Agenda for Change: ADF operational outlook

Image courtesy of Flickr user Steve Snodgrass

This piece is drawn from ASPI’s Agenda for Change 2016: strategic choices for the next government.

During the next term of government, a number of possible contingencies may arise that would require the deployment of ADF personnel and equipment. An overview of possible operational commitments ranges from regular disaster relief missions to high-intensity conventional wars. Some scenarios are more likely than others, but the government and the ADF have a responsibility to prepare for the worst. To that end, we’ve outlined four categories for potential ADF operations in the near future that the government should prepare for.

Humanitarian assistance and disaster relief

Australia’s near neighbours have already been subject to natural disasters in many forms in the 21st century, including earthquakes, tsunamis, cyclones, typhoons and more. The ADF is critical to Australia’s HADR capability, and personnel from all three services have been deployed on HADR operations in our region.

For example, Operation Fiji Assist 16 included the first operational deployment of the RAN’s HMAS Canberra landing helicopter dock, enabling equipment delivery by helicopter and amphibious transport. The RAAF deployed C-17 Globemaster and C-130J Hercules transport aircraft and an AP-3C Orion surveillance aircraft. The Australian Army deployed engineers and helicopter pilots, bringing the total ADF deployment to around 1,000 personnel.

ADF personnel have in recent years also deployed to Nepal, Vanuatu and the Philippines, and domestically for disaster relief operations. The likely need for future HADR operations in the Pacific is extremely high.

Middle East Area of Operations                                 

ADF personnel have been operating continuously in Afghanistan since 2001 and in Iraq since 2003. Although current levels are more limited than they have been in the past, regional conflicts are far from resolved, and more significant operational commitments may be required in the future.

Operation Highroad is the current ADF contribution to the NATO-led training and assistance mission in Afghanistan, known as Resolute Support. There are currently around 250 ADF members deployed in-country. Conflict persists in several regions as Taliban and Daesh affiliated groups fight against the state—and each other. There’s potential for greater conflict, which could require increased operational commitments from NATO and allied forces such as the ADF.

Operation Okra is the current ADF contribution to the international coalition against Daesh, which consists of around 780 deployed ADF personnel. 400 personnel are dedicated to the Air Task Group, which includes a deployment of six F/A-18 Hornets, an E-7A Wedgetail and a KC-30A tanker.

The ADF contributions in Iraq and Syria are likely to be the most significant operational commitments for the next few years at least. If the conflict escalates further, coalition partners such as Australia will probably be asked to contribute even more.

Maritime territorial disputes in East and Southeast Asia

Maritime territorial disputes in the East China and South China seas may require the deployment of ADF vessels and aircraft if the Australian Government deems it in the national interest. Of particular concern is the increasing assertiveness of China in defence of its maritime claims in the region.

The ADF may be required to maintain a naval and air presence in the region in response to developments in those disputes as a deterrent to challenges to the current regional order. Freedom of navigation operations, either independently or with the US, would be an important method of maintaining such a presence. Those operations would require rotating deployments of RAN or RAAF assets, such as an Anzac-class frigate or AP-3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft, which is well within the ADF’s current capabilities.

There’s potential that those disputes, especially between the US and China, could spiral into conflict and involve Australia. Australian vessels operating with US forces in the region—as well as US forces stationed in Australia—would be at considerable risk of being attacked.

High-end conflict

North Korea’s growing nuclear arsenal and threatening rhetoric towards South Korea make the Korean Peninsula the most likely critical flashpoint for prolonged, high-end conventional conflict in Australia’s region. In the event of conflict, Australia may be asked to provide assistance to South Korea and the US on short notice. Such a commitment would require significant deployments from all three ADF branches.

The deployment of Army personnel to the Korean Peninsula is dependent on the availability of the ADF’s strategic sealift (LHD) and airlift (C-17/C-130) capabilities. The sustainment of the deployment would tie up a significant portion of those capabilities for some time, and the ADF would be reliant on US assets.

The deployment of Anzac or Adelaide-class frigates and Collins-class submarines is also possible. The RAN has demonstrated the ability to deploy vessels overseas for prolonged periods, and the proximity of the conflict to friendly bases makes the sustainment of RAN operations significantly easier.

The RAAF could make a significant contribution to coalition air operations on the peninsula through deployment of F/A-18, KC-30A, E-7A and AP-3C aircraft. Like the RAN, RAAF will be highly dependent on allied basing in the region.

It’s impossible to predict when or where the ADF will be needed next. Despite that uncertainty, it’s critical that the ADF be prepared for operations that span the full spectrum of conflict during the next term of government. Failure to do so could put Australia’s core national interests at risk.