Facing the Challenge of Shaping a Way Ahead for Australian Defense: A Conversation with Marcus Hellyer


By Robbin Laird

I have recently arrived back in Australia after my last visit in March 2020. The pandemic gap years are now over and I have come to Australia as the new Labour government has launched a comprehensive defence review.

Shortly after my arrival in Canberra, I had a chance to discuss the challenges facing the defense reset with Marcus Hellyer a well-known defence analyst who works at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. When last in Australia, I was working on a study of the new Offshore Patrol Vessel, the first platform to be built by the new continuous shipbuilding program. Marcus was also focusing on the OPV program and we both published studies in 202, which I will highlight at the end of this piece.

Hellyer started with a very fundamental question: “What is the Australian Defence Force (ADF) purpose-built for?”  And here he posed what is becoming a clear choice, is the ADF for the away game or for primary defense of the Australian continent?

This is how he put it: “Is the purpose for the ADF essentially to defend the Australian continent, or is it about going wherever in the world we need to go with our allies and addressing threats and the issues of the day, wherever that may be around the world?”

He argued that the existing force structure clearly is designed for the latter. “I would argue that the ADF is essentially designed to essentially plug into a coalition, obviously led by the U.S., and go wherever in the world we think we need to address a threat or the issue of the day. And that’s the only way I can really make any sense of our existing force structure.”

But with the United States facing its own domestic and foreign policy challenges, the U.S. is facing “capacity constraints. “It can’t be everywhere at the same time. We recognize that the U.S. is essentially telling its allies that and telling them to step up. Ultimately, I think that’s what AUKUS is about. We actually need to do some hard thinking and be a little less complacent about our defense. And that means prioritizing the things that ADF absolutely has to do.”

If Australia is to focus on its own defense and defense in depth, that raises the question of the nature of the defense perimeter for Australia which the ADF and the nation need to address. And that would mean as well that Australia would be less focused on the away game in the Pacific and by shaping defense in depth, they could offer a defense sanctuary for allies like Japan or the United States, but at the expense of what at least some U.S. decision makers wish to see which is the Quad forces operating much closer to Chinese territory.

Hellyer argued that with the forces already in being and the forces that can be built out, a reasonable objective for Australian defence is to operate more effectively out to Australia’s first island chain or an arc from the Solomon Islands across the north coat of New Guinea and the Indonesian archipelago. He underscored: “I think we need to be able to indicate to a potential adversary that this area would be a very dangerous space for them to be operating in. And that’s where I would be conceptually prioritizing effort, as opposed to say the South China Sea.”

Rather than building and supporting a balanced force structure, given financial and manpower constraints, a priority might be placed on the ADF forces which have the greatest combat or crisis management effect within the defense arc highlighted by Hellyer. It is a question of investing in the force that makes the biggest difference in the shortest period of time.

Hellyer agreed and underscored: ”We need to do more with the force we have or with things that you can do quickly.”

We turned to the discussion of autonomous systems as a force extender for the manned platforms operating in an extended battlespace. He argued: “if you focus on unmanned or autonomous systems doing roles such as ISR and flooding the battle space with sensors, it allows the expensive exquisite platforms that we have in very small numbers, to be more effective. And also raises the question over time of the correct balance between rapid build systems like Unmanned Surface Vessels (USVs) and the actual size of the fleet necessary for more expensive capital ships, for example.”

My own research has been focusing on how capital ships can be reimagined as mother ships and to leverage unmanned or automatous systems in new ways to extend the reach of those capital ships, and making them more survivable and lethal.

Hellyer highlighted one way ahead along these lines. “When the new OPV enters service next year, I wouldn’t start using it as a large patrol boat. I would simply hand it over immediately for experimentation in that mothership role that we’ve both spoken about. Just say, “Here, we’ve got this great tool with a lot of potential to be that mothership for unmanned underwater vessels, unmanned surface vessel, unmanned aerial vessels,” and get it out there and give it to the smart men and women who are going to use it and let them invent new ways to use this capability.”

We focused on the opportunity to rework the force Australia has and to leverage it in new ways. For example, Hellyer mentioned the case of the Naval Strike Missile which is currently envisaged to be put only the destroyers and frigates. He argued that “I would put on every ship that makes sense, land base it, move like the USMC is envisaging to mobile bases, put it on trucks to launch for shore, etc.”

I did point out that the Poles have been doing land-based operations with their NSMs throughout their defense space to hold Russian maritime assets at risk.

We concluded by discussing the build out of balanced force or a threat-based force. Hellyer argued: “I think you’ll find that countries that are facing a very clear threat don’t do capability-based planning, they do threat-based planning to counter that threat. And I think the time has come to get back to your initial point about what’s the key thinking we need to change here? Do we actually need to move to more of a threat-based planning, because there is a clear threat?

“What are the capabilities you need that can defeat that threat, or certainly complicate how that threat is going to approach us?

“That gets to the big debate here at the moment is about armor. The army is kicking off a process of recapitalizing its armored fleets at a cost of potentially $30 to $40 billion. And one of the big arguments, is should we get 450 infantry fighting vehicles instead? So large 40-ton infantry fighting vehicles that allow the infantry to storm the objective.

“And I can certainly in that capability-based planning model, think of scenarios where that would be useful, but if we’re in a threat-based kind of planning model and we know what the threat is, what role do they play in countering that threat?

“We may want to seize hold an island as a forward operating base in the archipelago to our north. Well, okay, we can do that, but the threat will simply go around it. And that’s why I think, unless you have lethality and long-range lethality, it doesn’t matter which bits of territory you hold there, the bad guys will just go around it. And we need to build forces that are relevant to the threat we face and our efforts to build out our direct defense of Australia.”

Featured Photo: Arafura-class Offshore Patrol Vessel NUSHIP Arafura at Osborne Naval Shipyard in South Australia. Credit: Australian Department of Defence, December 2021.

Marcus Hellyer’s 2020 study on the OPV can be found here:


For an e-book version of his report, see the following:

For my OPV study, see chapter eight in my book on Australian defence: