The Defence strategic review’s vision for the Australian Army

The recent Defence strategic review (DSR) highlights Australia’s deteriorating strategic circumstances and foreshadows the kind of Australian Defence Force (ADF) required to address future challenges. It recommends a shift from a balanced force – capable of responding to a variety of contingencies, but optimised for none – to a focused force designed to ‘address the nation’s most significant military risks’ (p. 54), which, as the DSR observes, is ‘the defence of Australia against potential threats arising from major power competition, including the prospect of conflict’ (p. 32).

If the DSR’s recommendations are implemented, the Australian Army will be the service most affected, though a forthcoming review may recommend significant changes to the Navy’s force structure. Given the geography of Australia’s region, a great power conflict will be predominantly maritime in nature, and the review’s recommendations appear designed to optimise the Australian Army’s ability to make a land-based contribution to a maritime conflict.

The DSR envisions the future Army as ‘optimised for littoral manoeuvre operations by sea, land and air from Australia, with enhanced long-range fires’. This includes the ability to conduct land-based maritime strike and air and missile defence operations, while still retaining ‘close-combat capabilities, including a single armoured combined-arms brigade’ (p. 58). In layman’s terms, this refers to deploying forces in coastal regions and islands by land, sea and air, from where they can attack targets using land-based platforms and shoot down enemy aircraft and missiles.

To support the Army’s ability to operate in littoral environments, the DSR recommends increasing its number of landing craft and long-range fires (missiles and guided rockets). It also recommends significantly reducing the planned purchase of infantry fighting vehicles and cancelling planned purchases of self-propelled artillery, which lack sufficient range and lethality (p. 59). According to the Australian Army, its current long-range fires platform has a maximum range of 30 km, which will be easily eclipsed by the Army’s new HIMARS system, capable of engaging targets at ranges of up to 300 km. Furthermore, fielding the Precision Strike Missile, which the DSR recommends, will increase the range of Army long-range fires to approximately 500 km.

The recommendations featured in the DSR are akin to those currently being implemented by the US Marine Corps (USMC). It is therefore worth examining the Marines’ experience as a possible guide to the doctrinal and force structure changes the Australian Army may experience.

The US Marine Corps – a source of inspiration?

Mark F. Cancian, an American analyst, has highlighted that General David H. Berger, Commandant of the Marine Corps, has pursued significant reforms designed to: re-establish the Corps’ naval roots, build structure and weapons for great power conflict (particularly in the Pacific), and eliminate capabilities judged to be of little relevance. While still capable of performing a range of operations, the USMC has narrowed its focus to concentrate on its contribution to a naval campaign via long-range fires. Just as the DSR recommends reductions in planned armoured vehicles and shorter range artillery acquisitions, Berger divested the USMC of tanks and cannon artillery, and invested in rocket artillery.

Berger deemed reform necessary due to China’s military modernisation, which has raised serious questions about the survivability of major US fleet units that attempt to operate close enough to China to be militarily useful in, for example, a Taiwan contingency. Berger’s reforms are aimed at allowing Marines to ‘effectively operate within and subsequently destroy China’s counter-intervention bubble to facilitate the U.S. military’s freedom to operate’.

The USMC’s Concept for stand-in forces outlines how the Corps would enact its new approach. It promotes the concept of a ‘stand-in force’ – small, lethal, mobile forces that are difficult to detect and easier than large deployments to maintain and sustain, improving their odds of surviving in contested environments. It envisions these forces contributing to situational awareness and denying the adversary’s use of the sea while supporting friendly naval operations, especially near maritime chokepoints. It would do this by using its own sensor systems to detect enemy forces and leveraging those of friendly platforms before striking targets with long-range missiles (pp. 4–5).

To implement this concept, the USMC is establishing Marine Littoral Regiments (3 are planned). Each regiment will have 3 elements: a Littoral Combat Team organised around infantry forces and an anti-ship missile battery; a Littoral Anti-Air Battalion designed to perform functions including air defence and surveillance; and a Combat Logistics Battalion that will provide logistics support.

Such a regiment could, with host country permission, deploy teams to littoral regions around Southeast Asian maritime chokepoints through which enemy vessels would be likely to pass. Due to their limited size, these units would be more difficult to detect and attack than, for example, surface ships. In a conflict scenario, once it locates an enemy ship, the team could attack it with long-range anti-ship missiles from a mobile launcher, then pack up and redeploy to a different area before enemy forces could retaliate. If they did come under attack, elements of the Anti-Air Battalion would be positioned to engage any incoming airborne threats.

While it is currently unclear precisely how the Australian Army might be structured in light of the DSR recommendations, its focus on littoral operations, long-range fires, maritime strike and air defence appear to echo the concept of stand-in forces being implemented by the USMC. Similar to the force structure implemented by the USMC, it appears that the goal is to make Australia’s land-based forces more relevant to, and more lethal in, a primarily maritime conflict.


The USMC’s reforms have been contested, with one advocate calling them extreme by historical standards. Gerry Anderson, a retired colonel who served as the director of Marine Corps Wargaming, has highlighted a number of criticisms, including:

  • optimising the Corps for conflict with China risks reducing its ability to deploy anywhere in the world
  • discarded equipment, such as tanks, could be useful in unexpected conflicts similar to Ukraine
  • systems the USMC wants to acquire are already prevalent in other US military services
  • the difficulty of resupplying small forward-deployed units during conflict
  • General Berger’s vision was not discussed with other stakeholders, such as US combatant commands and nations to which the USMC might deploy to implement its concept of operations.

Similarly, the DSR’s Army-focused recommendations have been criticised by some Australian commentators and politicians. For example, John Blaxland, an academic and former military intelligence officer, described the recommended reduction in planned infantry fighting vehicles and artillery purchases as ‘specious’, arguing that when ‘the rhetoric talks about an almost existential challenge, why would we cut any of the programs?’. Similarly, Andrew Hastie, Shadow Minister for Defence, has argued that ‘Army capability is being cannibalised. Important programs like Land 400 Phase 3, the Infantry Fighting Vehicle program, are cut from 450 to 129 vehicles’, and that this will result in reduced protection for soldiers in close combat.

One criticism that could also be made is that the US has been able to narrow the USMC’s focus because it is backed by a formidable standing army well-versed in traditional land warfare. Australia, lacking a separate Marine Corps, may therefore require its army to be proficient in a wider range of disciplines and may risk spreading itself too thin.

The ultimate arbiter of the success of changes to military force structure and doctrine is, of course, how the military performs in combat. The writers of the DSR likely hope that by optimising the ADF to address Australia’s most serious military risks, that test can be indefinitely deferred.


Flagpost is a blog on current issues of interest to members of the Australian Parliament

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