Australia’s Quest for Sovereign Security
Apr 05, 2021

I have been coming to Australia since 2014 to write reports for the Williams Foundation, a Canberra-based foundation that focuses on Australian national security policy. Those reports started with a look at the future of airpower in 2025 and continued through 2019 on joint force transformation and integration. But over the past few years, there has been increasing emphasis on the need for enhanced Australian defence sovereignty within the context of its close global alliance with the United States and its partner nations in the Pacific, the Five Eye Nations and in Europe.

The seminar series was disrupted by COVID-19 but will start again this week with a focus on Next Generation Autonomous Systems (8 April 2021). Australia is closed to foreigners so I will write this report from a distance and do Zoom interviews. Next Gen Autonomous Systems are clearly an area of interest for Australia, where enhanced capacity to work these new systems closely with allies and partners is becoming very important – but to do so with an ability to manage resilience in a crisis is a key consideration.

The enhanced attention to sovereignty and supply chain vulnerability management was well underway prior to COVID-19. Threats from China associated with how globalizations have been built to date, has led a number of Australian analysts and policy makers to focus on the need for supply chain security and reshaping how Australia can operate in a crisis when threatened by China. At the present time, Australia is not only experiencing a trade war with China, but a political war as well, with the Chinese clearly on the offensive.

The focus on enhanced sovereignty for Australian defence has been a clear hallmark of the Morrison government, and a key focus of the Prime Minister’s new strategy announced on 1 July 2020. As he noted when announcing the new strategy: “We must be alert to the full range of current and future threats, including ones in which Australia’s sovereignty and security may be tested.” He added: Everything my government does is designed to build our national resilience and protect our sovereignty, our freedom, our values and our independence…. and the good news is that we’re already pointed in the right direction. This journey didn’t start today. It’s been happening for some time.”

What Morrison was referring to was a number of initiatives that reflected the Australian approach. The new shipbuilding program is a case in point whereby the Australians are working with Europeans, Canadians and Americans to shape new capabilities in which ships are built in Australia, along with systems stood up, but clearly based both on the ability to integrate with allies as well as to support national capabilities in a crisis.

In other words, the Australians understand that defence today is about semi-sovereignty for liberal democracies dealing with the threats they face – even for the United States. It's how you craft your capabilities within the semi-sovereignty for independent actions by a nation within a cluster of relevant and like-minded states that matters.

They have worked with the Germans to stand up their new Offshore Patrol Vessel, but with clear national focus on the systems operating onboard the ship to work across the fleet to ensure that they are integratable with Australian forces, partners and allies. Australia's new submarine is being built with the assistance of French-based Naval Group and with American combat systems onboard. Australia is also building a new frigate based on a common UK design, along with Canada.

The bedrock of Australia's defence platforms are clearly American, ranging from the F-35 fighter jet, to the P-8 patrol aircraft, to the Triton unmanned aerial ISR system. Here the Australians are part of the new 21st century industrial alliances, the F-35 global enterprise and the P-8 maritime domain enterprise. They contribute a great deal in these alliances and have unique contributions to be made as well, and opportunities to leverage these American platforms to work with global partners.

The launch of the F-35 global enterprise highlights new opportunities for non-American companies to build missiles for “their” nation, but in so doing, given the common systems onboard the F-35, makes these available to others in the coalition without the usual onerous testing nation by nation. There is no better example of this than the Norwegian company Kongsberg, which builds a strike missile for Norway's F-35s, and these have been adopted by other nations as well.

Australia has unique test ranges and a clear opportunity to shape a new approach to missile development and production, namely to build around a modular missile effort where each module supports a specific range, and adding modules achieves longer ranges. Given the technological missile capabilities of the Japanese, Americans and Europeans, partnerships will not be difficult. But the point of all of this, is to navigate the future to deliver significantly greater capability for Australia to support its own national defence in times of crisis. By working with allies, it can not only draw on their expertise and capital but also to shape new capabilities which can be exported back to those allies as well. This is an ongoing opportunity which I have discussed with Australians since my very first trip there for the 2014 Airpower seminar.

Under the leadership of Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Australia's Liberal government sets a high priority on resilience and and enhanced sovereignty security. To that end, it has launched a new effort in the missile domain. 

“Creating our own sovereign capability on Australian soil is essential to keep Australians safe, while also providing thousands of local jobs in businesses right across the ­defence supply chain. As the COVID-19 pandemic has shown, having the ability for self-reliance, be it vaccine development or the defence of Australia, is vital to meeting our own requirements in a changing global environment,” said Prime Minister Morrison announcing the $1B investment to fast-track the creation of a new military manufacturing industry. “It is imperative we now proceed with the creation of a sovereign guided weapons capability as a priority.”

In short, Australia is pursuing its course for enhanced sovereignty through leveraged Alliance relationships and a focus on standing up new industrial capacities at home.

Robbin Laird is a defence analyst based in Virginia. His recently published book, Joint by Design: The Evolution of Australian Defence Strategy, looks at the evolution of Australian defence policy over the past decade and provides significant information on how Australia has shaped the way ahead. 

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