Biding their time: the Opposition’s defence statement
3 Sep 2013|

MQ-4 TritonThe Opposition’s defence policy (PDF) released yesterday was perhaps more notable for commitments it didn’t make rather than ones it did. It’s a cautious document, light on for hard timings for major decisions. But that’s no bad thing—taking the time to get decisions about complex issues right is eminently sensible. And when it did make a firm commitment with a date—the promise to increase defence spending to 2% of GDP in ten years—the outcome is both difficult to achieve and divorced from a coherent strategic framework.

It’s hard for oppositions to make defence policy as issues require detailed knowledge of costings, technical performance or intelligence that simply isn’t available to them. In part, this is an unavoidable consequence of the secrecy attached to national security matters. But it also reflects the tendency of incumbent governments, and indeed Defence itself, to withhold information from the public. Doing so creates an information asymmetry that protects the government from scrutiny and confers considerable power to Defence in advising government. Then there’s the sheer volume of information. Even incumbents have difficulty sifting through all of the open source, commercial-in-confidence and classified information. The net result is that oppositions often don’t know what they don’t know.

So it’s not surprising that the Opposition is treading cautiously. For example, it promises to make a decision on the future submarine within 18 months of taking office, and accepts that the Collins fleet will need a life extension program. That’s essentially the status quo anyway; the DMO is expecting to make a selection on a concept design for the future boats in 2015. And the Collins extension is necessary if a capability gap is to be avoided.

That said, don’t be surprised if a change of government sees further delay in decisions about the future subs. It’s the biggest defence decision that will be made this decade, as most of the other major platform decisions have either already been made (Joint Strike Fighters, amphibious ships and air warfare destroyers) or are further in the future (like next generation frigates). Taking time to get it right is preferable to making a snap decision that takes us down the wrong path.

Another example of policy caution in the Opposition statement is their stated approach to maritime surveillance. They’ve said in the past that they intended to buy Triton drones (the maritime version of Global Hawk) for border protection duties. But the new policy takes a step back, saying instead that while they ‘believe there is merit in acquiring new state-of-the-art unmanned aerial vehicles―such as the Triton or equivalent capability… [a] decision on unmanned aerial vehicles can responsibly only be made from government’. That’s wise, as decisions about the future of Australia’s maritime surveillance and response capability necessarily take us into some complex questions.

Triton is an extremely capable platform. It has long endurance (24+ hours) and a sophisticated suite of sensors and communication systems. It was designed from the start as the unmanned part of the US broad area maritime surveillance system, where it will work with the manned P-8 Poseidon aircraft. The basic idea is that the unarmed, remotely-controlled Triton will do the surveillance leg work, leaving the engagement of submarine and surface targets to the armed Poseidon. That way the overall system uses its scarce response assets more efficiently, using the robots to do the job they’re best suited to. Australia’s current plan is to follow a similar path, replacing our 19 AP-3C Orions with a mix of (nominally) seven Tritons and eight Poseidons. It’s a sensible direction for an important defence procurement.

And if the military application of these platforms was all that mattered, the only question would be the number of each. Even that isn’t entirely straightforward because there’s likely to be pressure from Air Force for more Poseidons, and the vendors of both types will be trying to maximise their sales. But some relatively straightforward operational analysis would yield the cost-effective answer—assuming there’s sufficient clarity about the scale and nature of the task to be undertaken.

But therein lies a problem, because border protection tasks extend beyond the military to include customs, fishery management and constabulary tasks, including the politically-charged interception of asylum seeker vessels. It’s a job that requires the coordination of assets from a number of civilian and military agencies. And it’s not just about surveillance; knowing what’s out on the water is only part of the job—being able to respond when necessary matters too. That means there has to be a synergy between the surveillance and the response assets. Having a long-range drone spot something well beyond the reach of the responders isn’t necessarily helpful.

The national maritime surveillance and response system needs to balance military and civilian tasks against the cost of the system. Today, border protection is done by a combination of ADF and civilian assets, with the latter operated by contractors in the case of the Coastwatch fixed wing Dash-8 aircraft fleet. The contract has only a couple of years (of ten) to run, so there’ll be market testing in the not too distant future.

That’s important, because military platforms are typically more expensive than civilian ones. And large aircraft are typically more expensive to buy and operate than small ones—equally true for drones as for manned aircraft. The overall best mix might—emphasis might—be a combination of manned and unmanned aircraft, and there could be as many as two of each. One possibility, for example, is Triton and Poseidon for the military surveillance and response role, especially well out to sea, with Dash-8s and smaller drones for work closer to shore. Of course, each type comes with a fixed cost for support and training, which means operating a mixed fleet tends to offset cheaper acquisition costs.

If all that sounds complicated, that’s because it is. You need good quality ‘apples versus apples’ cost and performance data for all the aircraft, and you need to know how you’re going to operate different fleet mixes. Sorting all that out takes time and expertise. The Opposition thinks it needs time to do that properly—and it’s right.

Andrew Davies is a senior analyst for defence capability at ASPI and executive editor of The Strategist. Image courtesy US Navy via Wikimedia Commons.