Articles by " Andrew Davies"

The year in clicks: The Strategist’s top 10


With the end (of the year) nigh, it’s time once again to have a look at what’s been making Strategist readers click. The 2013 top ten showed that our readership was most interested in submarines, China and Indonesia. Try as we might, ASPI couldn’t interest the Indonesian government in buying Chinese submarines, thwarting our aim of producing the ‘post to beat all posts’.

Here are this year’s top ten posts as voted by the mouse buttons of our readers, in increasing order of popularity.

10. China’s emerging undersea capability (Benjamin Schreer)

9. LHD and STOVL: an engineer’s view (Steve George)

8. The strategic implications of China’s hypersonic missile test (Benjamin Schreer)

7. The 2014 defence budget: as good as it gets (Mark Thomson)

6. Aircraft carriers for Australia? (Karl Claxton)

5. The significance of D-Day (various artists)

4. Why the ADF handgun is an ethics issue (Deane-Peter Baker)

3. Graph of the week: ADF pay (Mark Thomson)

2. Is Indonesia’s next Marty Natalegawa… Marty Natalegawa? (Natalie Sambhi)

1. The paper tiger myth: how America is underestimating China’s resolve and power (Jake A.
Douglas) Read more

As was the case last year, Indonesia and China rated highly, taking the top two places. Interestingly, in a year when the Future Submarine and the struggling Air Warfare Destroyer build were making most of the headlines as far as defence projects were concerned, neither managed to crack our top ten. Rather, it was the potential for putting jump jets on the LHDs that caught our readers’ attention.

Finally, in an illustration that hip-pocket issues galvanise attention, Mark Thomson’s budget summary scored well—but was solidly beaten by his post on ADF pay scales.

Over the holiday period, The Strategist‘s editorial team will be running their favourite posts from 2014—a sort of iView for the strategically minded.

Andrew Davies is senior analyst for defence capability at ASPI and a regular—though apparently underappreciated—contributor to The Strategist. Image courtesy of Flickr user Steven Depolo.

Graph of the week—western air power and the strikes in Iraq

With the launch of ASPI’s Strike from the Air paper yesterday, I thought it was worth looking at some data from both the current campaign and the now well-documented 1991 Gulf War air campaign. There are a couple of interesting conclusions that can be drawn.

First, the raw numbers of the coalition air campaign against targets in Iraq in the 43 days of Operation Desert Storm. Redrawn from the 1993 Gulf War Air Power Survey (PDF) by Thomas A. Keaney and Eliot A. Cohen, Figure 1 shows the number of airstrikes by day over a 43 day period from the commencement of hostilities.

1991 Gulf War coalition air strikes Read more

Over 42,000 strikes were flown by coalition fixed wing aircraft—in addition to the many hundreds of cruise missiles launched from ships and submarines. Targets included ‘strategic centres’, facilities and platforms that could contest coalition sea and air control (especially the Iraqi Air Force and its aircraft in hardened shelters) and the Iraqi Army. In addition, coalition aircraft flew between 300 and 500 air-to-air sorties each day. For its part, the Iraqi Air Force managed almost 120 sorties on day one, and was effectively out of action by day 14, although sporadic activity continued for another couple of weeks.

The strategic targets included command, control and communication nodes, the Iraqi leadership, WMD facilities and key civilian infrastructure such as electric power, bridges and railways (averaging about 200 strikes per day). But the Iraqi Army received the lion’s share of the coalition effort, with no fewer than 23,430 strikes against ‘Iraqi surface forces’.

The effect on Iraq’s ground forces was, as might be expected, devastating. Keaney and Cohen quote one Iraqi veteran of the Iraq-Iran war of the 1980s who observed that his brigade suffered ‘more damage in 30 minutes than it had in eight years in the previous war’. As a result of early heavy losses and the enduring threat of air attack, the Iraqi Army lost any capacity for initiative, including the ability to withdraw from the Kuwait theatre. It resorted to constructing more berms and digging deeper for defence from air strikes. In short, coalition air power neutralised the Iraqi Army as an effective fighting force.

Now let’s look at the data from the ongoing air campaign against ISIL. In the first 43 days of this campaign commencing 8 August, the total number of strikes was just 167, compared to the 42,000 in 1991. The total number of strikes flown against ISIL over the past four months is now just a little over 1,200—the number flown on 15 February 1991.

At an estimated strength of between 20,000 and 30,000 and possessing few armoured vehicles, ISIL is a small and poorly-armed force in comparison to the Iraqi Army of 1991 (around 500,000 troops with thousands of tanks, armoured personnel carriers and artillery pieces—all of which were candidates for strike operations) But the scale of the discrepancy is also probably indicative of the amount of air support that’ll be mobilised in support of Western troops on the ground as compared to other circumstances.

Like the Iraqi Army before it, ISIL’s already learning not to concentrate its forces and to minimise its exposure to air attack as much as possible. Its strategy is to keep close to civilian populations, relying on coalition rules of engagement to constrain further strikes. So what we have now is something of a stand-off. The coalition can’t isolate ISIL and destroy it, but the extremist group can’t operate as a coherent force of any size, making dramatic advances and the swift taking of major centres like Mosul unlikely in the future. Still, it can slowly infiltrate other areas and, like the Iraqi insurgency that followed the succession of large scale operations in the 2003 war, it can operate as a guerrilla force, making the governance of Iraq difficult.

The above comparison with previous coalition air campaigns suggests that the current low rate of effort is unlikely to stretch coalition forces. Essentially, the United States and its partners can keep up a campaign against ISIL for as long as it continues to operate as a military force. In that sense, ISIL can’t win, at least via a conventional military victory. The flip side is that it also can’t really lose its existing gains while coalition operations are constrained to air strikes only, and then only in circumstances where collateral casualties are unlikely. Air power reduced the 1991 Iraqi Army to an ineffective fighting force, but ultimately boots on the ground dislodged it. In the absence of a ground intervention, the most likely scenario in the near future is a continued slow degradation of ISIL as an ‘army’, but with no real change in the overall situation.

Andrew Davies is senior analyst for defence capability and director of research at ASPI. Graph courtesy of Andrew Davies.

AWD: time for Plan B

DeckchairsYesterday the government made two announcements about naval shipbuilding. The first was its plan to fix the ailing Air Warfare Destroyer program. What emerged wasn’t the approach foreshadowed in the press a few months ago, in which a single commercial entity—BAE was the hot favourite—would take control. We explained the pros and cons of that approach here on The Strategist.

Putting the project under a single company would’ve resolved the distributed responsibility under the current alliance framework and removed the government from being on both sides of the contract. It certainly looked headed that way, with the government appointing merger and acquisition specialists as advisors on the project. But in the end that wasn’t the approach chosen. Instead, bets have been redoubled, in that the parties that collectively brought the AWD program to its current point will continue in a revamped management model. According to the media, the Finance department (owner of ASC) put the kybosh on bringing in outside management.

There are three components to the AWD remediation plan. First, the Spanish design house Navantia—which inexplicably was left out of the alliance when it was created—will take on an enlarged role. This ought to help streamline the communication between designers, production engineers and the shopfloor. The second component is insertion of more shipbuilding experience into the project by involving BAE, which was formerly only a subcontractor for modules, in project management. Third, existing alliance member Raytheon will take on an expanded role in supply chain and corporate management. Read more

It’d be strictly inaccurate to describe the plan as simply rearranging the deckchairs, but it’s not far from it. If anything, this latest initiative further clouds the already diffuse governance arrangements inherent in the alliance. And there’s only a handful of new people being brought in: 20 from Raytheon, 11 from Navantia and only 8 from BAE.

The government describes this as an ‘interim arrangement’ and says ‘no decisions have yet been made about the long term arrangements for the Air Warfare Destroyer program’. A lot is at stake. Aside from the $8.5 billion project itself, further domestic naval shipbuilding projects depend upon improved performance. Basically, the government has said that if the project can’t get up to speed by the middle of next year, it won’t guarantee further work.

And although we noted earlier that there’s been apparent improvements to shipyard productivity (and to submarine support), yesterday’s announcement slipped the delivery dates for the vessels by another nine months. The first two vessels will now be 30 months late and the third a full 3 years. So while we’re told that productivity is improving, the AWD schedule is moving in the opposite direction.

The second of yesterday’s announcements was a plan for the creation of a ‘sustainable shipbuilding industry that supports shipbuilding jobs‘. The plan has three parts, fix the AWD project, create a shipbuilding industry around the future frigate (contingent on productivity improvements), and create a ‘sovereign submarine industry’.

What’s a sovereign submarine industry? Not unreasonably, one might assume that it has something to do with building submarines in Australia. So the media asked the question—repeatedly—but to no avail. The exchange is available in transcript and on video. The best the fourth estate could get from the Minister was that specific announcements would be made in due course. It was left to the Prime Minister to clarify the matter later in the day (pay wall) in terms of submarine fit-out and maintenance being done in South Australia.

Yesterday’s confusion adds little to what we know about the government’s thinking about the way ahead. Rather, it continues a pattern whereby even the options under consideration are kept secret. While that’s perhaps understandable given the highly charged politics surrounding future naval acquisitions, it’s unlikely to deliver good policy.

There are many difficult policy choices ahead; choices that will shape the navy out to mid-century at a cost of tens of billions of dollars to the taxpayer, and we need to have an informed debate on those issues. At the moment, the policy debate is being overshadowed by parochial politics and handicapped by an acute absence of information. Yesterday’s announced ‘plan that will create a sustainable naval shipbuilding industry’ amounted to a mere 153 words.

Specific matters are easy to identify. Apart from fragmentary and unverified leaks, we don’t know what the White-Winter report recommended for fixing the AWD program, and we don’t know the range of options and acquisition strategies under consideration for either the future submarine or future frigate. Similarly, we don’t know the benchmark against which AWD productivity will be measured in deciding the future of local naval shipbuilding.

There’s not time for a green paper let alone an independent review to sort things out, but there’s no reason why next year couldn’t begin with a full ministerial statement on naval shipbuilding that fills in the many blanks.

Andrew Davies is senior analyst for defence capability and director of research, and Mark Thomson is senior analyst for defence economics at ASPI. Image courtesy of Flickr user Nick Herber.

Graph(s) of the week: F-35 costs re-re-revisited

While the Australian Government has already made its decision to go ahead with procuring a total of 72 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, there’s still cause to watch the progress of the development program. Australia will most likely take delivery of the bulk of its aircraft about five years from now, which given the lead times for major components, means we’ll start paying for them around 2017 or so. But at the moment we don’t know what the final bill will be, so ASPI will continue to monitor the F-35 cost data.

I’ve reported on F-35 costs and schedules a few times before on The Strategistmost recently after the release of this year’s USAF budget papers. That contained some good news, pointing towards stability in program costs over the past few years. But the USAF is far from being a dispassionate observer of the F-35 program, as it’s in desperate need of new aircraft to recapitalise its tactical fleet. So it’s worth looking at the data provided by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) as well. Read more

The Pentagon and the GAO have often seen the F-35 program through quite different lenses. The GAO was especially critical of the management and performance of the program in the period 2002–2010, while the Pentagon tended to play down the problems. The verdict of history is pretty unequivocal on that one: the GAO was right, and after the program breached a Congressional threshold for cost overruns in 2010 it was subjected to a major re-baselining.

Since then, things have been running relatively well. The program has had some setbacks—including the grounding of the fleet due to an engine fire earlier this year—but seems to be tracking more reliably than was previously the case. We can be more confident of that than was formerly the case because, significantly, the Pentagon and GAO figures are now telling the same story.

Let’s start with the program cost—the total amount required for all of the R&D as well as the production of the aircraft and the ancillary equipment required to operate it. To an extent that’s not Australia’s problem, as we won’t pay any extra for R&D because of our membership of the F-35 international program. We’ll only pay for the aircraft and related equipment, not for further development work. The US shoulders that alone, which is why the program cost gets the attention of Congress. In the worst case, that could cause American procurement numbers to be cut, production rates to be slowed and unit prices to go up for all customers.

Figure 1 shows how the F-35 is tracking compared to the disastrously expensive F-22 and the successful F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet programs. The graph shows indexed costs, relative to the initial program estimates. As F-22 R&D costs spiralled upwards, numbers were cut successively from over 700 to 188 when production ceased—and the gross cost per aircraft ended up at over US$400 million (today’s prices) as a result. After tracking the same way for a while, the F-35 is showing signs of levelling out. We have to be a little careful, because development programs often look stable for a while before jumping upwards again, but the recent trends are good.

Indexed unit program cost (2)

Figure 1. Indexed program costs for three American tactical aircraft programs. Source: Pentagon Selected Acquisition Reports.

Figure 2 shows the average procurement cost per aircraft, which is the price without the R&D component. The figures are averaged over all three types of the F-35, and Australia is buying the least expensive, so the graph over-prices the Australian purchase. The trend since the 2010 baseline was established is downwards, once we allow for a time lag in the GAO data because they work on Pentagon data from the previous reporting period. That’s a first for the F-35 program, but is a feature also visible in the Super Hornet data once that program reached maturity. The GAO observes that ‘the production line continues to show efficiencies and quality metrics show positive trends’, consistent with the Pentagon reporting US$11.5 billion of savings (about 3% of the total cost) due to more efficient processes.

F-35 average unit procurement cost

F-35 average procurement cost as reported by GAO from 2002. Source: Annual GAO Assessments of Selected Weapon Programs (2014 here)

Finally, a caveat. The GAO reporting notes that critical technologies for the F-35 aren’t yet mature, and that a substantial amount of testing remains to be done—all while production is ramping up:

The F-35 program … plans to have 530 aircraft, more than 20% of its total procurement quantity, under contract at a cost of approximately $57.8 billion before developmental testing is completed in 2017.

Until all of the testing is complete, we can’t be completely sure of the future trajectory of the F-35 program metrics, so we’ll be keeping an eye on them. But for now the report card would read ‘has made significant progress—must stick with it’.

Andrew Davies is senior analyst for defence capability and director of research at ASPI. Graphs courtesy of Andrew Davies.

Expanding alliance: ANZUS cooperation and Asia-Pacific security

US Army Sergeant Ian Rhines and Craftsman Tyler Kernahan watch the airborne insertion of US troops from the 1st/501st Infantry Regiment into Drop Zone Kapyong as part of Exercise Talisman Sabre 2011.

Nearing a sprightly 65 years of age, the alliance between Australia and the US, underpinned by the formal ANZUS Treaty of 1951, continues to be a central part of Australian defence and security thinking and an instrument of American policy in the Asia–Pacific. But Asia’s strategic outlook has changed almost unrecognisably from the 1950s to today. Economic and financial systems, the sources of global wealth and power, military and communications technology and even the political structures of Asia–Pacific countries have all transformed dramatically since the end of World War II.

How is it that an alliance conceived as a bulwark against a resurgence of Japanese militarism and which cut its military and intelligence teeth in the Cold War is still relevant to today’s strategic concerns? The answer is partly— and importantly—that the core values of the ANZUS members are strongly aligned, and successive Australian governments and American presidential administrations have seen great value in working with like-minded partners to ensure Asia–Pacific security. That’s seen ANZUS adapt to strategic change several times during its existence. Far from becoming a historical curiosity, today it’s not just relevant, but of greater importance than has been the case in the past few decades. Everything old is new again in the ‘Asian century’. Read more

Two events in the first decade of this century have propelled ANZUS back into the mainstream of security policy development. The first and most dramatic was the 9/11 attacks, after which Prime Minister Howard formally invoked the ANZUS Treaty for the first time. Consistent with Article IV, Australia and the US acted to meet the common danger posed by al-Qaeda. Less dramatic, but potentially more significant in the long run, is the shift in emphasis in American policy towards Asia under its ‘pivot’ or ‘rebalance’.

This was reinforced at the August 2014 Australia–US Ministerial (AUSMIN) Meeting, where a new legally binding agreement on force posture cooperation was signed to support US Marine Corps and Air Force activities in northern Australia. The same meeting endorsed closer cooperation on ballistic missile defence, industry collaboration, science and technology research, defence exercises and space cooperation. The alliance was lauded by the Australian foreign and defence ministers and the US secretaries of state and defence as providing new ways to ‘partner with other countries in the region’. The role of ANZUS as a vehicle for engaging Asia–Pacific countries, and ASEAN states in particular, is a new aspect of alliance cooperation.

The alliance receives strong bipartisan support from Australia’s major political parties. Only a small number of minor party members or independents in the Australian Parliament express outright opposition to it. It was a Labor government under Julia Gillard that promoted so-called enhanced force posture cooperation with the US military in northern Australia in November 2011. Labor’s 2013 Defence White Paper (PDF) said that ‘Australia’s Alliance with the US is our most important defence relationship and is recognised in Australia’s National Security Strategy as a pillar of Australia’s strategic and security arrangements’. Opinion polls show high levels of Australian popular support for the relationship. A longstanding opinion survey conducted by the Australian National University found that 81% of those surveyed in May 2014 thought that ANZUS was ‘very important’ or ‘fairly important’ for Australia’s security.

While the alliance looms larger in Australian political life than it does in the US, there’s no doubting American political support for the relationship. President Barack Obama told the Australian Parliament in November 2011: ‘As it has been to our past, our alliance continues to be indispensable to our future’.

To explore new ideas on how to strengthen the US–Australia alliance, today ASPI released its latest Strategy—Expanding alliance: ANZUS cooperation and Asia-Pacific security (PDF). The report offers practical ways for the US and Australia to enhance cooperation in the maritime, land, air, cyber, space and intelligence domains and improve alliance burden-sharing and force interoperability.

The alliance between the US and Australia promotes regional and global security while advancing both countries’ strategic interests. In light of the changing military balance in the Western Pacific, it makes sense for Australia to pursue new areas of cooperation with its US ally—and to strengthen existing areas of alliance cooperation—to support the regional position of the US. In a more contested security environment, Australia becomes more important as a capable US ally strategically located close to the intersection between the Indian Ocean and maritime Southeast Asia. And as strategic, economic and political circumstances bring fresh challenges to both countries, alliance cooperation will only increase in importance.

Peter Jennings, Andrew Davies, Benjamin Schreer and Daniel Nichola are co-authors of ASPI’s latest StrategyExpanding alliance: ANZUS cooperation and Asia-Pacific security (PDF). Image courtesy of Department of Defence.

The number that refuses to submerge: $36 billion

HMAS Farncomb conducts pre-diving checks prior to diving in the rough seas off Sydney, as the boat and crew make their way to the East Australian Exercise Area for Exercise Black Carillon 2013.Lost amid ‘canoe-gate’ last week was an interview with the Minister for Defence during which he made an interesting comment:

… the Labor Party when in power for six years had ASPI do a run over* of what the cost of these mythical 12 submarines was going to be and ASPI said it was about $36 billion. Now those were the numbers that ASPI said the cost of the program was running out, Labor themselves had costed the program at $41 billion …

In that short passage there’s an important revelation—the costing the previous government was using as its working figure for the Future Submarine program was $5 billion more than ASPI’s now widely-quoted $36 billion figure.

That’s significant because recently there’s been quite a bit of criticism of that 2009 estimate. For example, it came under fire during the debate that kicked off the recent Submarine Institute of Australia conference. It got a similar serve during the South Australian government’s Defence Industry Summit (PDF) back in October and again at a recent Senate Committee hearing into naval shipbuilding (PDF). The gist of the criticism is that the estimate Sean Costello and I published in our 2009 ASPI paper How to buy a submarine was naïve, ridiculously high and has skewed the debate about the future submarine to the detriment of Australia’s military capability.

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I won’t defend the estimate as an object of precision. Far from it—it wasn’t the result of the detailed systems-engineering assessment of technological maturity, industry capacity and user requirements you’d need to have confidence. It was, as stated, a simple extrapolation of historical data on submarine programs provided to ASPI by DMO.

That’s a method that the US Congressional Budget Office observed tends to give a better estimate than those project offices typically produce in the early stages of a new development—and it’s how I produced a 2008 estimate of the cost of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (PDF, figure 2). Again a simple calculation based on extrapolation from a smallish number of data points, it’s looking pretty good today. My estimated mature flyaway cost for the air force version of the F-35 was US$80 million, or US$99.5 million in 2019 money. In comparison, this year’s US Air Force budget papers give a 2019 flyaway cost of $97.1 million. So the historical data got within 3% of predicting the actual figure at a time when the F-35 program estimates were 30% optimistic. And it works for aircraft carriers too.

That our estimate got the media’s attention wasn’t that surprising. After all, $36 billion is a lot of money—almost a dozen major metropolitan hospitals or six Snowy Mountain hydro schemes. That’s newsworthy in its own right. More surprising, perhaps, was its longevity. At the risk of revealing too much think-tank tradecraft (especially to our valued Strategist readers on Russell Hill), I’ll admit that we thought it’d have a short shelf-life. When we put the number in a draft sent to Defence, we thought they’d challenge it and suggest a lower one for us.

That didn’t happen. In fact, it was another of the numbers in that paper—ironically one we were pretty happy with because it was based on reporting in Jane’s and other usually reliable defence publications—that got a serve from Defence. We said that 12 off-the-shelf German submarines might cost $9 billion. FSM project lead Admiral Moffitt begged to differ when he said ‘Andrew Davies in ASPI talks of $9 billion for off-the-shelf submarines. That’s nonsense’.

Clearly the larger number lived on because no one had a better one at the time. In fact, given the generally unfavourable reception in the Australian polity of the $36 billion estimate (see this video example), it’s not surprising that no one from Defence wanted to stick up a mast and admit that their number was bigger still.

In 2012, the Kokoda Foundation had its own go at costing the future submarine (PDF). Their number of around $1.2 billion to $1.6 billion per boat was also based on historical data, though the calculation lacks adequate transparency—the report doesn’t label the data points or provide a scale on the vertical axis of the graph (figure 7). But given that each Collins cost around $1.5 billion in 2011 dollars, this would see the replacement boats costing about the same. That’s an almost impossible outcome if we’re after the larger size and significantly better performance the 2009 White Paper called for.

Performance is the key to understanding the likely cost. As I explained in a later paper intended to put the $36 billion figure in context, if we aim for a more conservative performance, it’ll cost less and be less risky to deliver. And based on statements from Defence, that’s where we’ve arrived today. So unless the ghost of the high performance future submarine rises, we shouldn’t see the $36 billion figure surface again—but I’ll bet we do.

*For the record, ASPI wasn’t tasked by government to do that estimate. Like much of our work, we initiated it ourselves.

Andrew Davies is senior analyst for defence capability and director of research at ASPI. Image courtesy of Department of Defence.

Thinking about the future

The topic I was given at the recent Submarine Institute of Australia conference was ‘The Strategic Environment in the period 2020-2050’. That gave me a chance to reprise in part a lecture I gave in 2010 at the Australian National University, when I was asked to prognosticate about the Asian security environment in 2050.

As Neils Bohr is reputed to have said, prediction is difficult, especially about the future. (He was half right, as we’ll see below.) But at least this was a topic on which I wasn’t handicapped by any pretence of being an expert, which would’ve increased my chances of being wrong. So I started off thinking about the lessons of history; how I would’ve done had I been asked in 1910 to talk about the European security environment in 1950. I would’ve started with the status quo; in 1910, the major powers would be those in the first column of the table below.

In 1910, I’d know about aeroplanes and submarines—and the experts of the time would assure me that while they’ll likely be of some marginal utility in warfare, they’ll be unlikely to replace, or even seriously rival, tried and tested military systems such as the newly commissioned HMS Dreadnought. And I’d know about the political and economic theory of Marx and Engels. But even if I read widely, I’d have no way of knowing about the atomic nucleus, the discovery of which was announced by Rutherford a year later.

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By 1950, the power structure of Europe looked like the second column of the table, and the USA and USSR—the latter now firmly a communist state—were both nuclear powers. What had been a concert of European royal houses with complex and intertwined security guarantees and alliances had become a bipolar, politically charged nuclear-armed standoff. There’s no reasonable prospect of being able to predict a change of that sort—although H. G. Wells gave it a red hot go.

Table: Key European players and security relationships in 1910 and 1950



Austro-Hungarian Empire  United States
British Empire Soviet Union
France NATO
German Empire
Ottoman Empire (in decline)
(Tsarist) Russia

There are two notions we need to understand the transition between 1910 and 1950. The first is that extrapolation—the basis for many predictions—is likely to give an accurate prediction only up to a point of dislocation. That is, up to a major upheaval which fundamentally alters the strategic calculus and invalidates working assumptions. WWI certainly fits that description; the pre-war world, for all intents and purposes, ceased to exist. The second important observation is that factors on which future developments might critically depend can be in the unknown category. (And of either the known or unknown variety.)

We also need to guard against hindsight bias when looking back in history for lessons about prediction. Knowing what happened, we can construct a narrative thread that links the Concert of Europe through WWI to the Treaty of Versailles, on to the collapse of the Weimar Republic, to the rise of National Socialism in Germany, and so on. There’s no shortage of arguments between historians about the details or the significance of individual events, but there’s (largely) a consensus about the causality.

But we’re only so ‘sure’ about that because those events actually happened. There’s no way to run counterfactual simulations to see what would’ve happened if some things had transpired differently. For example, we can speculate about the evolution of Europe after 1919 had the Versailles negotiations produced a less punishing outcome for Germany, but that’s all we can do. Alternative pasts are unknowable. Former US Defense Secretary and sometimes philosopher Donald Rumsfeld summed the situation up neatly with this observation:

I would not say that the future is necessarily less predictable than the past. I think the past was not predictable when it started.

So when we try to look forward to 2050, we do so with unwarranted confidence that we understand the causal patterns of the past. There might well be factors that will play a critical role in the future that we’re currently only dimly aware of or even can’t know now. It’s likely that any predictions made today—even by non-experts who’re more likely to be correct—will hold only up to the next dislocation. If we knew the chapter headings in the future history books, we’d be much better placed.

Of course, that doesn’t mean we should throw up our hands and declare thinking about the future to be hopeless. Rather, any hedging or shaping strategies we come up with need to accept the limitations of prediction and contain enough flexibility to adapt when the unpredictable future becomes the (somewhat) less unpredictable past. You can read what I think that means for the future submarine program here.

Andrew Davies is senior analyst for defence capability and director of research at ASPI. Edited image courtesy of Flickr user Michael Heilemann.

For an expansion on the ideas in the post, see Known unknowns: uncertainty about the future of the Asia-Pacific by Andrew Davies and Mark Thomson.

Collins and the afterlife

Last known image of AE1, 9 Sep 1914 with Yarra & Australia in the background.I was pleased to be invited to the Submarine Institute of Australia biennial conference last week, which doubled as a celebration of the centenary of Australian submarines. Australia’s first boats, the AE1 and AE2, were commissioned in early 1914. But a little over a year later both had been lost, AE1 with all hands. Historically, submarine operations have been among the most dangerous of any military activity. Having spent a short time on both Oberon and Collins class boats and having experienced the cramped working environment, let me give a shout out to Australia’s submariners, past and present.

I had a couple of speaking roles at the conference. My main address was on the strategic environment out to 2050. (I’ll come back to that in another post.) But I also took part in the first session on the conference program: a robust panel discussion. We covered some expected ground, such as the much-rumoured ‘Option J‘ and its impact on naval shipbuilding in Australia. But a few things came up that surprised me. Of those, at the top of the list would be the lack of appetite among the panellists for a Collins life-extension program. Read more

One of my working assumptions about the Future Submarine project (FSM) had been that a Collins life extension was likely, if not unavoidable. As Mark Thomson and I showed in 2012, if a new design submarine is required, then there’s a high likelihood of a capability gap unless the replacement boat can be engineered and built relatively quickly—certainly faster than the Collins was. And later that year (also at an SIA conference) Defence said that there were no obvious show-stoppers for an extension program—a conclusion government endorsed shortly afterwards.

But some of the panel participants were adamant that a Collins extension was something to avoid if at all possible. That view seems to have wider currency than I’d have thought, and it was later reinforced by Defence’s General Manager for Submarines, David Gould. He observed that he’d prefer to deliver the FSM without having to ‘give the Collins class another commission’, though he added that ‘we might need to keep them going a little longer’.

Of course, the landscape has changed in the past six months, which might provide an explanation for the apparent change of thinking. The more ambitious—and almost certainly highly bespoke—FSM of the 2009 Defence White Paper has apparently been relegated to a footnote in history, to be replaced by something more modest in scope. Though Admiral Greg Sammut, Head of the FSM Program, pointed out that even the new specs were challenging:

… our requirements in terms of range, endurance and payload do not differ from those that shaped the Collins program. Naturally, we will need improved stealth and sensor performance… We have taken a disciplined approach based on operational analysis to setting requirements for the FSM, mindful of the current state of technology and with a keen eye to the integrated nature of submarine design. In doing so, we’ve readily established that some of the higher-end requirements of the Collins remain challenging to this day…

The focus on stealth and sensors is sensible. The operating environment for submarines is inevitably going to become more challenging, and the evolution in ASW sensors will mandate improvements in stealth. The question, as always, will be how much performance is achievable, and at what cost? In that context, Sammut added (in words that almost brought a tear to my eye and which Augustine would approve) that ‘… we have a much clearer understanding of the cost-benefit capability trade-offs that are guiding our planning at the outset’.

But, overall, there was more that remained unclear than clear after this conference, including the basic question ‘how many submarines’? That’s consistent with the Defence Minister’s comments at our own submarine conference earlier this year. In fact, it became a running joke amongst presenters that one shouldn’t mention the size of the future fleet. And that’s fair enough—until the costs, capability benefits and project risks are well understood, it’d be ill-advised to pick a number.

Equally unclear, though less unspeakable, was the acquisition strategy. There are two quite different options—Japanese, with most of the construction work done offshore, or European (France, Germany or Sweden), with construction there, here or (likely) a combination of both. The various would-be European exporters all had a chance to make a pitch, and did so in presentations very much in keeping with their national characteristics. The newest item was a new submarine concept from French firm DCNS, based on their nuclear-powered Barracuda boat. And the Swedes spoke after throwing their hat in the ring with an unsolicited bid. But, overall, we didn’t learn much new about those options and much of what Mark and I wrote a few months ago remains as good as we’re going to get for now.

Andrew Davies is senior analyst for defence capability and director of research at ASPI. Image courtesy of the Royal Australian Navy.

ASPI recommends ‘Pacific Crucible: war at sea in the Pacific 1941–42′

USS Lexington (CV-2), burning and sinking after her crew abandoned ship during the Battle of Coral Sea, 8 May 1942.

With ANZUS in the news (PDF) at the moment, this book is a good way to understand where it all started. In early 1942, America needed Australia’s location linking the Pacific and Indian Oceans as a base from which to project power into Southeast Asia. Australia, seriously unprepared for war, needed American combat power. The relationship later formalised as ANZUS was forged then.

I argued recently that our geography makes us a critical partner when American seapower is under challenge in the western Pacific. The degree to which that was true in WWII becomes abundantly clear in Ian Toll’s excellent book. Even before the fall of the Philippines, Singapore, Burma and what was then the Dutch East Indies—most or all were expected to be unable to withstand the Japanese assault—Admiral Ernest King, the newly appointed Commander in Chief United States Fleet, identified two critical elements of allied strategy: Read more

King’s mind was clear. The entire Allied strategy in the Pacific depended on two cardinal points: Hawaii must not fall, and Australia must not fall. [He] ordered the new Pacific Fleet chief, Admiral Nimitz, to secure the seaways between Midway, Hawaii and the North American mainland.  That was to be his first priority. The second, in only a “small degree less important” was to protect the lifeline between North America and Australia. … By those means the allied war machine would be built up in Australasia…

Two major battles determined that Australia and Hawaii would remain in allied hands. The first was the Battle of the Coral Sea—the first combat between two fleets fought beyond visual range of each other (because of seaborne air power). The transition from battleship to aircraft carrier as the primary weapon of naval warfare is a subtext in this book, and Toll argues (not entirely convincingly) that the fiasco at Pearl Harbour had a silver lining:

Perhaps Mahan would have turned over in his grave to hear it said, but the loss of the American battleships was no catastrophe. It might even have been entered into the ledger as a net gain… As one officer put it, the Japanese converted the American fleet from a “seventeen knot fleet to a twenty-five knot fleet” [and forced] the American high command to acknowledge the ascendency of aviation and submarines.

The Coral Sea clash saw Australia secured as a base for allied operations. While a tactical defeat for the USN, the Japanese abandoned their landings intended to capture Port Moresby, from where its land-based air power could have seriously challenged vital allied sea-lanes. We now know that Japan was overextending itself badly and had no plans to invade Australia but that wasn’t clear at the time (and the Japanese Army was more opposed to the idea than the Navy, which thought it possible).

A month later, the heavy defeat suffered by the Japanese at the Battle of Midway (four fleet carriers lost to one American) similarly secured the western approaches to Hawaii. With Hawaii and Australia safely in allied hands and the Japanese fleet badly depleted of air power, the defeat of Japan became almost inevitable.

Both battles are described in convincing detail, and what’s striking is the role played by chance. In carrier-on-carrier battles, which side gets the first strike in matters a lot—once a force starts losing flight decks from which to launch counterattacks, it’s hard to regain the initiative. In both battles the Americans got in first, striking a significant (but not decisive) blow in the Coral Sea, and essentially crippling Japan’s naval power-projection capabilities in a single action at Midway by disabling three carriers by airstrikes (all later sunk), followed by a fourth later.

The more experienced Japanese aviators were much more able than the Americans to coordinate their formations and timings. But at the Coral Sea, the Japanese aircraft were launched on the first—but incorrect—reported sighting of the American carrier group. At Midway, perhaps because of that experience, they were held back after the first—but correct—report. In both cases they were out of position when it mattered most and the American planes got in first. At Midway, American good fortune was compounded when poorly-coordinated flight-paths nonetheless saw multiple attacks arrive from different directions and, crucially, different heights at the same time.

There’s much more to this book (not least the importance of American codebreaking efforts). The weighty first section—which the Wall Street Journal didn’t like—describes the pre-war period, showing that a conflict between American and Japanese interests in the western Pacific was foreseeable as early as the turn of the century, and made even more likely by the political rise of the Japanese military in the 1920s. For anyone not sure about this history, it’s a good place to start. (Though if you’ve read about these events before, you might or might not be enthused about another serve.)

Andrew Davies is senior analyst for defence capability and director of research at ASPI. Image courtesy of the Wikipedia.

Northern Australia: how much defence is enough?

KowariI was pleased to be asked to speak a few weeks ago at the ADM Northern Australia Defence Summit in Darwin. I hadn’t been there since 2006, and it was interesting to see just how much the city had changed in that time. Clearly the resources boom has had an impact in our northernmost capital.

I was asked to talk about the opportunities that might flow the way of northern Australia from future defence policy changes. It was an interesting topic that got me pondering on which of the historic and current elements of the defence presence in the north were likely to endure. Here’s the answer I came up with, and I’d be interested to hear from readers who agree (and even more interested to hear from those who don’t).

Let’s start with some factors that don’t apply any more. There was a time when a military presence was required to assert sovereignty over a very sparsely populated area. That’s clearly untrue now—while the population still isn’t large, there’s no serious dispute over who owns it. Read more

Less obvious, but I think equally untrue, is the rationale that led to the ‘Defence of Australia’ (DOA) Policy and thence to the Army Presence in the North (APIN), which saw one of Army’s brigades moved to Darwin and the construction of three ‘bare bases’ that could be used by Air Force to mount operations in the ‘airsea gap’. My thesis is that the DOA construct was a product of entirely unrepresentative times, and has no relevance looking ahead.

The origin of those notions can be traced back to the Guam Doctrine annunciation by US President Nixon in 1969, which told American allies like Australia that we should be prepared to look after our own defence interests in our neighbourhood. Described by my colleague Mark Thomson as a ‘get out of jail free card’, it meant that the ADF could be scaled back to a more locally-focused force—and defence spending could be pruned significantly.

But it meant that a fiction had to be invented to provide a coherent supporting narrative. Thus we set off down the road that led to APIN and bare bases that, to this day, nobody seems to have a clear idea of how to provision and actually use. And it led to silliness such as a series of Kangaroo exercises which saw significant army forces patrolling the barren north looking for small groups of fictitious Kamarian infiltrators—though it was never satisfactorily explained what those infiltrators were doing, other than presumably looking for shade.

It’s expensive keeping forces well away from the major population centres, and thus the economies of scale that come with large cities. So it’s not surprising that there’s been some winding back of APIN, with the relocation of 7RAR from Darwin to Adelaide. That said, the $650 million price tag for the move means that it’ll be decades before the move breaks even. As Mark Thomson and I noted a couple of years ago, moving the ADF is an expensive proposition, and there has to be a compelling reason based on operational effectiveness to do it.

But that doesn’t mean that the ADF presence in the north will remain at present levels in perpetuity. There’s a school of thought that an increased ADF presence is needed to secure the substantial resources industry located on or just offshore from northern Australian territory. I’m not convinced of that, but money speaks loudly and the resources sector certainly produces lots of that, so some increased ADF activity up there is a plausible outcome.

A much more compelling reason is a strategic fundamental that was obvious in the 1940s, but has been overlooked in the ensuing decades. When there’s a major Asian power capable of contesting western naval power in North Asia, Australia’s geography becomes a very powerful thing. Graeme Dobell’s recent piece on MacArthur and 1942 gets it right. Sitting at the confluence of two major oceans and the vital trade routes of Southeast Asia, American power projection into that contested space benefits enormously from being able to stage from Australia. In the 1940s, it was an expansionist Japan. Now it’s China and its anti-access capabilities providing the contest further north.

That’s why we’re seeing the United States establishing a presence in Australia through it’s rotational Marine Corps presence in Darwin, with increased air and probably naval assets to follow. And if Australia decides to pursue a closer cooperative approach with American forces, there’ll be plenty of reason for the ADF to build its northern presence over time as well.

So forget the DOA and Kamarians. After six decades of an unnatural order, we’re back to an Asia where the United States needs us (and we might well decide that we need them even more). I think there’s a healthy future for defence investment in the north of Australia. And, incidentally, Mahan saw this coming.

Andrew Davies is senior analyst for defence capability and director of research at ASPI. Image courtesy of Department of Defence.

South Australian defence industry summit

Start lineI was pleased to be invited to speak at the South Australian Government’s Defence Industry Policy Summit (PDF) earlier this week. I was invited in my role as a member of the Defence White Paper Expert Panel, and was asked to help set the scene for the discussion that followed. Here’s what I told the meeting.

Thanks for the opportunity to be here today. My topic is the Defence White Paper process, but I’m not able to say much about that as it’s still very much a work in progress. So let me give you the response I give everyone who asks me how it’s going. ‘It’s everything I expected it to be’.

In terms of this gathering, I’m not sure that the DWP is the most germane document. There are several important pieces of policy work going on in parallel, some of which will have at least as large an impact, particularly the development of a Defence Industry Policy Statement (DIPS), a shipbuilding plan and the First Principles Review of Defence’s organisation. Development of the DIPS is something that I and my Expert Panel colleague Mike Kalms were asked to take on by the Defence Minister here in Adelaide back in June. Read more

As a result of that, we’ve been touring the country to consult with industry groups and making site visits. We’ve heard some clear and consistent messages along the way from industry, and I’ve found some of the visits to be real eye-openers. I’ve been impressed with the industry capability and capacity I’ve seen in various places. That will all help inform the DIPS.

As for the DWP, I think it’s important that the discussion that ensues today takes into account the environment in which work is proceeding. Firstly, the federal government has made it clear that it’s going to continue to make major capability decisions. It has committed something like $20 billion to acquisitions such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft and the Triton surveillance drones. By doing so it’s avoiding the bottleneck in projects that’s accompanied previous DWPs—sometimes as much as 18 months of deferred decisions, which has a flow-on effect to ADF capability and to industry work-flow.

Second, it’s possible that major decisions will be made about shipbuilding and submarines prior to the DWP release. It’s also possible that they won’t, and I can say with high confidence that no decisions have been made to date. I think it’s fair to say that there are inclinations, but there’s still time for the sort of submission that will come from this meeting to influence the process.

Third, there’s the budget situation. In its first budget the government made good on its promise to increase defence spending. If it sticks to its pledge to reach 2% of GDP by 2023/24, Treasury forecasts suggest that the budget that year will be around $45 billion in today’s terms. That compares to this year’s $29 billion, amounting to an additional $16 billion to invest. That’s a lot of additional capability that can be acquired, and a lot of industry support to be purchased. There should be plenty of opportunity for industry. Not so much in the first few years, as there’s a shortfall from the underfunding of the 2009 DWP that has to be made up, but in the years to come there’ll be lots of new investment.

Finally, but possibly most importantly, there’s a whole-of-government policy environment that has to be taken into account. That’s worth studying for clues about government thinking on industry and innovation. A good place to start is the new Industry Innovation and Competitiveness Agenda (PDF) released last week. It had several policy objectives of relevance here, most notably boosting competitiveness and fostering ‘excellence, not dependence’. It also identified five growth sectors, which represent areas of comparative advantage in the Australian economy. The one of most relevance to defence is ‘advanced manufacturing’,

The Agenda observes that Asian countries are increasingly reducing trade barriers, reducing inefficient public spending, reducing taxes and improving competitiveness. In that environment, Australian industry will have to be innovative, be working at world’s best practice standards, nimble and—in the defence space—provide a capability-edge for the ADF. When putting forward business cases for defence industry investment, they’ll need to be couched in terms of competitive advantage and capability edge, not just ‘net benefit’, however calculated.

Finally, let me swap hats and become an ASPI commentator for a minute. As those of you who read The Strategist—which should be required reading—would know, I was much impressed by the productivity gains I saw in local shipyards recently. The touch labour productivity on the AWD is showing a learning of about 20% between vessels one and two, with a projection of between 10 and 15% from vessels two to three. That’s close to world standard.

Similarly, the Collins availability is much improved, suggesting that the Collins story is more about lack of resources than poor industry performance. Actually, it’s probably a combination of both, but increasing resources has enabled better performance. ASC has some way to go to be world’s best practice standard, but the trend is good.

One final comment. When I read today’s press clippings, I saw the call for a competition for the design and construction of the future submarines. As I’ve said before, that’s the way to do it.

Andrew Davies is senior analyst for defence capability and director of research at ASPI. Image courtesy of Andi Sidwell.

Australia’s latest commitment

A Royal Australian Air Force  F/A-18F Super Hornet loaded with explosive ordnance  in the Middle East.Defence analysis is my core business, so I thought I’d share my views about Australia’s decision about going to war again in the Middle East. As I’ll argue below, I think we’re doing the right thing, but I’m far from sure. Beware of ‘expert predictions’—I’m already on the public record with one observation on this conflict that was at the least premature, and may yet prove to be just plain wrong.

The reasons for my uncertainty are many. When I came to set out my thinking, it became painfully obvious that I’d have to include a long list of caveats: I’m not an expert on the Middle East, I speak none of the relevant languages (something that’s important when trying to understand the motives and thoughts of other people), and I have little understanding for the underlying cultural and religious issues. And I fear that those characteristics are shared by many Western decision makers—which would go a long way towards explaining the litany of policy failures in the region over many years. Read more

At the risk of producing a piece that’s too even-handed to be interesting, let’s start by setting out the pros and cons of Western involvement in this conflict. Starting at the strategic level, preventing ISIS from getting its hands on the full suite of capabilities provided by a reasonably modern industrialised state is a sensible goal. And having a geographically-significant part of a region already riven with sectarian tensions under ISIS’ control is surely worth avoiding.

Set against that is the difficulty of predicting the consequences of either success or failure against ISIS. I’ve yet to hear anyone articulate a coherent view of what the future looks like for Iraq or Syria, and then there’s the uncertainty of the impact on Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia. And can the West avoid being caught up in other nations’ political manoeuvres—such as Turkey’s positioning with respect to the Kurds? I don’t know how to evaluate the strategic cost-benefit balance.

Operationally, things are more clear-cut, at least for now. Adopting a policy of ‘air strikes only’ allows the West to intervene confident of being able to do so without loss and to engage and disengage as it sees fit. Of course, that changes dramatically if Hugh White’s right and there’s an escalation to the deployment of large-scale land forces.

My judgment last week was that air strikes would be able to limit the ability of ISIS to continue to overrun large areas of Iraq and eventually take effective control of the state. I said there’d already been a strategic win in that respect—clearly an error. In any case, I never thought that air power can defeat an opponent who can cease to be a conventional combatant and become an insurgent at will. Even if it can’t wrest control itself, through a mixture of conventional and unconventional attacks ISIS can render Iraq ungovernable (Syria already is.)

Last, but certainly not least, there’s the moral side of the balance sheet. I see two moral arguments for involvement. The first is that we can. If we stand by and watch atrocities of the sort we’ve been seeing lately, then we’ve decided they’re less unacceptable than becoming involved. The argument that the West only intervenes selectively to protect innocents, while true, doesn’t sway me. Stopping some bad things from happening is surely preferable to stopping none. I don’t go as far as subscribing to a ‘responsibility to protect’—that could turn into a heavy burden to bear—but every time we don’t there’s a moral downside. The second moral argument is that we helped create this situation, though I think we can go too far with that argument. Those events are now in the past and present-day decisions should be made only on the basis of our best assessment of potential future outcomes.

The only moral reason against intervention is that we could, again, end up making things worse. Perhaps it’s a failure of my imagination, but I don’t really see how much worse it could be than to have ISIS in control of Syria and Iraq—and potentially other areas later.

Bad things are happening, and regardless of what we do, bad things are likely to continue to happen—though if we act we could make things less bad. Intervening has a cost; the risk of an act of violence in Australia is probably higher than before the commitment, and there’s a clear danger of mission creep, escalation and entrapment. But not intervening has a cost too, and we could face a dreadful future enemy if we do nothing.

I think we’re doing the right thing, but I can’t be sure. These are profoundly difficult issues, and take my pondering for what it’s worth. But I only have to write about it. Decision makers in Canberra, Washington and elsewhere have to make these calls knowing that history will judge them. I don’t envy them.

Andrew Davies is senior analyst for defence capability and director of research at ASPI. Image courtesy of Department of Defence.