CANBERRA: Australia launched its biggest defense overhaul in decades Monday, vowing to turn a military that is “no longer fit for purpose” into a fighting force that could deter China or any would-be foe. Defense Minister Richard Marles unveiled a strategic review that called for a sharp shift toward long-range deterrence — using missiles, submarines and cyber tools to keep adversaries at arm’s length. “Today, for the first time in 35 years, we are recasting the mission of the Australian Defense Force,” Marles said. Describing China’s military build-up as the largest and most ambitious of any country since World War II, the review warns “the risks of military escalation or miscalculation are rising”. Australian planners have viewed China’s military rise warily, fearing Beijing’s now-vast capabilities could effectively cut Australia off from trading partners and global supply chains.
In response to that threat, Australia’s military will develop the ability to strike from air, land and sea, strengthen northern bases and recruit more troops. “We aim to change the calculus so no potential aggressor can ever conclude that the benefits of conflict outweigh the risks,” the review said.
Asked about the overhaul and the reasons given for it, Beijing said it hoped some countries would “refrain from using China as an excuse to expand their military power or groundlessly hype up the ‘China threat’ theory”. China’s military policy is “defensive in nature” and poses “no threat to any country”, foreign ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning said at a regular press briefing. Australia has already announced a key tool in its new strategy — the development of stealthy long-range nuclear-powered submarines that could retaliate with a barrage of cruise missiles and little warning. There will be a short, independent review this year of the navy’s surface combatant fleet to ensure its size, structure and composition complement the capabilities provided by the new nuclear-powered submarines.
The biggest changes may be felt in the Australian army, which will now have a sharper focus on coastal defense, particularly in the country’s vast north. Australia’s northern city of Darwin was bombed by Japan in World War II, but until recently defense planners believed they would get a decade’s warning before any new attack was imminent. “The rise of the ‘missile age’ in modern warfare, crystallized by the proliferation of long-range precision strike weapons, has radically reduced Australia’s geographic benefits,” the review concluded.
As a result, the army will also be tasked with providing “a long-range strike capability”, while existing land-focused projects will be put to the knife. A plan to purchase 450 infantry fighting vehicles will be scaled back to just 129. A billion-dollar program to develop short-range howitzer artillery systems is likely to be scrapped in favor of acquiring longer-range HIMARS — a system coveted by Ukraine as it tries to repel Russia’s invasion.
While the review mentions “China” only nine times and never as an adversary, there is little doubt that Beijing’s vast military investment and increased saber rattling are a driving force behind the changes. “This build-up is occurring without transparency or reassurance to the Indo-Pacific region of China’s strategic intent,” the review said, using another term for the Asia-Pacific.
“China’s assertion of sovereignty over the South China Sea threatens the global rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific in a way that adversely impacts Australia’s national interests.” According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Chinese military spending reached a record $292 billion last year, the 28th consecutive year of increases. That has fuelled an arms race across the region, with South Korea, Japan and Australia all investing more in defence. Military spending in Asia and Oceania has increased 45 percent since 2013, according to SIPRI. — AFP