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National Defence Strategy: Impactful projection constrained

Posted By on April 24, 2024 @ 20:47

Strike capability featured in the 2024 update of Australia’s Integrated Investment Plan [1] (IIP), the equipment spending program that accompanied the National Defence Strategy (NDS) published on 17 April. But the strike capability acquisitions were all re-announcements—or, to take a positive view, confirmations. 

They included acquisition by the navy of more than 200 Tomahawk [2] Block IV cruise missiles, to be deployed on Hobart-class destroyers, Virginia-class submarines and maybe Hunter-class frigates. Integration of the Naval Strike Missile on surface combatants was in there, too. 

The army’s long-range fires mission, highlighted in the 2023 Defence Strategic Review (DSR), is centered on acquisition [3] of 47 HIMARS launcher vehicles that can fire various long-range guided munitions, including [4] PRsM ballistic missiles, at land and maritime targets. PRsMs have a range of 500km but could eventually reach beyond 1000km. If forward host nation support is available in a crisis, then the littoral capability for the army will be crucial in supporting deterrence by denial with these land-based long-range fires—but we cannot assume availability of such support. With that uncertainty in mind, establishing agreements to ensure forward host nation support for the army should be a high priority for defence diplomacy, as noted in the NDS, in coming years. 

Air force capabilities include a previously announced [5] acquisition of AGM-158C LRASM anti-ship missiles to be carried on F/A-18Fs, P-8As and eventually F-35As, as well as AGM-158B JASSM-ER air-to-ground missiles. Another item is integration of the Kongsberg Joint Strike Missile on the F-35A. E/A-18G Growlers will get [6] 63 AGM-88E AARGM-ER missiles for attacking radars. 

The IIP looks to spend up to $35 billion on targeting and long-range strike by 2034. That will cover establishment of a defence targeting enterprise and buying the long-range strike capabilities mentioned above. That’s a serious investment and a timely one that is entirely appropriate to meet the requirements stated in the NDS for a defence strategy of denial.  

That strategy requires ‘…credible ADF capabilities that will complicate the calculus of any potential adversary…’ through ‘increasing the range and lethality of the ADF’ as well as ‘strengthening resilience, building international engagement, and enhancing interoperability and collective defence within the primary area of military interest.’ 

Yet challenges confront the ADF’s ability to deter through denial via impactful projection, as Defence Minister Richard Marles called strike power in 2022. Firstly, the use of such capabilities must be considered against realistically possible scenarios. The NDS notes that the ADF ‘must possess sufficient capability to credibly hold at risk forces that could attempt to project power against Australian territory and our northern approaches.’  

Certainly, if a future enemy were to deploy its forces within the range of ADF strike capabilities, then those capabilities would be a means to defeat the threat. But states such as China have deployed much longer-range strike systems, such as the DF-26 [7] and DF-27 [8] ballistic missiles, that could target northern Australian bases and naval forces in our northern approaches from beyond the reach of our new strike weapons. Sea-based anti-ship and land attack capabilities such as Tomahawk do give Australia an ability strike farther by moving the launch platform forward, but the further up-threat the ships go, the more they come into the reach of Chinese anti-access and area denial capabilities.  

In effect, in a future major power crisis, such as that which could easily occur this decade across the Taiwan Straits, China’s sword would be longer than Australia’s. In such a scenario, it is implausible that Australian and allied forces operating from Australia’s north against Chinese forces would remain unmolested by long-range strikes. 

Compounding this challenge, the IIP does not give a clear picture or timeline of future development of integrated air and missile defence (IAMD), despite the 2023 DSR [9] urging quick deployment of such a capability. In effect, we may not have a shield against long-range strikes against bases in northern Australia. The 2024 IIP’s focus is on the integrated battlespace management system aspects of IAMD under project AIR 6500, and the document makes only passing reference to sea and air based ‘shooter’ solutions. Yet these work only if a suitably capable ship or aircraft is in the right location to intercept incoming missiles at the right time.  

Australia’s area of primary military interest is vast, war is fast, and our resources can’t be everywhere at once. In the IIP, land-based missile defence is still focused on countering short-range battlefield threats, despite availability of mature and operationally proven medium and long-range systems through military-off-the-shelf acquisition. This hardly conforms with the thinking in the 2023 DSR. 

The IIP includes strengthening the navy’s surface-to-air firepower by buying ESSM, SM-2 and SM-6 surface-to-air missiles, all useful for missile defence—where the ship is. 

That leaves the RAAF, with its air-delivered long-range strike capabilities. Deploying LRASM, JASSM-ER and JSM on the F/A-18F, F-35 and P-8A does give the ADF great flexibility, especially if Australia and its allies can gain and sustain local air superiority and enjoy forward host-nation support. However, if no host nation support is available, then our ability to undertake impactful projection is constrained. For example, air-delivered strike by F-35As from northern bases could reach the Malacca Strait—assuming use of LRASMs or JASSM-ERs and availability of airborne refueling in uncontested airspace along the way. That’s a vast improvement over past capability, but what if we don’t have host nation support, and what if we don’t have control of the air for operating tankers? 

The answer to these challenges may lie in prioritising collaboration on hypersonics within AUKUS Pillar 2. The IIP alludes to this as a future step to enhance strike, but already the West is behind China and Russia on hypersonic weapons. AUKUS Pillar 2 should also consider the opportunity to acquire ballistic missiles to match the intermediate-range strike capability of China’s rocket force. PRsM may opens up a path for a future conventionally armed IRBM that could be deployed by the US and its allies, including Australia. 

Impactful projection as part of deterrence by denial is the right choice—but we need to reach farther to deter more effectively. A failure to extend our reach could see deterrence by denial fall short in a real crisis. 

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

URL to article: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/defence-strategic-review-impactful-projection-constrained/

URLs in this post:

[1] Integrated Investment Plan: https://www.defence.gov.au/about/strategic-planning/2024-national-defence-strategy-2024-integrated-investment-program

[2] Tomahawk: https://www.minister.defence.gov.au/media-releases/2023-08-21/australia-invests-powerful-new-high-tech-missiles#:~:text=To%20build%20this%20critical%20capability,class%20long%2Drange%20strike%20capability.

[3] acquisition: https://www.iiss.org/online-analysis/missile-dialogue-initiative/2023/09/australias-new-investments-in-its-long-range-strike-capabilities/

[4] including: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/more-work-needed-but-precision-strike-missile-a-good-fit-for-the-australian-army/

[5] announced: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/australia-is-getting-the-long-range-missiles-needed-for-a-contested-indo-pacific/

[6] get: https://www.dsca.mil/press-media/major-arms-sales/australia-advanced-anti-radiation-guided-missiles-extended-range-aargm

[7] DF-26: https://odin.tradoc.army.mil/WEG/Asset/DF-26_(Dongfeng_26)_Chinese_Intermediate-Range_Ballistic_Missile

[8] DF-27: https://www.iiss.org/en/online-analysis/online-analysis/2023/05/intelligence-leak-reveals-chinas-successful-test-of-a-new-hypersonic-missile/

[9] DSR: https://www.defence.gov.au/about/reviews-inquiries/defence-strategic-review

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