Australia to overhaul military amid rising regional tensions to prepare for ‘missile age’

The review also called for deeper engagement with partners across South-east Asia and the Pacific.

Jonathan Pearlman

Jonathan Pearlman

The Straits Times


A file photo taken on May 9, 2019 shows an Australian main battle tank firing at a target during Exercise Chong Ju. PHOTO: AFP

April 25, 2023

SYDNEY – Australia unveiled plans on Monday to overhaul its military as it prepares for a new era in which the United States is no longer the uncontested leader in the Indo-Pacific region, and potential adversaries such as China can threaten territory and trade routes with long-range missiles.

The stark new vision of Australia’s security needs was outlined in a much-anticipated Defence Strategic Review released on Monday that marked, according to Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, the most significant shake-up of the military since World War II.

The 112-page report produced by former defence chief Angus Houston and former Labor defence minister Stephen Smith warned that Australia must prepare for the “missile age” by equipping itself to strike far offshore. The review was redacted from a longer, classified version.

It said Australia must adapt to the growing tensions in the region, noting that Beijing is undertaking the world’s largest and most ambitious military build-up since World War II, “without transparency or reassurance to the Indo-Pacific region of China’s strategic intent”.

“The current Australian Defence Force force structure… reflects a bygone era,” the report said.

“No longer is our alliance partner, the United States, the unipolar leader of the Indo-Pacific. Intense China-United States competition is the defining feature of our region and our time.”

Australia’s geographic isolation no longer provided the defence benefits it once did, as more countries can “project combat power across greater ranges, including against our trade and supply routes”, it said.

The review said Australia must deepen its alliance with the US, and should continue to expand its rotations of American troops and submarines through Australia.

Canberra already plans to acquire nuclear-powered submarines as part of its Aukus security pact with the US and the United Kingdom.

The review also called for deeper engagement with partners across South-east Asia and the Pacific.

“South-east Asia is one of the key areas of strategic competition in the Indo-Pacific,” it said.

The report received a mixed response from analysts, who questioned the government’s failure to boost defence spending despite warning of the rising threats in the region.

Some also said the government had not properly explained the threats facing Australia, particularly from China, and that the resulting confusion led to a failure to clearly outline the type of military that was needed.

Professor Hugh White, a strategic studies expert from the Australian National University, said the review failed to clearly state Australia’s overall aim for dealing with China’s rise.

In particular, he said, it failed to identify whether Australia’s plan was to develop a military that can support the US in pushing back against China, or to develop self-reliant military capabilities.

“What we’re not seeing in response to this very strategic challenge that we face is a clear idea of how we respond to it,” he told ABC Radio.

Prof White added: “For us to sustain the kind of armed forces we will need to be an effective middle power in the decades ahead, we are going to have to spend a good deal more money than the government is contemplating.”

Australia’s geographic isolation no longer provided the defence benefits it once did. PHOTO: AFP

Analysts largely echoed this view, saying the government’s military spending did not match its concerns about the impending strategic threats.

Mr Peter Jennings, director of Strategic Analysis Australia and a former senior defence official, said the government should have announced plans to immediately lift spending towards 3 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) by 2030.

The opposition Liberal-National Coalition also criticised the government for deferring plans to boost military spending.

Australia’s current annual defence budget is about A$48.6 billion (S$43.4 billion), or about 2.1 per cent of its GDP.

The government said it plans to increase spending “over the medium term”, but has no plans for immediate increases.

But the government was largely praised for its move to shift Australia’s defence strategy away from a strict focus on defending the mainland to deterring long-range threats.

Mr Sam Roggeveen, director of the Lowy Institute’s International Security Programme, noted that the government had not explained whether “long range” encompassed conducting operations far offshore.

“In the hands of the army, (long range) could be a rocket artillery system or anti-ship missile with several hundred kilometres of range,” he wrote on the institute’s Interpreter blog.

“For the navy with its submarines and Tomahawk cruise missiles, it is in the several thousands of kilometres, which means being able to hit the Chinese land mass.”

The Labor government accepted all the recommendations and priorities identified in the review.

Australia’s Defence Minister Richard Marles on Monday night insisted that the military overhaul and the plan to develop greater offshore capability were not directed at China or at supporting the US in a potential war over Taiwan, but were instead primarily about enhancing the region’s “collective security”.

scroll to top