The Defence Strategic Review aims at reshaping our armed forces to focus on denying Chinese military access to our continental approaches.
It throws out an old policy which, aiming to deter only countries close to Australia, applied the same "denial strategy" very weakly. The review also takes aim at the Australian military habit of shaping the defence force to serve other missions, dispersing resources.
Now Australia is supposed to really put its back into controlling the sea and air space to its north.
For the coming four years, however, the government is keeping defence spending at the current share of gross domestic product, 2 per cent. A higher percentage will come later, it says. The nuclear submarine program, alone costing 0.15 per cent of GDP over 30 years, will be one reason for the rise.
To achieve the muscled-up denial strategy, the navy, army and air force are all supposed to gain enhanced strike capability - the power to hit surface targets, such as enemy bases and ships, at least hundreds of kilometres away. They'll do that mainly with a variety of strike missiles, some of which were already in planning before the review was published on April 24.
Surveillance systems for finding targets and communicating data are necessary complements to the weapons.
The denial strategy relies on the principle that countries have greater military strength close to their own territory than they have at a distance. So, the closer to Australia that China tried to apply military force, the weaker that force would become, while the Australian strength that could defend against it would rise.
Making the most of such a principle requires buying suitable equipment, so much of the review is about doing just that.
Currently, Australia's defence force is equipped and trained not just for denying access to the country's approaches but for such functions as supporting the US and Britain in Middle Eastern campaigns and intervening in small Pacific countries.
That dispersion of defence resources has been associated with a guideline for equipment and training called Balanced Force - meaning the services should have a wide variety of capabilities, none particularly strong. The review replaces that with Focused Force, and the focus is on the northern approaches.
The review shows no interest in making the Australian Defence Force ready to head back to Afghanistan or Syria.
Of the three services, the army will perhaps change the most. Formerly equipped and trained almost entirely for ground fighting, it is to be given strike missiles, eventually some that will fly 1000 kilometres. Meanwhile, some of its plans for ground-combat capability have been cut.
The army is also to be reshaped so its ability to fight land battles can be projected away from Australia by carrying soldiers and equipment on amphibious assault ships.
The review requires one of the army's three combat brigades to be fully equipped for intense ground fighting - with heavy and expensive gear such as infantry fighting vehicles - and it says delivery of the equipment must be coordinated with availability of new assault ships.
But the exact purpose of that army amphibious function is one of the mysteries of the review, which in many places is quite obscure.
One possible purpose is to send the army north to deploy strike missiles and air-defence batteries on islands belonging to neighbours, such as Indonesia and the Philippines - assuming they would make their territory available.
The further north such weapons were placed, the larger the area that would be difficult for China to access. Such a move would also help defend our neighbours, if in fact they wanted defending.
Another possibility, suggested by the coordinated timetable for ground-combat equipment and ships, is that the army would be projected onto a foreign island from which China was threatening Australia. The task would be to remove the threat.
In that situation, China might have seized the island, or it might have gained access by controlling the small nation that owned the territory.
Big changes are on the way for the navy, too. For six decades it has operated about 12 destroyers and frigates; the current number is 11. Planning before the review aimed to build nine Hunter class frigates to replace eight ships of the Anzac class, thereby getting the destroyer-frigate total back to 12.
The review calls for smaller warships, implying that they will carry a lot of strike missiles; it also wants a quick study into how many of them should be built. Not discussed is the future of the Hunter class program, which is running far over budget and behind schedule.
The review strongly endorses acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines and urges that the program move as quickly as possible.
Strike is traditionally an air force function, but the published version of the review does not call for more combat aircraft nor for more tanker and air-surveillance aeroplanes to support them.
A decision on the future of the fighter fleet is overdue, because its strike wing is equipped with 24 Super Hornets whose pencilled-in retirement date, 2030, is getting close. The strike wing is the major air force component that is already part of the denial strategy, so its omission is an obvious gap in the review's published recommendations.
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It's possible that unpublished recommendations do attend to fighter purchases and that some decision will be announced in the next year or so.
The review rejects the idea of buying US B-21 stealth bombers, which was advocated by some analysts to greatly reinforce the denial strategy but would have been extremely expensive.
It urges priority development of the Ghost Bat, a combat drone that Boeing is creating in Australia, but such aircraft are many years from being able to fully replace something like the Super Hornet. The Ghost Bat is mainly intended to be a helper for piloted aircraft, though it could offer an ability to attack weakly defended targets.
The only immediate improvement in the air force's kit that the review publicly recommends is equipping F-35A Lightning fighters with strike missiles, reinforcing the denial strategy.
Nonetheless, the resilience of the air force will improve when and if the government follows a demand from the review to strengthen Australia's northern bases, particularly airfields, and ensure fuel supply to them. The review is emphatic on the urgency of the work and lists it as one of a few items that must be achieved by 2025.
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Others are making communications links more robust and equipping ships and aircraft with longer-range and more lethal weapons - meaning strike missiles.
The bases may become even more resilient if they are given defences against air and missile attack.
At the moment, Australia has little capacity to shoot down enemy strike missiles flying towards their targets, which could be bases, equipment (including ships in port), supplies (say, ammunition and fuel stores) logistics lines (a railway bridge or pipeline) or factories.
The Defence Department has been working on acquiring systems for air and missile defence, but the review criticises its efforts as taking too long in a quest for near perfection. Instead, Australia should urgently buy systems that are readily available off the shelf, the review says.
It wants a layered set-up, meaning a combination of missile batteries that fire long-range interceptors, covering large areas, and others that protect only nearby facilities.
- Bradley Perrett has worked for 20 years as a defence and aerospace journalist.