Why Australia Needs An Indo-Pacific Army

09 April 2020
Caption: Soldiers from 13th Combat Service Support Battalion march through Perth during the 2018 ANZAC Day parade. © Commonwealth of Australia.

Key Points:

  • Australia is facing a serious and growing array of threats and challenges that are emanating from the Indo-Pacific region.
  • Being an Indo-Pacific country Defence needs to consider future force posture given the limited existing capabilities on the west of the Australian continent.
  • Establishing a larger and more capable army presence in WA would be a strategically and operationally sensible decision that strengthens Australia’s external influence and internal resilience.

In the Autumn 2018 edition of the Australian Army Journal Lieutenant General Angus Campbell, who was then the Chief of Army, wrote an article titled, Preparing for the Indo-Pacific Century: Challenges for the Australian Army. In it he spoke of an increasingly challenging world, increased engagement in the region, adaption and technology, and innovatively building a powerful land force.

Australia and the Indian Ocean Region

Although Australia is an Indo-Pacific country, many of us here in the east do not often think of the west. The waters of the Indian Ocean lap more than half of our coastline. Australia relies on the mineral and resource wealth of Western Australia to underpin much of our economic prosperity and stability.  And the resource rich North West of Australia is exposed!  Without secure sea lines of communications across the Indian Ocean our almost total dependence on maritime trade would be threatened.   

Under the Japanese threat of World War II there was a substantial Defence presence in WA.  It was there to defend Australia’s northern and western front from direct threat and was also an important staging, support and training area. These lessons have largely been lost. As an Indo-Pacific country, we should reconsider the strategic importance of WA to the defence of Australia.

A 2013 US Centre for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments report on the future of the ANZUS alliance and the US pivot proposed that Australia was in a “geographic sweet spot”.  Similarly, to highlight the importance of the Indian Ocean region the US Pacific Command was in 2018 renamed ‘US Indo-Pacific Command’.

Getting the Balance Right

This raises the question of the appropriate balance of the ADF in the west?  The Navy have got it about right, although it is positioned well to the south.  However, the RAAF and the Australian Army are in the state in limited numbers.  Indeed, there is very little by way of an army presence: the Special Air Service Regiment (who are hardly ever there) and elements of an Army Reserve brigade (13th Brigade). 

Are we serious about being an Indo-Pacific country?  If we are, we should consider what an Indo-Pacific Army would look like.  First, to enable an Indo-Pacific army the Australian Army should be larger.  Second, it should have a greater presence in WA. Third, the force in WA should be a balanced conventional force.  Fourth, it should be more evenly distributed across the state. Any increase in the size of the Army in WA should be part of a broader increase in the size of the overall Australian Army.  

At around 25,000 in the early years of this century, it is now around 30,000 personnel.  Given the future strategic environment and increasing tasks mentioned by Angus Campbell, an army of 30,000 is clearly too small.  The experiences of the last decade of the Australian Army at war show just how stretched and fragile the current force is. An army of 35,000 would be more appropriate with any increase focusing on the supporting and enabling elements.

Strategic Imperatives

An important guide to the nature of an Indo-Pacific army can be seen in the growing operational use of the Landing Helicopter Docks. These big ships can operate as a true joint force to provide presence range and persistence.  The ADF is already using their range to move deeper into the Indian Ocean and will no doubt increase our engagement with Indian Ocean littoral nations and are an important element of a joint force of navy, army and air force.  To operate they will need support and sustainment, which will include embarked troops.

Furthermore, in the wake of recent catastrophic bushfires and now a serious pandemic, the Commonwealth Government would also benefit from an increased army presence in the west, which would provide additional humanitarian assistance and disaster relief response options in aid to civil power. Seen in this light the rebalancing of the Australian Army to accommodate an Indo-Pacific configuration would demonstrate foresight; and provide further resilience towards addressing some of our likely future internal and external national security challenges.


*This article is an updated version of the original submission which was first published in the inaugural WA DEFENCE REVIEW 2018 Annual Publication and can be viewed online here: https://wadefencereview.com.au/publication/

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are that of the author’s only, and do not necessarily represent the views of WA DEFENCE REVIEW.

About Peter Leahy

Peter LeahyProfessor Peter Leahy AC, LTGEN (Rtd), Director National Security Institute, University of Canberra.