Australia needs a radical expansion of its land-based strike capabilities
24 Feb 2022|

To meet the challenges of expanding high-end military capabilities in the region and the need to significantly increase the Australian Defence Force’s deterrent capabilities, the Australian government should up-end one of the traditional ways it has approached regional defence.

By moving the army away from its outdated position as the strategic goalkeeper in the defence of Australia and placing it front and centre in regional anti-access/area-denial capabilities, the government would radically reshape the joint force and the ADF’s capabilities. The project to revolutionise the army’s role, Land 8113—long-range fires, is already underway. By quadrupling the budget for Land 8113 from $5 billion to $20 billion, the government could quickly, massively and comparatively cheaply increase the ADF’s deterrent capabilities and mould it into a much more modern and joint force.

In recent weeks, we have seen a major discussion of the shape, size and fit of the current and proposed force structure. We are all aware of the failures and promises of Australia’s troubled future submarine program. Details have now emerged of serious concerns with the navy’s Hunter-class frigate program. More broadly, ASPI’s Marcus Hellyer has noted that ‘[t]he government’s $575 billion expenditure on defence in the 2020s, which includes $270 billion on new capability, will not get any front-line warships to sea this decade and likely none until the middle of the next decade’.

The ADF’s force structure woes don’t end there. Concerns are ongoing over the ability of the air force’s F-35 fighter jets to meet Australia’s needs given their short range, small numbers and lack of a long-range anti-ship missile. These problems are only compounded by continued concerns about the cost of the modernisation of the army’s tank force and the appropriateness of its cornerstone capability acquisition program, the recapitalisation of its armoured vehicle fleet through project Land 400, for operations in the Indo-Pacific.

Even more troubling is the fact that the government’s strategic guidance made it clear that deterrence and high-end conflict in the Indo-Pacific are now the major focus of the ADF and that it had ended the 10-year warning time for major conflict. What this leaves us with is an ADF force structure that is out of date and a future force structure plan that is out of sync with strategic guidance.

The current macro ADF force structure—12 to 14 major surface combatants and six submarines for the navy, 70 to 100 strike aircraft for the air force and three brigades for army—is a six-decade-old legacy of the Menzies government and Australia’s response to the limits of US support during Konfrontasi. This macro force structure was built around the need for limited self-reliance for regional contingencies and the concept of maintaining a capability edge to ensure a regionally superior ADF.

This force structure proved enduring because it was based on our major ally, the United States, maintaining hegemony and uncontested maritime supremacy in the Indo-Pacific. For decades now, however, warnings have occurred about the erosion of this capability edge as well as the return of major-power competition in the region. As the then defence minister, Linda Reynolds, stated in 2020 at the Perth launch of the government’s defence strategic update, ‘The world we grew up in is no more.’

Despite this, force structure plans for the ADF continue on the same well-trodden path as if nothing has changed. The force structure plan released with the 2020 update gives us pretty much the same ADF. F-35s and Super Hornets replace F-111s and Classic Hornets, three air warfare destroyers have replaced three guided missile destroyers, nine Hunter-class frigates will replace eight Anzac frigates, and Land 400 vehicles will replace ASLAVs and M-113 armoured personnel carriers.

The growing reach of China’s military capabilities along with the declining power of the US has brought Australia to an inflection point. The AUKUS announcement and the US’s move to embrace integrated deterrence in the Indo-Pacific is tantamount to a long overdue admission that the US has lost primacy in the region and can no longer provide unilateral extended conventional deterrence. What’s clear is that the ADF’s force structure and force posture need a radical rethink to match a fundamentally different strategic environment.

Even if the proposed future force is, somehow, the best to defend Australia’s interests, the nuclear-powered submarines won’t come into service until the late 2030s (at best) and the timeframe for the Hunter-class frigates is 2033 to 2044 (if they are on time). We also can’t hold out any hope for the ADF to acquire a long-range strike aircraft anytime soon. The only real prospect, the US B-21 Raider, is still in development and isn’t expected until the late 2020s in the US Air Force (at an estimated cost of US$500 million each).

Putting aside the constraints of a legacy macro force structure designed for a different world, the challenge for the government is to figure out what can be done for the ADF in the short term to significantly increase its high-end warfighting and deterrent capabilities.

As two of the doyens of Australian strategic thinking, Richard Brabin-Smith and Paul Dibb, pointed out in October, that focus has to be on long-range missiles and investments in the ‘preparedness of the ADF and … plans for force expansion’.

One of the best, quickest and cheapest ways to achieve all this is by a significant expansion of project Land 8113. As US Army Secretary Christine Wormuth noted late last year, 2023 will be ‘the year of long-range [land-based] precision fires’ as several US munitions programs with ranges far exceeding those of a generation ago will come online. Land-based cruise missiles, ‘based on Raytheon’s Tomahawk, will have a range of at least 1,000 miles and be able to destroy warships in transit plus hardened land targets like command centers’.

Significantly, land-based mobile launchers are much cheaper than launchers based on ships and aircraft. They’re also more difficult to find and destroy, especially when dispersed throughout the extended archipelagos that surround the Australian continent. Long-range land-based fires would also provide the ADF with an ability to generate mass, an element of combat power that always proves difficult to achieve for such a small force.

In addition, this move would build on the Australian government’s decision to develop a sovereign guided weapons enterprise and leverage some of the key details of AUKUS, which include Tomahawk missiles for the navy’s destroyers and extended-range joint air-to-surface standoff missiles, and long-range anti-ship missiles for the Super Hornets and F-35s. AUKUS also includes provisions for cooperation on hypersonic missiles and establishes an accelerated guided weapons manufacture and talent pool program.

The expansion and acceleration of Land 8133 would transform the army into a modern force, end its ‘battle for relevance’ and drive the ADF towards being a truly integrated joint force capable of high-end deterrence.