Deterring threats to Australia requires a whole-of-nation effort
29 Nov 2022|

The 2020 defence strategic update unveiled three strategic objectives: to ‘shape’ Australia’s strategic environment, to ‘deter’ adversaries from using armed force against Australia and its national interests, and to ‘respond’ with credible military force that is lethal and sustainable in a high-intensity conflict.

This two-part series will focus on the deterrence and response dimensions by outlining a range of options to improve the lethality, sustainability and credibility of the Australian Defence Force’s combat capabilities.

As outlined in the 1988 US national security strategy, ‘deterrence works by persuading potential adversaries that the costs of their aggression will exceed any probable gains’. Deterrence is the ability to dissuade an aggressor from undertaking a particular course of action by making the costs outweigh any potential benefits. Credible deterrence is the ability to impose substantial costs on an aggressor, even after absorbing an adversary’s unexpected first strike.

In Australia’s context, deterrence is about conventional (non-nuclear) capabilities that would allow the ADF to credibly impose sufficient costs on an aggressor to persuade it to rethink the need to threaten Australia or its national interests with armed force.

The defence strategic update said: ‘[I]t is the Government’s intent that Australia take greater responsibility for our own security. It is therefore essential that the ADF grow its self-reliant ability to deliver deterrent effects.’

This concept of ADF conventional deterrence carries two important caveats. First, it requires US extended nuclear deterrence to function, because without it Australia would run the risk of nuclear blackmail. Second, this concept is only about deterrence by denial, which is limited to striking at enemy combat and support assets that are directly threatening Australia. That is distinct from deterrence through punishment, which the ADF will likely never have the resources to execute.

A credible ADF conventional deterrence-by-denial capability could be built around five key pillars: active defence, passive defence, resilient C4ISR (command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance), combat sustainment and strike elements.

The active defence pillar would be designed to attrite and, if necessary, defeat hostile air and missile attacks against key ADF sites, including air and naval bases, headquarters, and critical naval shipbuilding infrastructure.

Missile-defence batteries will be an integral component. Australia  has committed to acquiring the National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile System, or NASAMS, but it should consider supplementing that with Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) ballistic-missile-defence batteries. Those systems could be further improved with the addition of road-mobile launchers to carry Standard Missile 6 interceptors to defend against long-range threats. SM-6 Block 1B missiles already travel at hypersonic speeds and some SM-6 variants have demonstrated a limited defensive capability against hypersonic boost-glide missiles.

Fixed air- and missile-defence batteries are another option to provide key ADF sites with protection against surprise enemy attacks in an era of shortened or no warning time. The Aegis Ashore system can defend against short-, medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missile threats, but it is also being investigated for defensive applications against intercontinental ballistic missiles and hypersonic boost-glide missiles.

The passive defence pillar would be designed to make key ADF sites more difficult to find, target and successfully engage, but also would make defence facilities more capable of absorbing significant enemy strikes and remaining in the fight. Three types of capabilities might be considered: hardened structures that are more difficult to destroy or disable (including bunkers, aircraft shelters and infrastructure like runways and fuel storage), survivability enhancements (such as sophisticated cyber defences, camouflage, dispersal, active decoys and countermeasures, plus shielding against electromagnetic pulse weapons) and independence enhancements (such as bunkers with air-filtration systems capable of dealing with nuclear, biological and chemical attacks, plus food, water, generators and bathrooms to support mission-critical staff).

The resilient C4ISR pillar would aim to provide wide-area surveillance coverage across multiple warfighting domains, support secure communications and support the secure transmission of targeting data and fire orders. Defence projects JP9102 and DEF799 will acquire surveillance and communication satellites; however, expensive satellites are vulnerable to anti-satellite weapons. Alternatively, microsatellite constellations based on Defence Science and Technology Group’s cubesat could be put in place, or pseudosatellites like high-altitude airships or balloons could be deployed in swarms to provide resilient surveillance and communications.

Overhead surveillance will be supplemented by the ADF’s expanded Jindalee over-the-horizon radar and future integrated undersea surveillance system. A dedicated, land-based ADF fibre-optic communications network might also make sense, because fibre-optic cables don’t emit electromagnetic signals and are resilient to electromagnetic emanation effects. The ADF appears to be moving in this direction with the rollout of the National Broadband Network across 450 ADF bases, including fibre-optic cabling. These combined C4ISR assets might allow for Headquarters Joint Operations Command to securely receive targeting data and then reply with fire orders to deployed ADF strike assets.

The combat sustainment pillar would aim to ensure that the ADF can remain effective even under battle conditions. This would involve a range of measures to resupply ADF units and repair battle damage to critical assets. Australia’s armoured-vehicle and guided-weapon production lines could be leveraged to produce road-mobile missile launchers and ordnance, as well as repair battle-damaged units. The government’s commitment to holding larger onshore reserves of fuel is a great start but could be enhanced with a national stockpile of military technologies that can’t be made in Australia yet would be needed to repair battle-damaged systems like radars and missile batteries.

The ADF should also consider forming parachute-qualified engineer repair teams that could air-drop into damaged ADF bases, marry up with prepositioned base repair kits, and restore combat or support operations. Such teams would be similar to the US Air Force’s RED HORSE combat engineer teams, which are parachute-qualified and capable of operating independently and under austere conditions.

The strike pillar would build on the preceding pillars to hold enemy targets at risk and at long range using a variety of kinetic and non-kinetic ordnance. Near-term strike elements would be built around the ADF’s future missile inventory, including the AGM-158B joint air-to-surface standoff missile—extended range (JASSM-ER), the RGM-109E Tomahawk land-attack cruise missile and the AGM-158C long-range anti-ship missile (LRASM). Another option might be to develop a new long-range hypersonic cruise missile with anti-ship, land-attack and anti-submarine variants. Australia and the US could leverage their existing joint research to create a hypersonic cruise missile, or a new hypersonic cruise missile could be developed under AUKUS. Air-launched versions should be compatible with aircraft like the F/A-18F Super Hornet or P-8A Poseidon, and a naval variant should be compatible with the Mk-41 vertical launching system used by the Hobart-class destroyers and the upcoming Hunter-class frigates. The development of offensive cyber weapons to deliver targeted or wide-scale devastation to enemy electronic infrastructure should also be investigated.

The second part of this series will examine options to achieve a higher level of conventional deterrence through the use of capabilities such as bombers, submarines and missiles.