The Albanese government has taken official possession of the final report of the massive Defence Strategic Review (DSR), as the military braces for another swag of major changes to boost capabilities in areas from super-fast missile defence to possible reductions in light armoured vehicles.
An unclassified 110-page version of the “National Defence” document, prepared by former Defence chief Angus Houston and former minister Stephen Smith, will be released on Monday, two months after being handed to the Prime Minister.
Their review warns of the rapidly diminishing warning time for strategic thinking, and the need to dramatically increase Australia’s acquisition process for new military platforms.
The delivery of the report comes hot on the heels of sharply intensifying sovereignty debate over who will run the reactors of Australia’s forthcoming nuclear submarine fleet, with former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull using the ABC to express concerns that American nuclear physicists would essentially have control of their powerplants.
Turnbull’s appearance on Radio National followed a long interview with the head of the Royal Australian Navy’s vice admiral Jonathan Mead who is running the AUKUS nuclear subs program and is understood to have put in Defence’s recommendations to government.
Speculation in Defence circles seems to be favouring the US Virginia Class boat as Australia’s prime choice given its current numbers and production line lifespan, and the fact that the announcement of an AUKUS deal will be made in the US next month.
Mead on Monday referred to nuclear submarines as the “apex predator” of military hardware given their huge range and ability to stay hidden for months.
The big question is what will, be trimmed, pruned or junked to help pay for the nuclear subs.
“The Defence Strategic Review will help prepare Australia to effectively respond to the changing regional and global strategic environment and ensure Defence’s capability and structure is fit for purpose and delivers the greatest return on investment,” said prime minister Anthony Albanese.
Deputy prime minister and minister for defence,Richard Marles said the DSR was an “ambitious and extensive examination of our strategic circumstances” that would “underpin our Defence policy for decades to come.”
That’s no exaggeration given the time frame for many defence projects, along with hardware, can span many decades.
“Australia must be resolute in its responsibility to safeguard our region and keep adversaries further from our shores.”
The announcement of the receipt of the DSR comes as Defence prepares to front senate estimates, where it is likely to face heat over this week’s Australian National Audit Office report spotlighting cost and time blowouts and a separate Capability Acquisition and Support Group internal report released under Freedom of Information that blasted Defence’s insiders-only culture.
Nuclear and cyber talent are also rapidly emerging as weak spots for future capability, with government scholarships the most obvious long-term solution to this gap.
The DSR’s authors, former minister for defence Stephen Smith and former chief of the defence force Sir Angus Houston, have not been far from controversy, with the Opposition taking potshoots at Smith over previous Defence cuts under his watch.
Defence said the DSR “was informed by engagements with more than 150 individuals and experts, including Defence officials, Australian Defence Force personnel, defence industry, national security think tanks and academics, representatives from the states and territories and interest groups.”
Winners and losers of the review
Among plans the review has put on the chopping block are new infantry fighting vehicles, a project known by the military and industry as Land 400 Phase 3, which will be reduced to 129 vehicles, the equivalent of one mechanised battalion.
The project was originally intended to build 450 new armoured troop carriers at a cost of up to $27 billion, but there has been speculation for months that the numbers would be slashed.
German firm Rheinmetall and South Korean company Hanwha have been left sweating for months after the government delayed the tender decision until the findings of the review were known.
The review also urges the government to immediately scrap the idea of acquiring a second regiment of 30 self-propelled howitzer guns. A contract with Hanwha to assemble the first 30 howitzers near Geelong will not be cancelled.
It also wants the government to speed up and expand its acquisition of the American HiMARS long-range strike missile, which can hit targets on land at a distance of up to 300km. The government earlier this year announced it would buy 20 of the truck-mounted systems HiMARS systems at a cost of up to $575 million.
This included $32.2 billion for the establishment of missile production, known as the Guided Weapons and Ordnance Enterprise; $7.9 billion in extra cybersecurity funding under the REDSPICE program for the Australian Signals Directorate; and $1.9 billion for the so-called AUKUS Pillar 2 initiatives, such as artificial intelligence, hypersonics and quantum computing.
The construction of a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines, under the AUKUS agreement, with have an expected price tag of $368 billion, will be the biggest and costliest defence project undertaken by Australia.
The review is expected to recommend Australia rapidly expand a domestic guided weapons industry to produce American made long-range missiles, according to the AFR.
Investment in Australian missile factories will be more than double what was initially outlined by the previous government’s Sovereign Guided Weapons and Explosive Ordnance Enterprise plans.
The government will plunge $2.5 billion to develop the domestic industry in conjunction with manufacturer Lockheed Martin which will include surface-to-surface precision strike missiles with a range of 500km.
The Defence Strategic Review also urges an expansion or acceleration of programs for medium and heavy landing craft, long-range missiles and mobile land-based missiles to strike maritime targets.
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