Australia’s defence force is not fit for purpose to respond to the threat of military force or coercion, a major review into the nation’s capabilities has found.
The force is set for its biggest overhaul in decades with billions poured into arming the country with long-range missiles that can fired more than 500km – amid China‘s massive military expansion.
The government has accepted, or accepted in principle, all of the recommendations of the Defence Strategic Review, which found as it stands Australia is ill-equipped to defend itself against conflict in the region.
Speaking to reporters after a redacted version of the review was declassified on Monday, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Defence Minister Richard Marles said the cost of implementing its recommendations would be about $19bn over the next four years.
Mr Marles said next month’s federal budget would cover much of this immediate cost, which will include shifting $7.8bn from other programs.
China’s rapid military build-up, the decline of the United States as a unipolar power in the Indo-Pacific, nuclear war, climate change, workforce issues and the increase in grey zone attacks such as cyber attacks have all been identified as security threats.
The Defence Strategic Review commissioned by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese (pictured with the report on Monday) found Australia doesn’t have ‘effective defence capabilities’
Former defence minister Stephen Smith and ex-defence force chief Angus Houston, who led the independent review, said the new challenges required ‘an urgent call to action’.
That included higher levels of military preparedness and accelerated capability development, they wrote, as well as the establishment of a ‘fuel security’ council to protect the country’s fuel supplies.
‘Intense China-United States competition is the defining feature of our region and our time. Major power competition in our region has the potential to threaten our interests, including the potential for conflict,’ they wrote.
‘Australia does not have effective defence capabilities relative to higher level threats.’
The defence force has been given five main jobs: defend Australia and the immediate region; deter an attempt to project power against the nation; protect economic connections such as trade routes; contribute to collective security with partners; and maintain the global rules-based order.
The government has responded to the review by immediately cancelling six projects, delaying a further six and redefining the scope of 21 others.
The government will slash the majority of new infantry fighting vehicles from 450 to 129 and boost long-range missile capabilities from a maximum range of 45km to more than 500km.
Australia’s Defence Force is set for the biggest overhaul in decades. Pictured is the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Barry launching a Tomahawk cruise missile to support Joint Task Force Odyssey Dawn in the Mediterranean Sea
It has also given in-principle support to equipping fighter jets with long-range, anti-ship missiles.
‘The government is making the hard decisions necessary to cancel or reprioritise defence projects and activities no longer suited to our strategic circumstances,’ the prime minister and defence minister said in a statement.
Some of the review’s more than 100 recommendations, the specifics of others and some government responses have been kept classified.
The six new priority areas include the acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines, developing the ability to accurately strike targets at longer-range and building ammunition locally and improving defence’s ability to operate from northern Australia.
The headline cost of reprioritising projects is $19 billion over four years, which will be offset through cancelled projects and savings already found by changing to nuclear-propelled submarines through the AUKUS pact.
Growing and retaining a highly skilled defence force, working closely with Australian industry and deepening diplomatic relations in the region including through ASEAN and the Pacific Islands Forum have also been identified as priorities.
The Defence Strategic Review found Australia unprepared to defend itself against conflict in the region. Pictured are fuel tanker ships berthed at the port of Newcastle north of Sydney
An inaugural national defence strategy will be developed in 2024 and updated every two years.
An independent review of the navy’s combat fleet – which the review said must have ‘enhanced lethality’ – will also be conducted towards the end of next year, while options for guided weapons and explosives will be delivered by the middle of 2024.
Better preparing the defence force to handle natural disasters and an increase in fuel security, including the transition of defence to clean and renewable energy, have also been recommended.