The federal government is now considering the results of a six-month review of the Australian Defence Force (ADF) to determine whether it is fit for purpose to deal with a militarily aggressive Chinese Communist Party.
The report was ordered last August by the newly elected Labor government and came just two years after the 2020 Defence Strategic Update was publicised—this document already called for a major overhaul of how the ADF should be structured and what weapons to acquire.
On Feb. 14, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Defence Minister Richard Marles received the report from former ADF Chief Angus Houston and ex-Labor Defence Minister Stephen Smith.
“This is about preparing Australia for the challenging strategic circumstances that we face,” the prime minister told reporters. “We want to make sure that our [defence] assets are fit for purpose and that they deliver the greatest return on investment.”
Houston said the report was completed in six months instead of the usual 12 to 18, which highlighted the speed of change in the strategic environment.
“It’s a great example of the urgency that was required to deal with the circumstances,” he told the prime minister as he handed over the review.
“I hope it does everything you need it to do. I think it’s on the money. We’re pretty happy with it.”
The review received 360 public submissions and heard from 150 experts across academia, think tanks, the ADF, and the defence industry.
Big Projects Likely to Be Tinkered With
Upon receiving the report, the government said it had inherited 18 major projects running over budget by $6.5 billion.
The ADF’s acquisition projects have been mired with long delays and cost overruns into the billions, including the Hunter-class Frigate program and the now-cancelled French Attack-class submarine.
Both projects were tied down due to their unique custom designs, as well as being tools to spur job growth rather than focused purely on the defence of the nation.
Delivery times were slated into the 2030s, an untenable situation given the geopolitical climate in the Indo-Pacific region.
While the 2020 Defence Strategic Update kicked off change in the ADF—for example, bolstering the military’s long-range threat profile—the Morrison government was still laden with a decade of ongoing legacy projects under previous Liberal Party prime ministers.
Fiery Parliamentary Debate Over the Review
In Parliament, former Assistant Defence Minister Andrew Hastie criticised the review saying the former Labor Minister Stephen Smith had contributed to the party’s “dangerous record” on defence spending.
“We hope they’ve learned from their past failures and neglect under their watch,” Hastie told Parliament.
“We will remain vigilant, watching carefully and reserving our judgment as the defence strategic review and AUKUS announcements are made over the coming weeks and months.”
During Question Time, current defence minister Marles said the review would take “some weeks” to consider before action was taken, noting that a public version would be made available.
“[This is] the single most important re-evaluation of Australia’s strategic posture in the last 35 years against a backdrop of the most complex strategic landscape that we have faced since the end of the Second World War,” he said.
Marles blamed the Coalition for losing a decade of time to build up the ADF.
“Time and again, those opposite was making decisions based on politics rather than policy, such as their decision to down-select the Attack-class submarine program to one tenderer before they completed the design just so they could do a single press conference in the lead-up to the 2016 election,” he added.