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Emerging Threats and Opportunities (Defence Strategic Update)

20 July 2020
Chief of Army in front of ASLAV

On 1 July, the Prime Minister and Defence Minister announced the release of the Defence Strategic Update (DSU) and the 2020 Force Structure Plan in response to ‘the most consequential strategic realignment in our region since the World War Two’. The DSU acknowledges the ideas set forth in the Defence White Paper 2016 (DWP2016) and sets out a framework for the realignment of Australia’s national defence strategy.

It is the Government’s intent that Australia take greater responsibility for our own security.’ (Defence Strategic Update 2020)

The DSU has been lauded for its frank strategic outlook which recognises a confluence of events and trends that have brought greater geostrategic uncertainty to our region. In response the Government has realigned strategic objectives to prefer a regional focus, and has emphasised the ADF’s capacity to deter in consequential capability objectives in the 2020 Force Structure Plan. These objectives will be supported by the allocation of $270 billion for acquisitions and capability development over the next decade.

A heartening increase in resolve to confront challenges in our region and stand with our neighbours as we have done in the past, instead of being focused on security challenges in the far corners of the globe, where our influence is commensurately less.’ (John Blaxland for The Conversation, 01 July 2020)

Responses to the Defence Strategic Update

Regional Reaction

The DSU has generally been received warmly by partners and stakeholders concerned about the potential for the deterioration of security in the Indo Pacific region. Prioritisation of our immediate region is a positive shift in our commitment to strengthening regional stability, particularly when tied to the advancement of multilateral institutions. Akit Panda writes that the acquisition of long range deterrence platforms (including cyber) and expanded surveillance capabilities will improve Australia’s ability to protect its own deployed forces, but also its regional partners, from tiny island-states in the Pacific to the near-north and west to India, improving perceptions of its self-reliance and its value as a defence partner. Other commentators have cited that near neighbours are voicing understanding and support for the intent of the DSU and were interested in the opportunities it will generate, such as deepening cooperation on regional surveillance, intelligence sharing and improvements to interoperability. These comments suggest the ADF’s international engagement programs will be warmly received, helping to assure regional security and stronger partnerships between a range of nations.

While the response was generally positive, there were some concerns that Australia’s acquisition of long range weapons would contribute to an accelerating regional arms race, increasing the risk of miscalculation far from Australia while threatening the sovereignty of neighbours. Some commentators voiced preference for Australia to prioritise funding for aid and development programs and climate change management through DFAT rather than pursue defence-led diplomacy. Others note that, while the DSU ‘has many strengths’, it risks causing an unbalanced strategic posture without a complementary diplomatic effort—especially in the context of ‘grey zone’ threats. These comments suggest that a collaborative approach between military activities, diplomacy and development will naturally help shape the region and counter ‘grey zone’ activity, in line with the government’s strategic objectives.

We will increase the Australian Defence Force’s ability to influence and deny operations directed against our interests — ones below the threshold of traditional armed conflict, in what experts call the ‘grey-zone’. This will involve boosting Defence’s special operations, intelligence and offensive cyber capabilities, as well as its presence operations, capacity-building efforts, and engagement activities.’ (Prime Minister Scott Morrison, 01 July 2020)

Domestic Reaction

The frank assessment and more active and ‘local’ strategy set forth in the DSU have been met positively by domestic commentators and the defence industry, as well as the general public. The DSU commitment to further investment in Australia's sovereign defence industry has drawn a particularly positive reception from stakeholders. Defence is to become more self-resilient, for research and development, for manufacturing, and for logistic sustainment (fuel, ammunition and missiles). Industry sees opportunities for collaboration with partners in new technologies such as unmanned systems and hypersonics. There is also funding for refurbishment and upgrading of bases and training facilities, creating local jobs. Some funding has been reallocated in line with changes in the strategic environment, reflecting a realignment of the Defence Integrated Investment Program (IIP). Quite clearly future Defence involvement in national capacity building, especially in terms of acquisition and sustainment, will be well received at a community and Government level.


Domestically, the specific attention given to ‘grey zone’ threats has also been well received, as has the resourcing for capabilities to deter these activities and to respond where necessary. Defence’s value has been highlighted by its contributions to the summer bushfire season and COVID-19 pandemic response, and Australians are perhaps more informed than is usual on geo-politicking. As a result, the AARC has recognised that public support for the announcements in the DSU has been strong, particularly where significant effects can be achieved quickly, for a relatively low cost, and to counter an active threat—for example the development of cyber warfare capabilities.

Conversely, domestic political critics argue the update does not provide Defence sufficient capability to present a credible deterrent threat to rapidly modernising military forces in the region. Critics argue the limited long range acquisitions can already be easily overmatched with force. Others approved of efforts to improve Australia’s self-resilience but warned against becoming entangled in distant disputes in which we do not have a direct interest, where the potential cost outweighs any reward. These commentators suggest Australia should prioritise funding to mitigate the destabilising national security effects of climate change, social and health programs for the COVID-19 response, and security through diplomacy (the Lowy Institute 2020 poll found Australians believed drought/water shortages, epidemics and an economic downturn presented the greatest risk to Australia’s vital interests—not a military conflict).

Critique has also been directed at the pace of investment as Defence introduces capability to offset new risks. Michael Shoebridge of ASPI believes the slow moving acquisition process will limit Defence’s ability to achieve the DSU’s strategic objectives: ‘[i]f Australia no longer has 10 years’ warning time to prepare for potential major conflict, the fact that much of the new force structure won’t be ready for at least 10 years is simply not good news.’ Such views suggest that Defence should complement longer-term capability investment with short-term preparedness planning reforms to ensure the ADF remains ready to respond to unforeseen events.

In general, the DSU has been met with appreciation for its realistic and candid assessment of the regional security environment outlook and its appropriate geographic refocus and clear strategic shift.  Its emphasis on self-reliance and pro-activity in offsetting a range of geostrategic challenges explicitly compels the Australian national security enterprise to transform. The AARC has noted that the DSU has been a catalyst for a rapid adaption of strategic narratives being promoted out of a range of universities, research institutes and in public commentary. Nonetheless, the DSU has been met with some concerns regarding competing domestic budgetary priorities, systemic acquisition issues, and the risk of inflaming an already competitive security environment by overlooking traditional diplomacy or through miscalculation. In any case there is likely to be a robust discussion about the DSU for some time yet; the DSU perhaps being a significant inflection point in how commentators and analysts describe geostrategic risks and opportunities to Australia and what Defence must do to counter threats that are manifesting in the short term.


On the Defence Strategic Update 2020

Video: The Minister for Defence, CDF and the Minister for Defence Industry discuss the Defence Strategic Update 2020 at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, 01 July 2020 (YouTube)

Podcast: The National Security Podcast – Australia's Defence Strategy Update and Force Structure Plan.

Podcast: ASPI’s Policy Guns and Money – The 2020 Defence Strategic Update

Podcast: The Diplomat – The Origins and Drivers of Australia’s 2020 Defense Strategic Update.


Podcast: CSIS The Asia Chessboard – The U.S. Alliance System and the Chessboard (Part 2). A discussion on the importance of alliance coordination in the Indo-Pacific, the challenges U.S. alliances currently face, and how the U.S. alliance network factors into competition with China (also available on most podcast platforms).

Video/Podcast: Voices from DARPA – The Swarm Commander: A discussion on DARPA’s robotics and autonomous technology programs (YouTube, also available on Apple Podcasts)

Video/Podcast: Voices from DARPA – The AI Intermediary: A discussion on past and present AI programs at DARPA (YouTube, also available on Apple Podcasts)

Podcast: National Defense Magazine – June Episode: The episode takes a deep dive into the expected changes to the USMC force structure and shifting priorities in Research and Development.

The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.

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