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Marles’s Defence Strategic Review—an exploding suitcase of challenges to resolve by March 2023

By Michael Shoebridge

Stephen Smith and Angus Houston have an enormous amount to do and almost no time to do it.  Prime Minister Albanese and Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles chose them to be the independent heads of the Defence Strategic Review.  

The Review is to report before March 2023 so that the Albanese government can make decisions on it at the same time as they are deciding about the path that gives Australia 8 nuclear submarines within an AUKUS partnership that makes these safe and effective. 

Before they even get to thinking about their task – ‘to ensure Defence has the right capabilities to meet our growing strategic needs’ —Smith and Houston will need to confront the ugly fact that Defence’s current plans are already unaffordable despite the large and growing defence budget the Albanese government has committed to. 

Nasty choices and sub-optimal trade offs are needed before any new ideas that take money are even put forward. And the only mega project not yet agreed to that can provide potential savings is the $20-27bn Army plan to buy an additional 450 heavily armoured vehicles for purposes that aren’t clearly connected to Australia’s needs in our region. These must now be made clear if it is to proceed, in whatever form.

But even multi-billion dollar megaproject is a distraction to the real work. The Review must give Marles what he needs to provide practical, urgent direction to defence in four big areas:

  • Climate change and the Defence Force’s inescapable – but unwanted – role;
  • China’s direct security challenge in Australia’s near region – making our strategic environment uncomfortably clear, not complex as we like to tell ourselves;
  • New ways to increase Australian military power quickly – because no taxpayer is going to give defence more funding if it can’t show it has different, faster ways to increase the ADF’s, military power; and
  • The danger of prioritising ‘integration’ in all things in pursuit of the military nirvana of ‘every sensor a shooter and every shooter a sensor’ – because this highly aspirational goal is the enemy of getting capabilities into the hands of our military fast.

This Strategic Insight unpacks the exploding suitcase of Defence and sets out the key paths the Review can take.