Australia’s National Security Challenges in 2023: A Critical Analysis of the Defence Strategic Review – Part 1

Regarding defence acquisition, Australia tends to lurch into differing priorities from government to government. We talk of defence being 'bipartisan' whereby both major parties, the Australian Labor Party (ALP) and the LNP, see defence similarly, but they don't. Defence is the low-hanging fruit through which government on either side of the political divide can benefit from announcing a new multi-billion dollar project, promising technological and employment dividends.

Dr. John Bruni


Founder & CEO of South Australian geopolitical think tank, SAGE International.

He is also

Host of STRATEGIKON & The Focus podcasts.


On February 14, 2023, the Houston/Smith Defence Strategic Review (DSR) was handed to the Albanese government. This review was commissioned by the former Morrison Liberal National Party (LNP) government. The publicly available document was released on Monday, April 24. The DSR took six months to write. The Honourable Richard Marles MP, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defence, said that:

“The Defence Strategic Review is an ambitious and extensive examination of our strategic circumstances and will underpin our Defence policy for decades to come.”[1]

However, for those readers of government documents, commissioned works authored by former senior members of the Defence establishment are not known to be riveting reading or particularly radical.[2] Considering that the authors are The Honourable Stephen Smith MP, former Minister for Defence (under the Rudd & Gillard Labor governments) and former Australian Chief of the Defence Force (Sir Angus Houston AK, AC (Mil), AFC (Ret’d), these formerly influential members of the Australian defence elite will have written the DSR to complement the former Morrison government and current Albanese government’s priorities. The DSR, therefore, is a document that stresses continuity in Australian government objectives rather than divergencies, despite political party affiliation.[3]

Some will say that this is how defence documents should be written. They should be written to highlight the achievements of the former government while giving credence to the ‘forward thinking’ of the current one. But, as this paper will show, Australian national security should not be about praising or condemning politicians, public servants, defence industry officials or others responsible for elements of the country’s national security architecture. Instead, it should address the genuine gaps in personnel and capability. Sometimes this will involve purchasing weapons, expanding defence personnel (regular and reserve) or supporting the public service base. Occasionally this will include looking closely at existing threat perceptions and revising government priorities based on real-world assessments. But, in a political environment, Defence is often a tool used by the political parties at the Federal and State levels to buy voter sympathy and support.[4] Moreover, higher defence spending can easily translate into more significant business, investment and employment prospects.

National security, however you define it, is a touchstone topic that many Australians have a view on.

Some have served in the ADF in the past or have had family members serve. This constituency will largely favour any political party suggesting more lavish spending on defence, whatever the strategic policy position of parties in power. At a general level, they understand that Australia is an island continent with a small population, strung over a large landmass, distant from critical markets and sources of strategic support. They may all disagree on what Australia should do to mitigate against this strategic ‘truism’. Still, they will interpret any increase in the defence budget as a general social good and a good for national security.

Then some view anything defence related as a waste of public money. This constituency will believe that solving international disputes only involves diplomacy and negotiation and generally does not require significant military involvement. This argument believes that reasonable people will make valid agreements over practical demands. Unfortunately, current foreign policy does not indicate this as the norm. Some at the extreme edge of the political spectrum will hate the military and its historical legacy in Australia and will fervently argue that Australia should scrap its military entirely since this money would be better invested in civil programs such as building schools, roads, hospitals and the like. This part of the community is especially wary about alliance commitments to the United States, which they generally attribute to getting Australia into wars that are not our business.

The DSR, media hyperbole notwithstanding, does not break with Australian defence documentation tradition. Indeed, from a cursory reading of the DSR, it becomes evident that much of it is reminiscent of the 1986 Dibb Review, written by Emeritus Prof. Paul Dibb, with the DSR referring to terms such as a ‘strategy of denial’.[5] However, perhaps with newer long-range military strike technologies on offer, what could not be successfully achieved in the 1980s has a better chance of reaching maturity in the 2020s.[6]

The DSR did not present any radical re-interpretation of Australia’s strategic requirements. And by radical, I mean for calls to create a base for Australian strategic autonomy putting distance between ourselves and our American friends and allies. Many Australians who take national security seriously and who have some understanding of the issues we as a country face in an ever-changing world can only imagine Australia with its American strategic umbrella. We are too small and vulnerable to ‘go it alone’. The DSR does not suggest any significant strategic policy shifts from what we know. Central to 21st Century Australia is the new AUKUS security compact (announced in September 2021) between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States. This security compact, primarily, though not exclusively, designed for Australia to get a nuclear-powered submarine capability for the Royal Australian Navy (RAN), will be significant because Australia has never had a nuclear-powered anything in its inventory. This acquisition project poses several important issues locally. The RAN will soak up a lot of public monies to make this estimated AUD 368 billion acquisition work, not just in general tax dollars but also through shuffling around defence funding between Australia’s armed services. Already, Army has lost out in the DSR by not being able to implement its proposed purchase of 450 infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs).[7]

Instead, Army will receive 129 new IFVs. Why is this a problem? Because any ‘war’ against a significant regional power will require a land warfare element that can be both readily deployable and be able to protect infantry. IFVs are lighter than main battle tanks (MBTs) and are more readily deployable than their heavier MBT counterparts in conflict zones. If fighting a war requires boots on the ground, as most wars do, there are better tactical decisions than leaving deployed infantry open to enemy forces. But, in a tight budgetary environment, the government will make sacrifices. Each Service will need to make trade-offs in cutting specific capabilities so that others deemed more important can grow. Treasury, after all, does not have a bottomless pit of money. But when decisions have anticipated bad outcomes for defence force personnel, such as leaving infantry exposed to enemy fire, especially in close-quarter combat, one has to question their wisdom. Also scrapped from Army is the proposed second regiment of 30 self-propelled howitzers and 15 armoured ammunition re-supply vehicles. If the Ukrainian War has taught us anything, it is the potency of modern artillery on the battlefield. But the DSR has said that Army will receive the famed HIMARS surface-to-surface missile system of Ukrainian War fame.[8] These highly accurate missiles will allow the Australian Army to lay down precise fire on enemy units at a distance, especially armoured units. As stand-off weapons, they are an excellent addition to the Australian Army. But there’s no getting around that once enemy armoured forces are eliminated, infantry units will have to move into areas once occupied by the enemy. Former enemy territory might harbour well-armed holdouts or retreating forces when this occurs. Here, the protective shielding of IFVs comes into its own. IFVs are not just battlefield taxis but excellent at providing mobile suppression cover and protection in close-quarter fighting when necessary. So, swapping one capability for another is a complex exercise. Nevertheless, it makes sense from an economic perspective rather than a tactical one.

Upon reading the publicly released version of the DSR, some key observations are worth mentioning.


Little is said of sustaining an inter-Service balance in purchasing new or retaining core military capabilities.[9]

Developing core military capabilities across the Services requires a level of strategic thinking this country is unused to. Proposed acquisitions may net Australia greater long-range strike power. But it says little about how Australia will deal with a threat that does not match our rules or meets our battlefield expectations. If our long-range strike assets are attacked, destroyed, or degraded by other means (space/cyber), what chance do we have to fend off attacks by enemy forces when they close in? This is a relevant question to any scenario, whether Australia deploys forces to northern Australia or offshore to another location. Is Canberra confident that American/Western technology cannot be spoofed, attacked, or destroyed outright? Can we afford to be this sure? Have we outsourced our confidence to American/Western military technology and American strategic support? Perhaps taking the experience that Ukrainian forces have in fighting Russian military technology, there is a level of unbridled confidence. And while there are similarities between Russian and Chinese military technologies, doctrinal and training regimes, there are differences too. The Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and its supporting arms, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF), have equipment that is different from the Russians. Not under comprehensive economic sanctions, the Chinese have acquired a lot of critical Western IP through a highly sophisticated espionage programme[10] that has allowed Beijing to catch up to Western qualitative standards quickly.

But war is not a duel of technologies.

Technologies are critical, but if the quality of an armed force rests on technology alone, the US would have won the Korean War, saved South Vietnam, completely dominated the Taliban in Afghanistan and conducted a superlative counterinsurgency (COIN) in Iraq, post-Saddam. None of these things happened because war, when it happens, is driven by other complex factors such as politics, social organisation, the will to fight and the willingness to take casualties. When these things dominate a protagonist’s mindset, an enemy can conduct war and win based on simple, cheap weapons and innovative, jerry-rigged solutions.

Considering that Australia has historically outsourced its strategic decision-making to great power benefactors – Great Britain (pre-World War I, 1788-1914; World War I, 1914-1918 and World War II, 1939-1943) and the United States (World War II, 1943-45; the Cold War, 1947-1991 and during the post-Cold War period, 1991-today). It has been a challenge for Canberra, generally, or for the Australian military elite to think in Australian ‘strategic terms’ unless it is in tandem with its great power benefactor.[11] Thinking strategically means understanding Australia’s ‘whole-of-government’ responses to a series of crises along a spectrum of situations. A whole-of-government response to defence has been discussed for over 20 years. However, it is still not apparent that we have made any significant ground in this direction. When discussing a spectrum of crises, this includes kinetic[12] attacks on Australia and the US presence in Australia, regional stability operations[13] and providing timely disaster and humanitarian relief at the other end. While the DSR does mention developing a whole-of-government approach, because much of the DSR is classified, we will never know how Australia will fare as a resilient society short of actual high-intensity war. The DSR did not explain the deeper social and strategic meaning of ‘whole-of-government’. It explained it just in how it pertains to bureaucratic methodology and adoption. What of esprit de corps?[14] What will unite the Australian whole-of-government approach besides bland bureaucratic speak?

Australian Defence Debates

Defence debates in Australia are mainly public announcements of expensive war-fighting equipment.

These announcements are an easy sell to an Australian public unused to being engaged by the ADF in any meaningful way. So, we get caught up in arguments about cost and efficiency and where a project will be located in Australia to determine the significant beneficiary of new technology imports and, importantly, jobs – that other critical determinant at the State/Territory government level.

Higher up the chain, senior defence officials favour buying defence equipment directly from the original supplier country, reducing or cutting out the Australian defence industry middleman entirely.[15] Senior defence officials generally consider Australian defence industries inefficient enterprises, adding to project time and cost blow-outs.[16] They want their equipment to be imported whole. The logic is that military goods can be pressed into service quickly by cutting out or minimising Australian content in the acquisition cycle. But, of course, this means that as an island continent far removed geographically from overseas defence suppliers, should something happen to Australia’s sea lines of communication (SLOCs), we go to war with what we have. And without a robust national defence industry capability to support Australia’s defence assets, whatever we have will last as long as it doesn’t break, reach the end of its operational limits or get blown up. Suppose Australia’s primary defence equipment supplier is engaged in military operations at the same time as Australia. In that case, it is likely that a re-supply of weapons that have been degraded or destroyed in combat will be late in getting to Australian operators or will not be available at all. The DSR does nothing to suggest that this is even a problem. So, what we have done in Australia and continue to do is have the Federal government minimally support the local defence industry where long-term projects can and often are changed haphazardly. Small-to-Medium Enterprises (SMEs) are especially vulnerable.[17] They depend on long-term defence contracts to be fulfilled to secure their technical and human resources capabilities.

Regarding defence acquisition, Australia tends to lurch into differing priorities from government to government. We talk of defence being ‘bipartisan’ whereby both major parties, the Australian Labor Party (ALP) and the LNP, see defence similarly, but they don’t. Defence is the low-hanging fruit through which government on either side of the political divide can benefit from announcing a new multi-billion dollar project, promising technological and employment dividends. Such announcements are considered good news stories with little thought to how these acquisitions will generally affect Australian power in the Indo-Pacific or the sub-regions of the archipelagic island chain[18] to the north of us and the Small Island-States (SIS) of the Pacific to our east.


In an age where extremely progressive Woke Culture has profoundly changed how we describe things, where ‘special’ means coming from some under-represented or non-represented identities, little is said of the unique nature of military service anymore. It used to be considered a matter of pride to have family members serving in the ADF. Military service was a widely respected profession in its own right. And, having served the nation in uniform was a mark of some social prestige. But in the contemporary social milieu, military service is viewed as an ‘evil necessity’ among the Woke – the last bastion of accepted white heteronormative male toxicity. So, to diminish its role in Australian society, language has been used to reflect the new boundaries. Also driving this phenomenon is the unconscious bias inherent among the mainstream of society in devaluing the nature of military service. The Australian government now refers to uniformed and non-uniformed support elements as a unified ‘Workforce’. This linguistic device seeks to put military service on the same plain as general public service even though there are no equivalencies between uniformed and the broader public service.

In uniformed service, one is expected to adhere to a disciplined life and respect a hierarchy based on rank with specialist responsibilities in a chain of command. This chain of command can be as egalitarian as imagined. Still, specific people within a ranking structure will be given more or less authority to act depending on seniority and skill. This is the case in the public service or the general economy, except for one distinct characteristic of the military. In the military, you are expected to pledge allegiance to your country through your life’s ultimate sacrifice.

This mark of difference from regular employment should mean it is accorded a far higher value in society than traditional employment.

But we live in an age where people are unaccustomed to being challenged by ‘hard words’ and ‘harsh realities’ – where the very fact of being mentally challenged ‘triggers’ people. What does being triggered mean? It means an intense emotional or psychological response to a stimulus or situation reminiscent of a traumatic experience. It means we’ve created the socio-linguistic soft safety net where we avoid language that can act as triggers. Unfortunately, hard words and harsh conditions are the norm within the military culture. But in devaluing military service, other factors play into this too, and they do not come from Woke sensibilities but from how we’ve come to view the economy.

In a neo-liberal context,[19] whoever you are and whatever you do, the inescapable fact is that now you are primarily a consumer and customer of modern corporatist culture, not a citizen of a country that needs to protect the national collective. ‘Duty’ is a word that had resonance until the 1990s when those who ‘sacrificed’ themselves for the good of the national collective were deemed essential members of society. But when our young are coddled with easily accessible technological devices and given a quiet life with no challenges and no real-world harshness to confront to mature and grow stronger as individuals – where are the next generation of recruits for the Australian military going to come from? Suppose a young person today views military service as ‘just another job,’ among many higher paying and safer occupations, or the equivalent of any other safer and secure role in the Australian public service. What are the incentives to consider military life, even for one term?

Furthermore, if ‘the market’ considers military personnel easy marks to tempt them out of military service and into the civilian sector with higher pay and better conditions, the competition between the military and the market will always be skewed in favour of the market, especially when the Australian economy is booming.

Not addressing this critical issue will condemn the ADF to personnel difficulties in peacetime and war. And, as high-intensity interstate war is making a comeback to the international stage, no matter the DSR’s emphasis on high-tech weaponry, if your armed forces, regular and reserve, have less and less capacity to recruit new personnel sustainably and retain them over time, then the country will bumble along until confronted by a level of national security crisis it is not prepared for and fails at the task of securing Australia’s interests.

The DSR does not address this in detail in its publicly released form.

In conclusion, the publicly released version of the Houston/Smith Defence Strategic Review (DSR) does not deviate from the traditional approach seen in Australian defence documentation. The DSR emphasizes continuity in government objectives rather than significant policy shifts, regardless of political party affiliation. It highlights the importance of the AUKUS security compact and Australia’s reliance on its American allies for strategic support.

However, the DSR fails to address certain critical issues. It overlooks the need for sustaining an inter-Service balance in military capabilities and the potential vulnerabilities of relying heavily on long-range strike assets. The document does not adequately discuss the importance of a resilient whole-of-government response or the role of the Australian defence industry in supporting defence assets.

Furthermore, the DSR does not explore the challenges related to recruiting and retaining personnel in the Australian Defence Force (ADF). It does not address the societal devaluation of military service and the competition between the military and the civilian sector for skilled personnel. Neglecting these issues could lead to personnel difficulties in the ADF, compromising Australia’s ability to effectively respond to national security crises.

Overall, while the DSR provides some insights into Australia’s defence priorities, it falls short in addressing key strategic considerations and societal factors that are essential for the long-term security and resilience of the nation.



[1] Australian Department of Defence, Defence Strategic Review handed to government, Canberra, 14/02/23,, date accessed: 4 May 2023.

[2] P. Layton, An Australian Defence Strategic Review of Limited Ambition, Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) London, 25/08/22,, date accessed: 4 May 2023.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Australian Defence Association (ADA), Partisan misuse of our non-partisan defence force during elections, contentious campaigning, politically expedient government announcements and partisan stunts is always wrong, ADA, Canberra,, date accessed: 4 May 2023.

[5] P. Dibb, Review of Australia’s Defence Capabilities, Canberra, Government Printer, 1986.

[6] P. Dibb & R. Brabin-Smith, Deterrence through denial, a strategy for an era of reduced warning time, Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), Barton ACT, May 2021.

[7] A. Houston & S. Smith, National Defence: Defence Strategic Review, Department of Defence, Canberra, 24 April 2023, pp.59-60.

[8] Ibid., p.59.

[9] Traditionally core military capabilities are critical land, sea and air elements that enable a nation or an alliance to deliver operational effect in various domains that can deter or defeat potential adversaries. Today, core military capabilities can also include space and cyber elements.

[10] W.G. Copan, “China’s Ally in Stealing Western IP: The United States”, Center for Strategic and International Studies, 26/10/2022,, date accessed: 4 May 2023.

[11] F. Tan, The National Security Thinking of Australia and Singapore, The Forge, Australian Defence College, Canberra, October 2020,, date accessed: 4 May 2023.

[12] Military action, including lethal force that leads to the physical destruction of enemy infrastructure and assets.

[13] Inclusive of significant military deployments.

[14] Esprit de corps is a feeling of pride, loyalty, and camaraderie among the members of a group who share a common goal or purpose.

[15] T. Rabe, “Australia’s ‘need for speed’ could erode local defence industry”, The Australian Financial Review, April 24, 2023,, date accessed: 4 May 2023.

[16] J. Bruni, On Weapons Decisions: How Australia Chooses to Arm Itself (1963-96), Southern Highlands Publishers, NSW, 2002.

[17] A. Smith, “SMEs hold the key to developing Australia’s defence sector”, Defence Connect, July 17, 2019,, date accessed: 4 May 2023.

[18] Including Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, Indonesia, Timor Leste and Papua New Guinea

[19] Neo-liberal economics is a philosophy that advocates for free market capitalism, deregulation, globalization, free trade, privatization, and reduced government spending and intervention in economic and social affairs.

Views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of
SAGE International 



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