It seems we will have to wait some for an unclassified version of the strategic defence review, handed to government on Valentine’s Day, to be made public. That leaves us, for the moment, with the various straws in the wind released by ministers. 

While the Deputy Prime Minister emphasized the ambitious nature of the review, we should not underestimate institutional inertia and strategic realities.

Despite major reviews and white papers in 1987, 1994, 2000, 2009, 2013, 2016, and 2020, the current defence force structure remains remarkably like that set out in 1976, minus air strike. 

Many of the announcements made so far continue existing commitments—as in the case of missiles and submarines, both contributors to strike—or reflect the ongoing like-for-like replacement of force elements such as helicopters and tactical lift. Such practice allows for stepwise improvements, not disruptive change or even a ramping up of capability.

The government has committed to continuing the two per cent of GDP funding for defence, a commitment, incidentally, made back in 1994 in a much more benign region. We have little sense of the trade-offs that may need to be made within that envelope to encompass an additional capability or changes in force structure and deployment.

Then there are strategic circumstances. The Prime Minister focussed on a ‘fit for purpose’ capability to meet our strategic circumstances—and those are increasingly dire.

Deterrence is clearly a mainstay of the government’s position.  Deterrence is, after all, an indispensable concept in any form of strategic analysis or defence planning.

But deterrence is a broad concept.  A lack of clarity around who, how, and for what purpose can call into question intent and undermine capability—the necessary elements of a credible deterrence. 

To some extent, the government has sought to avoid provocation—avoiding naming the likely adversary—both domestically and internationally by alluding to a porcupine strategy.

Tachyglossus aculeatus, image: Stuart Humphreys, © Australian Museum

Porcupines and hedgehogs—and echidnas—make themselves as an unpalatable a target as possible.  Their sheer spikiness—and the pain any attacker would feel—the thinking goes, would serve as an effective deterrent against all comers. 

It’s an attractive strategy for a country that sees itself as separate, independent of others—or, in extremis, buying time for aid and rescue. It has been suggested as a suitable approach for Taiwan, for example, the Baltics and, before February 2022, Ukraine.

Unfortunately, it is both an expensive and a losing strategy.

A porcupine strategy leaves the initiative with the attacker, allowing them time, space, and freedom of action, while constraining the defence, subject to ever diminishing material and manpower, to reaction.  And while it may be painful, it does not attrit the wellspings of power of an an aggressor.

Australia’s comparative isolation can be an asset, but also leaves it particularly vulnerable.  Access to supply is an enduring concern—unlike Ukraine, tanks and munitions cannot be sent across adjacent borders. If such access has been lost, the prospect of relief is remote.

Building sufficient spikiness will take considerably more effort, material, and resources than the Australian government has so far shown it is willing to commit. Bases and critical infrastructure will need hardening, redundancy, and the means of ready dispersal. 

Australia would need a much greater depth of munitions, missiles and delivery vehicles, and the independent means of production—and the ability to scale, fast. The war in Ukraine has demonstrated how quickly munitions can be expended in a hot war, the shallowness of Western stockpiles, and the slowness of replacement. 

The Deputy Prime Minister has already indicated his support for missiles. But we would need long-range missiles, not simply the tactical and intermediate favoured thus far. Why? Because for all our hoped-for spikiness, it is the threat of punishment that will strengthen deterrence in the face of overwhelming force.  And that would mean threatening what matters to the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), not something the CCP may already consider expendable, on the periphery.

It is hard to see a conventionally armed, and much smaller, Australian force and means of action deterring a nuclear-armed and technologically capable China. Ultimately, it is only nuclear weapons that offer the possibility of surety against a nuclear-armed aggressor.  For that, and given the timeframes concerned, Australia depends on the United States for extended deterrence, and our core interests lie in supporting that capability.

So we return to the tried and true formula of Australian defence strategy—to deter mutual adversaries as part of a broader Alliance structure, supporting partners and friends, as far away from Australian territory as possible.  It is allies, partners and friends, working together, that deters adversaries, that helps deny their freedom of movement and that helps complicate their calculations and ambitions. 

Our contribution to that is a capable defence force, diplomacy, and intelligence effort—and our geography and economic strength. It also makes sense for Australia to harden its assets and bases, and to build a technologically adept ecosystem that would support Australia and its allies in a wartime environment.  

That will come at a much greater cost than two per cent of GDP—more likely well north of three.  Time is short: we need to see not simply intent, but commitment.