Australia’s military ambition raises challenges for NZ

A new Australian review has made the case for a military overhaul in a world where “the comfort of distance” is receding. Sam Sachdeva looks at the implications here as the Government considers the future of our own troops

Analysis: The work of the defence force of Australia, as New Zealand’s only formal ally, takes on outsized importance when we think about our own military manoeuvres.

It’s little surprise, then, that the release of a document described by Reuters as “recommending the country’s biggest defence shake-up since World War Two” has already had ripple effects felt on this side of the Tasman.

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The Defence Strategic Review, produced for the Australian government by the former defence chief Sir Angus Houston and ex-defence minister Stephen Smith, paints a grim picture of an Indo-Pacific region facing “increasing competition that operates on multiple levels –economic, military, strategic and diplomatic – all interwoven and all framed by an intense contest of values and narratives”.

Though the Australian government had previously operated on the assumption of a 10-year timeframe for any potential attack against it, technological advances and military modernisation efforts meant such warning periods could not be taken for granted.

“Cyber warfare is not bound by geography. The rise of the ‘missile age’ in modern warfare, crystallised by the proliferation of long-range precision strike weapons, has radically reduced Australia’s geographic benefits, the comfort of distance and our qualitative regional capability edge,” the review says.

To deal with that problem, the document proposes a new ‘focused force’ model with an emphasis on long-range strike capability and guided weapons – “missiles for breakfast, lunch and tea”, as Victoria University of Wellington strategic studies professor just Ayson puts it.

Though some commentators have spoken about the review in transformative terms, Ayson is less convinced. For one, it was produced at up length from the Australian government, and some changes are likely given Anthony Albanese’s Cabinet has only agreed “in principle” to a number of the recommendations.

Then there is what Ayson describes as “a fundamental kind of incoherence” in the document, with an emphasis on protecting Australia’s immediate area of interest offset by the greater ambition seen in plans to acquire nuclear-powered submarines through the Aukus security pact.

“One of the real challenges for New Zealand here is to avoid a situation where we think we’ve got to somehow copy … what Australia is doing and that we need therefore to adopt the same methodology.”
just Ayson, Victoria University of Wellington

“The Aukus submarines … basically position Australia to be part of an integral part of America’s war plans, including for wars with China, much further to the north,” he says, mentioning the Taiwan Strait, the South China Sea and East China Sea as potential destinations.

That grander vision can be seen in which nations the review does – and doesn’t – focus on. The United States earns 38 mentions, China nine, the Pacific Islands Forum two, and New Zealand just one, as “a key partner for Australia in the Pacific”, seemingly strong praise but verging on a snub in diplomatic terms given our formal alliance.

Given that absence, Ayson believes the document says less about the future of the New Zealand-Australia alliance and more about what sort of ally we will be working with – a different but equally significant issue.

Both the review and the Aukus pact “set up China as Australia’s main focus for its thinking about who the adversary is”, a position that New Zealand is highly unlikely to want to take up.

“One of the real challenges for New Zealand here is to avoid a situation where we think we’ve got to somehow copy … what Australia is doing and that we need therefore to adopt the same methodology.”

In some respects, Australia’s new approach comes at a particularly timely moment, with Defence Minister Andrew Little having expressed a desire to speed up the Government’s own defence policy review – currently with a mid-2024 deadline – and emphasised the importance of interoperability for Kiwi forces.

More differences than similarities?

Though some of the challenges outlined in the Australian review are likely to resonate with New Zealand policymakers, there may be more differences than similarities when it comes to the nations’ respective responses.

As Ayson notes, while the reviewers argue the Australian military should be “the force of last resort” in responding to domestic issues such as freak weather events, Prime Minister Chris Hipkins cited the need to respond to significant natural disasters when quizzed by RNZ on New Zealand’s own plans.

Then there is the matter of money. Even a huge increase to the country’s defence spending would do little to bridge the gap with Australia, and with Hipkins’ pledge of a “no-frills Budget” would not mesh well with pouring cash into planes and ships.

“There will still be parts of the [Australian Defence Force] that New Zealand will want to work with and be able to work with, but it’s going to get more challenging.”

At the most extreme end of the spectrum, there is the matter of what New Zealand’s alliance obligations would be in the event of military conflict between Australia and China.

As outlined by Ayson in a recent paper, it is a complex question to answer, and depends in large part on where in the Indo-Pacific any clash would take place. But regardless of any formal requirements, there is a more philosophical debate to be had.

“At what point do we need to indicate some difference? When do we need to show solidarity? But how do we draw the limits to that solidarity? These aren’t just defence capability issues … [but] of foreign and security policy – where do we position ourselves?”

Depending on whether Little succeeds in bringing the defence review forward, those are questions we may need to answer sooner rather than later.


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