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AUKUS kicks Australia’s military transformation into gear

Posted By on October 19, 2021 @ 06:00

By ending the contract with the French and committing to nuclear submarines through AUKUS [1], Prime Minister Scott Morrison recognised what we’d all come to know: the Attack-class submarine project was costing too much and taking too long to get too little. It’s been replaced with an even more extended journey to eight nuclear submarines. These will be enormously powerful, stealthy deterrent weapons when they arrive.

That’s the end of the good news for Australia’s defence organisation though. The net effect of the AUKUS direction is to reverse the logic Defence has used to structure our military to survive and succeed in conflict. AUKUS breaks the pattern of force structuring and investment Defence has been resolutely maintaining in the face of rapid change. And it produces a huge transformation challenge much earlier than Defence wanted, planned for or intended.

The 2020 force structure plan [2] was built around the principle that the Australian Defence Force’s traditional manned platforms, and new versions of them, would remain effective against adversaries into the 2030s. This meant that after recapitalising the air force’s manned platforms [3], most spending over the 2020s and into the 2030s would be on the navy’s submarines and Hunter-class frigates, and the army’s growing fleets of large armoured vehicles.

It was only from the early 2030s that meaningful funding would be available to do what Defence knew it must do—shift the balance of its forces away from the well-worn path of improved versions of things they know well.

The combination of UK industry’s delays to the frigates and the AUKUS announcement forces this change much sooner. Defence can no longer give the government confidence that its inventory of manned platforms will remain effective into the 2030s and 2040s while it dabbles with and delays acquiring complementary weapons like Loyal Wingman drones, unmanned underwater vessels and advanced missiles.

Even more importantly, Defence can no longer ask Australia to hold its breath over the 2020s because the new submarines and ships are not far away. Now, they’re a distant prospect.

Defence’s investment plan is a rubber band stretched, and now broken, by compounding delays in the mega projects and the rapid and continuing deterioration in Australia’s strategic environment. That deterioration means we may need to use our forces—and whatever weapons they have at the time—in a serious conflict in the 2020s.

The glaring delays in rebuilding offensive capabilities mean new plans are needed. We must give our serving men and women more than upgrades of ageing platforms, as we’re forced to do with the Collins-class submarines and the already stretched Anzac-class frigates. Instead, our military needs to rapidly acquire and work out how to use—and counter—what are now not novel systems. They’re just novel to our ADF.

This is the world of the cheap and the many—small unmanned systems, loitering munitions and advanced missiles which can be fired by different launchers on the land, in the air and on and under the water. It’s about using numerous, cheap uncrewed underwater vessels for intelligence collection and to lay smart sea mines. It’s also about developing new designs like Boeing’s Australian-developed Loyal Wingman into an aircraft with a larger payload and longer range, and it’s about creating an ability to manufacture the advanced missiles Australia and our allies and partners will need in a conflict.

This new force must have its own space systems built around numerous small satellites operated out of Australian ground stations that complement the larger US space enterprise. Add loitering munitions and hypersonic missiles and you start to see an entirely different ADF—over this decade— to the one sketched out in the 2009, 2013 and 2016 white papers and the 2020 strategic update.

That future force is one that Defence grudgingly admits will be its reality—just not any time soon. So, you see ‘demonstration days [4]’, with 1960s-era armoured personnel carriers being used as experimental ‘autonomous land vehicles’, and documents like the navy’s RAS-AI (robotics, autonomous systems and artificial intelligence) strategy 2040 [5]. Yes, 2040. All are useful artefacts for Defence to show it isn’t ‘fighting the white’ (sticking rigidly to the plan without acknowledging changing circumstances). But the net result before AUKUS was that nothing big was happening any time soon.

Before the AUKUS decisions, Defence could insist that it had committed its 2020 funding to manned platforms. Even if it wanted to, it couldn’t afford new technologies until the 2030s.

In a weird twist of fate, cancellation of the $90 billion conventional submarine program for an even more expensive nuclear one frees up billions of dollars over the 2020s to accelerate transformation of our military.

The Attack-class program was already spending [6] $1 billion a year and was on track to cost $2 billion a year over the 2020s, with $20 billion set to be gone before the first submarine was in the water. Beginning an Australian nuclear submarine program will take time, and Defence won’t be able to spend $2 billion a year on it from the  early 2020s. The huge bills for the AUKUS submarine will indeed be an issue, but for future taxpayers. That means Defence now has a lot of cash to invest in a new force structure.

This is a familiar tango between governments and Defence. The saga around the F-111, the ‘classic’ F/A-18 Hornet fighters and the F-35 was another example of Defence insisting that it just had to nurse aging jets through until the much-delayed F-35 arrived. This became an obvious mistake as F-35 delays mounted over the mid-2000s.

It wasn’t Defence that forced a change here, it was its sceptical and pushy minister, Brendan Nelson, who lost patience and confidence with Defence plans. And so, Australia quickly bought a new capability, the Super Hornets, which remain in service.

The ADF’s current weapons can’t be stretched enough to deliver the power we need in the world we’re living in. The remaining navy and army ‘mega projects’ look like delivering too little, too late at too great a cost, just like the cancelled Attack class.

The army’s $18–27 billion infantry fighting vehicle [7] program looks like a poster child for these problems, but so far it’s being allowed to proceed despite its lack of relevance to security in the Indo-Pacific in the face of an aggressive China. The Attack-class project was a dead man walking; this is another to put out of its misery.

To prevail in future conflicts, alternatives are to hand: the small, the many, the cheap and the consumable. Australian industry will cheer this on because they can deliver and they don’t need to rely on the plans and arcane internal processes of big offshore defence primes. We can even use our new shipbuilding enterprise to build vessels to operate these new weapons in this decade.

This supercharged path of technology acceleration is at the heart of the AUKUS agreement when you look beyond nuclear submarines [8].

We now have the combined technological and industrial horsepower of Australia, the US and the UK focused on getting powerful applications of artificial intelligence, cyber, advanced missiles, quantum and undersea technologies into the hands of our service men and women as soon as possible. And we have billions of dollars available after upsetting the French and the Defence managers of the Attack-class program.

The Defence bureaucracy and the service chiefs’ new agenda has been set for them by Scott Morrison, Boris Johnson and Joe Biden. These leaders will be impatient for results that shift the needle in the military balance in the Indo-Pacific well before an Australian nuclear submarine starts to do so.

It may well make the chiefs unhappy to shift plans in this way, but it will make potential adversaries even more unhappy, which is not a bad objective.

There is good news, after all.

Article printed from The Strategist: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au

URL to article: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/aukus-kicks-australias-military-transformation-into-gear/

URLs in this post:

[1] AUKUS: https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2021/09/15/joint-leaders-statement-on-aukus/

[2] 2020 force structure plan: https://www1.defence.gov.au/about/publications/2020-force-structure-plan

[3] manned platforms: https://www.airforce.gov.au/technology/aircraft

[4] demonstration days: https://researchcentre.army.gov.au/event/army-robotics-exposition-arx-2021

[5] strategy 2040: https://www.navy.gov.au/media-room/publications/ras-ai-strategy-2040

[6] spending: https://www.aspi.org.au/report/cost-defence-aspi-defence-budget-brief-2021-2022

[7] infantry fighting vehicle: https://www1.defence.gov.au/project/land-combat-vehicle-system-infantry-fighting-vehicle

[8] nuclear submarines: https://www1.defence.gov.au/about/taskforces/nuclear-powered-submarine-task-force

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