as economic coercion.
China’s rapid military build-up, the decline of the U.S as a unipolar power in the Indo-Pacific, nuclear war, climate change, workforce issues and the increase in cyber attacks have all been identified as security threats.
Former Labor defence minister Stephen Smith and ex-defence force chief Angus Houston, who led the independent review, said new challenges required “an urgent call to action”.
This included higher levels of military preparedness and accelerated capability development, given the potential for a future conflict stemming from “intense China-United States competition”.
“Australia does not have effective defence capabilities relative to higher level threats,” the review says.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said Australia needed to evolve, with the region facing the most challenging circumstances since the Second World War.
“That’s why we’re investing in our capabilities and investing in our relationships to build a more secure Australia and a more stable and prosperous region,” he said.
The defence force has been given five main jobs: defend Australia and the immediate region; deter an attempt to project power against the nation; protect economic connections such as trade routes; contribute to collective security with partners; and maintain the global rules-based order.
The government responded to the review by immediately cancelling six projects, delaying a further six and redefining the scope of 21 others.
This includes slashing new infantry fighting vehicles from 450 to 129 and boosting long-range missile capabilities from a maximum range of 45km to more than 500km.
It has also given in-principle support to equipping fighter jets with long-range, anti-ship missiles.
Defence Minister Richard Marles said the government was making the hard decisions necessary to cancel contracts and reprioritise spending.
It was important the government took on more risk to get capabilities online quicker.
“In order to meet the moment … we simply have to speed up our capability process,” Marles said.
Defence Industry Minister Pat Conroy said it was better to get projects online at 80 per cent rather than waiting for them to be perfect.
“That 80 percent is still a lot better than what they’re currently using. We will extend it into service and improve it steadily through upgrades.”
But opposition defence spokesperson Andrew Hastie hit out at the government for reprioritising spending, instead of boosting funding.
“There is no strategy, there is no new money and we are cannibalising capability,” the former SAS soldier said.
Some of the review’s more than 100 recommendations, the specifics of others and some government responses remain classified.
New priority areas include the acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines, developing the ability to strike targets accurately at longer-range and building ammunition locally and improving defence’s ability to operate from northern Australia.
The headline cost of reprioritising projects is $19 billion (US$12.7 billion) over four years, which will be offset through cancelled projects and savings already found by changing to nuclear-propelled submarines through the AUKUS pact.
Marles said boosting the workforce would be a challenge but the government was expanding training opportunities to boost skills.
Universities Australia chief executive Catriona Jackson said the sector was on standby to help boost the workers and skill sets needed to meet the challenge, such as cyber experts and engineers.
An inaugural national defence strategy will be developed in 2024 and updated every two years.