The Australian Defence and Security Strategy 2020 Reset: The Perspective of Air Marshal (Retired) Geoff Brown


By Robbin Laird

On 1 July 2020.The Prime Minister of Australia, the Hon Scott Morrison, and the Minister for Defence, Senator the Hon Linda Reynolds, launched the 2020 Defence Strategic Update and the 2020 Force Structure Plan at the Australian Defence Force Academy

The Defence Strategic Update sets out the Government’s new defence strategy, which has three core objectives: to shape Australia’s strategic environment; deter actions against Australia’s interests; and respond with credible military force, when required.

In his speech announcing the next phase in Australian strategic development, Prime Minister Morrison highlighted the challenges of dealing with the new strategic situation and the importance of enhancing Australia’s ability to defend itself in an alliance context.

As the Prime Minister emphasized in his July 1, 2020 speech launching the new defense strategy:

“Previous assumptions of enduring advantage and technological edge are no longer constants and cannot be relied upon. Coercive activities are rife. Disinformation and foreign interference have been enabled and accelerated by new and emerging technologies. And, of course, terrorism hasn’t gone away and the evil ideologies that underpin it and they remain a tenacious threat.

“State sovereignty is under pressure, as are rules and norms and the stability that these provide.

“Relations between China and the United States are fractious at best, as they compete for political, economic and technological supremacy. But it’s important to acknowledge that they are not the only actors of consequence.

“The rest of the world, and Australia, are not just bystanders to this. It’s not just China and the United States that will determine whether our region stays on path for free and open trade, investment and cooperation that has underpinned stability and prosperity, the people-to-people relationships that bind our region together. Japan, India, the Republic of Korea, the countries of South-East Asia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam and the Pacific all have agency, choices to make, parts to play and of course, so does Australia.

“There is a new dynamic of strategic competition and the largely benign security environment, as I’ve noted, that Australia has enjoyed, basically from the fall of the Berlin Wall to the global financial crisis, that’s gone.

“Since the Government’s 2016 Defence White Paper was released, we have witnessed an acceleration of the strategic trends that were already underway. The pandemic has accelerated and accentuated many of those trends, and that is why today I’m launching the 2020 Defence Strategic Update. It represents a significant pivot. It outlines the shifts and challenges I’ve foreshadowed and mentioned. It makes clear the strategic environment we face and this clarity will guide Australia’s actions. The update sees an evolution of strategic defence objectives in accord with our new strategic environment.

“The objectives outlined in the 2016 Defence White Paper saw an equal weighting across the three areas of Australia and its northern approach, South-East Asia and the Pacific and operations in support of the rules-based global order.

“In this update, the Government has directed Defence to prioritise, to make choices, ADF’s geographical focus on our immediate region, the area ranging from the north-east Indian Ocean through maritime and mainland South-East Asia to Papua New Guinea and the south-west Pacific.

Recently, I discussed with Australian strategist, Brendan Sargeant, who provided his perspective with regard to the new strategy. He underscored that the new strategic was a significant break from the 2016 strategic documents.

“Deterrence has also always been a major element of Australian strategic policy, but this document strengthens it and in a sense is a search of contemporary capabilities that fulfilled the role of the F1 11 in the 80s and 90s. But we haven’t done enough policy thinking on deterrence since the 1990s.

“The operational focus of the Middle East wars has consumed too much policy energy and made us complacent.

“The document recognises limits, and in that sense overturns the 2016 White Paper and is quite explicit about that.

“It’s repositioning geographically is something that we drifted away from when we put our faith in the continuation of the rules-based order, which underpinned a lot of the thinking in 2016.”

Recently, I had a chance to talk with Air Marshal (Retired) Geoff Brown, now Chairman of the Williams Foundation with regard to his assessment of what the new strategy signified in terms of shaping the way ahead for Australian defense and security.

He started by reinforcing the core point made by Sargeant.

“There’s a clear recognition that the environment’s changed much more rapidly than anticipated in the 2016 strategy. When we put together that strategy, we were doing it with a clear focus on the Middle East along with our region as the main foci of our strategic efforts. Now we are clearly concentrating more on our area, the Indo-Pacific.

“There is a commitment to enhanced defense spending. An extra $70 billion is committed over and above what the 2016 strategy projected. A lot of that will probably go to the additional costs around the ship building programs, but the additional money, in my mind, guarantees the other programs to go ahead in air and land as well.

“Additionally, I liked the emphasize on the key role for Australia in being able to shape, deter and respond to threats in our region.  There is a major emphasis on both the cyber and space domains as part of this effort as well.

“But a major part of the strategy for me is the renewed emphasis on deterrence. There was a clear focus on shaping our changing strategic environment, deterring threats and responding to threats in a kinetic way. Probably the biggest manifestation of the change is on the commitment to developing and deploying long range missiles. I think if you read between the lines and if you have a look at where some of the investments going, there is a desire to have a more independent deterrent capability going forward. To me, that’s a real plus of this new strategy.

“Finally, is the emphasis on national resilience. Certainly COVID-19 has reinforced the need for enhanced national resilience. There is also a need to think through how Australia can respond when facing a zero-based supply chain and the need to build resiliency throughout all our inputs to capability.

It is clear that a key element of the strategic rethink is infrastructure defense, whether it is a cyber challenge, or a communications challenge or physical supply chain support to the ADF or the society in a crisis situation.

And clearly, the role of China in providing the threat calculus in this area is evident.

According to Air Marshal (Retired) Brown; “The Australian population certainly does not see the Chinese Communist Party as a benign force with regard to Australia’s interests. The Prime Minister’s speech announcing the new strategy recalled the environment of the 1930s, and underscored that the assumption that we would have 10 years warning time for a defense buildup is not realistic.”

There is a clear emphasis as well on a new longer-range strike capability. Brown has been quite vocal on the need for such a capability for many years. As a former F-111 pilot, this probably is not surprising, and the need for an F-111 like capability, whether delivered by a bomber of long-range strike generated from the joint force is an open question. This is clearly a work in progress.

With regard to allies, Australia is focusing on how to shape, and contribute more to a Quad capability, namely, Australia working with the United States, Japan, India in shaping collaborative capabilities. “Notably, we need to work on the Indian part of the Quad, which is increasingly important.”

In short, for Brown: “I actually don’t see this as a set-and-forget strategic update. I think this is the first of a series of updates, and will certainly shape more deterrent capabilities going forward.”

Featured photo: The Prime Minister of Australia, the Hon Scott Morrison, at the launch of the 2020 Defence Strategic Update and the 2020 Force Structure Plan at the Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra.