Australia’s New Defence Strategy: Reshaping the ADF into a Focused Force


By Robbin Laird

The Australian government has laid out its strategy of change for the ADF in last year’s Defence Strategic Review (DSR) and in this year’s defence investment plan and national defence strategy.

But frankly, deep cuts in current capability to play for the future force leaves many of us unsure of where the Australian government thinks it is going.

To clarify the new approach, I talked with Professor Andrew Carr to discuss the strategic shift. Carr is currently working with colleagues on going through the archives to work on how Australian governments in the recent past have crafted their defence white papers.

According to my conversation with Carr during my visit to Australia in April 2024, the key shift is from a general-purpose force to one focused on key scenarios in the Indo-Pacific region.

According to Carr: “There is a real dividing line in Australian strategy before and after the DSR. The Department of Defence has done their net assessment and have crafted several focused scenarios which guide their thinking about the way ahead. The reshaping of the force is focused on providing capabilities to deal with these select number of scenarios.

“The ADF was tasked with providing a variety of forces for a variety of missions without real focus on the region. That has now shifted to re-orienting the ADF on the region and the most likely scenarios of conflict.

“On the one hand, the ADF now is being given clear focus on what it is to prepare to do. At the same time, the government is facing the challenge of giving them the means to do so.”

Of course, a major problem is that the scenarios are classified which is not very helpful in getting the kind of re-orientation needed because it is not simply an ADF tasking issue. It is about refocusing the society and economy to deal with these changes.

And other governments when making such a shift were quite able to put the scenarios driving their changes into the public domain for scrutiny.

And I think this is especially true when a government robs Peter to pay for Paul, in this case Peter being the extant ADF to pay for a future ADF.

And what is really missing is any coherent discussion of what the ADF after the acquisition of SSNs, the major driver of the shift in budget, would actually do as an integrated and coherent force in being able to deliver the deliver capability to deal with the priority scenarios.

How does the building of an SSN-enabled force improve the ADF’s ability to deal with the scenarios prioritized by the government?

Not surprisingly Marcus Hellyer has provided a detailed look at the Defence Investment Plan and cut through the numbers to get to the bottom line of what the government is actually doing.

His top line analysis is as follows:

The additional Defence funding announced by the Government ($5.7 billion over the forward estimates, i.e., the next four years, and $50.3 billion over the decade) will be consumed entirely by the nuclear-powered submarine program, the general purpose frigate project and exchange rate compensation. There is no new money for anything else.

The growth in funding over the forward estimates is not unusually large by historical standards.

The new IIP repeats the failure of previous investment programs, hoping to raise acquisition spending to a wildly implausible 42% share of the total Defence budget. Defence has been trying to reach 40% since the 2016 Defence White Paper but never passed 31%.

Put another way, delivering the program requires massive, continual increases in acquisition spending. Defence is unlikely to spend this money since it has underachieved against its acquisition budget by $22.5 billion since the 2016 White Paper.

The budget contains no compensation for the loss of buying power caused by three years of extremely high inflation.

Consequently, the new program only addresses the ‘exploding suitcase’ of the capability program by removing large, previously planned capabilities (either completely or moving them beyond the decade). Little to no explanation is provided for these decisions.

The IIP doesn’t address ADF’s fundamental people program, namely that it needs to grow by 20,000 but has achieved virtually no growth over the past eight years.

Planned spending on the Maritime domain has grown from 28% to 38% of the investment budget. That’s more than Land (15%), Air (14%) and Cyber (7%) combined.

No explanation is provided for why this distorted balance of investment provides better support of the new ‘Strategy of Denial’ than any other mix other than statements that this results in a ‘focused force’.

That 38% investment in Maritime capabilities represents $114-145 billion over the decade. However, $75-95 billion of that (65%) is programmed just for two capabilities: nuclear-powered submarines and Hunter-class frigates. Since the first of class of those fleets will only enter service at the end of the decade, two-thirds of the Maritime program’s spending (and 25% of all acquisition spending) provides virtually no sovereign capability over the decade.

At the heart of this effort is a significant shift from Air Force to Navy spending, but without a coherent strategy of what exactly will the new maritime force do.

The oft used phrase of the government is “impactful projection” but as Stephen Kuper has underscored: “In order to avoid repeating history, it is clear that Australia and the ADF must begin to view expeditionary capability and the underlying doctrine, force structure, and platforms as a fundamental component of the nation’s new strategic paradigm.

“Only our capacity to deploy to defend and support our regional partners and in defence of our interests through “impactful presence” will ensure that Australia’s critical sea lines of communication remain unmolested in the era of great power competition.”

Image of defence policy documents: ASPI.

Also, see the following:

Strategy is About Solving Core Problems: Not Asserting Lofty Principles