Opinion: We now have a Defence Strategic Review but where is the National Risk Assessment, the National Security Strategy, and the plan?

22 May 2023

Opinion: A failure to resource the DSR changes adequately could mean that our deployable military operational capability will in reality be less at the end of this decade than it is today, writes Air Vice-Marshal (Ret’d) John Blackburn AO, former Deputy Chief of the RAAF.

On the 24th of April 2023 the Australian Labor Government released the unclassified version of the independent Defence Strategic Review (DSR) which assesses whether Australia has the necessary defence capability, posture, and preparedness to best defend Australia and its interests in the strategic environment we now face. The DSR finding is that the ADF is “not fully fit for purpose” against increasing threats.

The unclassified report totals 116 pages, 30 of which are just full-page photographs. The Strategic review is incomplete; the reassessment of Navy capabilities is the subject of an ongoing, separate review. The Strategic Review is also not a strategy and there is no coherent plan. A “National Defence Strategy” is promised for mid 2024 … and a coherent costed plan hopefully soon after that?

The Government’s National Defence Statement 2023 (NDS2023) at the beginning of the DSR notes that “we must sharpen our focus on what our interests are, and how to uphold them … These interests demand we deploy all elements of our national power in statecraft seeking to shape a region that is open, stable, and prosperous.” For us to deploy all elements of our national power it seems logical to expect that we would conduct a compressive risk assessment and then develop a national security / resilience strategy and plan. A key component of that strategy would, of course, be focussed on the Defence component of our national power in the form of a National Defence Strategy.

The promised National Defence Strategy is described in the NDS2023: “It will encompass a comprehensive outline of Defence policy, planning, capabilities and resourcing, including reprioritisation of the Integrated Investment Program, to align with the intent and recommendations of the Review.” This is clearly focussed on the military and not a strategy that will guide our nation as “we deploy all elements of our national power in statecraft.” Such a strategy does not exist today, although the DSR does note that National Defence must be anchored in a broader national strategy. There is no information regarding what the Government intends to do about this broader national strategy.

So, why is there no National Security / Resilience Strategy in 2023? We had one in 2013; the Gillard Government produced “Strong and Secure – A Strategy for Australia’s National Security” which was intended to provide “a unified national security system that anticipates threats, protects the nation and shapes the world in Australia’s interest.” That strategy was discarded by the Abbott Liberal Coalition Government when it came to power later that year … and nothing replaced it in the subsequent nine years of Liberal coalition Governments.

The late Senator Jim Molan campaigned extensively for a National Security Strategy. In my many discussions with Jim, I asked him why the Liberal party would not develop one. His answer was illuminating, and somewhat depressing. He told me that he had been pressured by the Liberal leadership to desist in his public campaign for a national security strategy as the they did not view it as an election issue. Throughout this period, the Labor opposition was largely silent on the issue. Such was / is the state of our nation’s political system.

The DSR also identifies that a central component of deterrence for national defence is resilience. It explains that critical requirements for a resilient nation include: 

• an informed public,

  • democratic assuredness,
  • robust cyber security, data networks and space capabilities,
  • supply chain diversity,
  • economic security,
  • environmental security,
  • fuel and energy security,
  • enhanced military preparedness,
  • advanced munitions manufacturing,
  • robust national logistics, and
  • a national industrial base with a capacity to scale.

There is no indication from Government of how it intends to address these resilience components; listing them is not acting. In each case there needs to be a risk assessment before a strategy and plan can be developed. For example, given national concerns re the state of our energy systems and import dependencies, it is sobering to realise that the last time we had a National Energy Security Assessment, i.e., an energy risk assessment, was in 2011! And the plan is?

Whilst these are all important issues that impact national resilience, they are a list developed primarily through a Defence / military lens. National resilience is about much more than the military. The Institute for Integrated Economic Research – Australia, which I chair, has led a National Resilience Projectsince 2019. Many of the issues we addressed, such as the security and resilience of our nation’s health systems, environmental systems, education systems, research and innovation systems, agriculture systems, and our national preparedness (whole of society not just military) are not addressed in the DSR. The risks we face in these areas are as significant as those in the military sector and are not independent of each other; they are interconnected.

Printed in Defence Connect 22 May 2023

By: John Blackburn