Defence strategic review comes up short on airpower

When examining the public version of the defence strategic review, it’s important to remember that it’s an unclassified version of a classified document and we’re not seeing the full picture. The review comments on the capabilities and workforce of the Royal Australian Air Force and gives general guidance on investment priorities in the air domain. But we’re left to guess how the move to a focused force and anti-access and area-denial strategy will lead to new capability options and force posture developments for the RAAF.

That can be taken positively as suggesting that the RAAF’s force structure is about right and doesn’t need much alteration. It’s also possible that the government will release information held back from the unclassified DSR. That seems to have been the case with the announcement in April of an ‘advanced strategic capabilities accelerator office’ to fast-track new technology including autonomous systems.

The DSR strongly recommends continued development of Boeing Defence Australia’s MQ-28 Ghost Bat combat drone collaboratively with the US. It’s the only significant air capability development measure in the DSR. Yet that commitment isn’t an order for actual platforms to be introduced into operational service, and the Ghost Bat needs to be seen as a ready for evolution into a more capable platform.

A $2 billion boost for upgrades for Australia’s northern air bases and $1 billion more to upgrade other facilities are positive outcomes for the RAAF.

In the context of pursuing ‘impactful projection’, the AGM-158C long-range anti-ship missile (LRASM) will be carried by the F-35A Lightning II and the F/A-18F Super Hornet. LRASM and its land-attack equivalent, JASSM-ER, are too large to be carried internally by the F-35, so integrating them will mean the aircraft must operate in ‘beast mode’ and sacrifice its low-radar cross-section. With that in mind, the DSR also recommends integrating the Kongsberg joint strike missile onto the F-35; it can be carried internally once the aircraft has received Block 4 upgrades.

It’s worth noting that the US Government Accountability Office’s tactical aircraft study, released in March, found that the Block 4 modernisation program is suffering from ‘increases in scope, costs and delays’ and delivery has been delayed to 2026. The report also warns of continued increases in planned capabilities, cost increases and schedule delays.

Absent are any plans for an additional squadron of F-35As (or the short take-off and landing F-35B variant, which was never very likely) to bring the force up to 100 aircraft. Lockheed Martin has indicated than an additional squadron would take up to four years to arrive. The DSR notes that there have been ‘detailed discussions in Australia and the US in relation to the B-21 Raider as a potential capability option for Australia’. However, it dismisses the idea, saying: ‘In the light of our strategic circumstances and the approach to Defence strategy and capability development outlined in this Review, we do not consider the B-21 to be a suitable option for consideration for acquisition.’

That has an air of finality, at least under the current government. Given the need to rapidly acquire capabilities, it’s likely that the B-21 would have taken too long to arrive and would probably have blown out the defence budget when placed alongside acquiring nuclear-powered submarines for the navy. Additional cuts to the army would have resulted, leaving the Australian Defence Force without a key element of military capability in exchange for a small number of high-end long-range strike platforms.

However, it would be a mistake for Defence to permanently take the B-21 off the table, and maybe it needs to be reconsidered in a future review, if economic and strategic circumstances permit. Like the submarines, it may become a 2030s-and-beyond capability.

The RAAF’s strike and air combat components will continue to rest with the current force structure—the F-35A, the F/A-18F Super Hornet (at least until it’s retired by the mid-2030s) and the E/A-18G Growler electronic warfare aircraft, along with the Ghost Bat. We’re betting on more capable standoff missile capabilities on these aircraft filling a strike gap and giving us ‘impactful projection’.

In terms of combat support for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance; maritime patrol and anti-submarine warfare; command and control for integrated air and missile defence; airborne refueling; and air mobility, there’s no hints in the DSR about new initiatives. That assumes a status quo force structure, and greater investment in the workforce.

If the DSR’s approach to a strategy of denial rests with anti-access and area denial as part of a focused force—what some commentators have taken to imply an ADF entering the missile age—and given the rapidly building threat environment, the air section of the DSR would have benefited from more depth. Clearly, with no higher growth than originally planned in defence investment over the forward estimates, and an ‘expectation’ of higher defence spending beyond those three to four years, we are left waiting for the rest of the picture to tell us how the RAAF is going to project impactfully at greater range.

The key source of hope here is the new approach of replacing irregular defence white papers with a biennial ‘national defence strategy’ from 2024. That will allow Defence to assess development of China’s long-range power-projection capabilities, which already have the range to strike bases across Australia’s north and west from the South China Sea. That’s beyond the reach of Australia’s existing or planned strike capability. Australia’s defence aspirations in the DSR need to be able to compete with the capability ambitions of a potential adversary. We can’t assume that the review’s policy choices will be fit for purpose in the second half of this decade, given the speed of modernisation and expansion of capabilities that could be directed against us. That modernisation will accelerate and broaden. Defence policy must be flexible and agile, and not constrained by one review.

A true strategy of denial needs to be able to kill the archers before they release their arrows. The DSR’s approach to long-range strike, including RAAF standoff capabilities, is still limited in reach compared to China’s long-range precision-strike capabilities, such as its DF-26 and DF-27 missiles, air-launched ballistic missiles and high-speed anti-ship cruise missiles. In the lead-up to the 2024 national defence strategy, further analysis is needed on how the RAAF can build on decisions in the DSR to deliver greater long-range projection. The DSR is a great start, but more work is needed.