AUKUS: looking beyond the submarines
4 Nov 2021|

The AUKUS agreement with the United States and Britain opens many opportunities to develop the Australian Defence Force in new directions beyond those detailed in the 2020 force structure plan. ASPI executive director Peter Jennings has suggested this ‘AUKUS moment’ allows a fundamental rethink of Australia’s defence policy. It’s important to fully exploit the momentum to explore new capabilities and ease some of the challenges posed by the decision to purchase nuclear-powered submarines for the Royal Australian Navy.

The AUKUS announcement included other important capabilities, notably in enhanced long-range strike weapons, but also in technology sharing in critical and emerging areas. Some of the strike capabilities had already been announced or hinted at. Understanding their advantages and risks is important as their development is considered.

Australia will acquire Tomahawk land attack cruise missiles (TLAMs) for the navy’s three Hobart-class air warfare destroyers. These are likely to be the TLAM Block V with a 1,500-kilometre range that can strike land targets and ships at sea. It is more resistant to jamming than earlier versions and can strike targets even if the missile loses its GPS lock-on. At about US$1.5 million each, TLAMs are relatively cheap, allowing large salvos to complicate an enemy’s defences, particularly if they’re combined with much faster hypersonic missiles that the US–Australia SCIFiRE research partnership could ultimately deliver.

The main challenge for the RAN’s employment of TLAMs is the limited number of vertical launch cells on the Hobart-class destroyers, with only 48 per ship. That will constrain our ability to launch many missiles in a crisis. Some cells must be dedicated to air-defence missiles, such as the Standard Missile-2 and Standard Missile-6. The SM-6 can be used for both land and maritime strike, but at considerably shorter range than the TLAM. And even though the TLAM has a much longer range than the navy’s existing strike capabilities, it’s still well within China’s anti-access and area-denial (A2/AD) envelope, which now extends out to 5,000 kilometres with the DF-26 anti-ship missile.

The key to defeating such threats will be to sever China’s ‘kill chain’ by neutralising its sensor-to-shooter links. That would demand an ability to neutralise China’s space-based and near-space intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities to render its ships ‘deaf, dumb and blind’. AUKUS’s focus on critical and emerging technologies, which was overshadowed by the nuclear submarine announcement, may provide solutions in time.

The agreement included acquisition of the AGM-158B joint air-to-surface standoff missile—extended range, or JASSM-ER, which will be carried by the F/A-18F Super Hornet and, eventually, the F-35A joint strike fighter (operating in non-stealthy ‘beast mode’). That will allow strikes out to 900 kilometres. These missiles are a step forward from the JASSM missiles currently used by the Royal Australian Air Force’s ‘Classic’ Hornets, now being retired, and will add a tactical land-strike capability from the air. They’ll complement the 200 long-range anti-ship missiles, or LRASMs, announced in the force structure plan, which, according to Defence, have a range of at least 370 kilometres, and likely considerably more.

Once again, the goal is to extend the reach of the RAAF’s strike capabilities to reduce crews’ need to penetrate deeply inside highly contested airspace, such as over the South China Sea. But even though these weapons do extend the strike range, it remains limited by the range of the launching platform, which for the Super Hornet is about 700 kilometres without refuelling. Obviously, airborne refuelling can extend that reach. In uncontested airspace, as experienced by crews during Operation Okra over Syria and Iraq, this would enable long-range missions.

However, it’s unlikely that KC-30A tankers could survive in highly contested airspace.

AUKUS also highlighted the previously announced decision to acquire precision-strike missiles giving the Australian Army an ability to undertake precision strike out to a range of 400 kilometres, and it reannounced the ongoing collaboration on hypersonic weapons under the SCIFiRE program.

Finally, it confirmed that Australia’s sovereign guided weapons manufacturing enterprise would proceed with $1 billion in funding. This last announcement is perhaps the most important, given the urgent need to ensure resilience and combat sustainability for a possible major-power war this decade. Such a war could easily be protracted rather than short, so being able to sustain ADF forces in high-intensity operations, perhaps over months or longer, is vital if the ADF is to reduce the risk of having brittle and boutique forces.

These are all positive steps in ADF capability development. They’ll boost Australia’s ability to deter and, if necessary, respond to a major threat from China in this decade. But there are practical challenges that may require further consideration of new force structure options.

The TLAMs, JASSM-ER and LRASM will still require air and naval forces to penetrate deep within China’s A2/AD envelope, where their ability to survive is becoming increasingly uncertain. The ADF will a long-range targeting capability to ensure Australia has sovereign control and won’t have to rely on US systems.

Hypersonic weapons, potentially emerging from the SCIFiRE program, might address the lack of range, but the government needs to look again at the option of hosting conventional precision land-based medium-range and intermediate-range ballistic missiles in northern Australia. They can now be deployed following the collapse of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, and could be developed for both precision land-strike and maritime-attack roles to reduce the effectiveness of Chinese A2/AD capabilities.

And longer-range air platforms need to be considered. The decision to establish a production facility for Boeing’s uncrewed Loyal Wingman was announced shortly after AUKUS. The Loyal Wingman will extend the RAAF’s strike range considerably, beyond that offered by the F-35A or the Super Hornet, but it needs to be scaled up in size, payload and performance. Then it could offer the RAAF something much closer to a regional strike capability, better even than what it had with the F-111 combat aircraft.

Now that the US will help Australia acquire precious nuclear-propulsion technology, it’s worth asking for the B-21 long-range bomber. That would give Australia a serious strike capability and elevate our role alongside the US to shape, deter and respond to rising challenges from China in an increasingly fraught future.