‘Forward defence in depth’ for Australia (part 3)
18 Dec 2018|

Australia’s defence force structure has evolved over many years around defending the ‘sea–air gap’ as a perceived strategic moat. That construct dates back to the late 1980s, when the outlook was far more benign and Australia’s military–technological edge in the region was unchallenged. The reality in 2018 is that the strategic context has changed dramatically. The next defence white paper cannot simply suggest we drift forward on autopilot from the 2016 edition, in which the first strategic defence objective (paragraph 3.12) was clearly still centred on the sea–air gap.

I’ve argued that Australia needs to move on from the sea–air gap and embrace a new strategy of ‘forward defence in depth’ that seeks to project our military power and presence deep into the Indo-Pacific and the Southwest Pacific, with an emphasis on anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities and tactics.

What forward defence in depth means in terms of actual force structure choices is the final piece of the puzzle.

We’re talking about long-range power projection, first and foremost. The retirement of the F-111 from the RAAF in 2010 tore open a large gap in our power-projection capability that has yet to be filled. The F-35, while technologically at the apex of combat aircraft development, lacks the range and payload to really project power in a responsive manner.

Two solutions are obvious. The first requires new initiatives in defence diplomacy to negotiate access agreements with regional partners to deploy the F-35 (and other combat aircraft) to forward bases beyond the Australian mainland. ASPI’s Peter Jennings makes this point with regard to Manus Island, and Anthony Bergin recently went further, suggesting that Micronesia, including Guam, may be useful for the ADF. It’s a model that could be applied elsewhere in Southeast Asia and the Southwest Pacific.

The second step is to acquire new military capabilities through US foreign military sales. As a matter of urgency, the RAAF should look towards equipping forward-deployed aircraft with longer range missiles. Both the F-35 and Super Hornet could carry the JASSM-XR cruise missile, which will have a range of 1,800 kilometres.

For the navy, I’ve argued previously that land-attack cruise missiles like the Block IV Tomahawk should be installed on our Hobart-class destroyers and the future Hunter-class frigates. The Tomahawk and its stealthier cousin, the LRASM, would give the RAN a long-range anti-surface warfare capability which it currently lacks with the Harpoon missile.

In the longer term though, as Kim Beazley recently argued, there’s a serious problem with Australia’s force-readiness. The current plans for our future force structure depend heavily on Attack-class submarines to provide long-range strike and deterrence. However, political interests in sustaining naval shipbuilding mean that the first of those won’t appear until the mid-2030s (at the earliest) and a sizeable force won’t be available until the late 2040s. They are a capability for the war after next, not the next war. In the meantime, the RAN must depend on ageing (though upgraded) Collins-class boats.

An approach that means our next major platform won’t be available for at least 13 years is not an adequate response to our rapidly changing security outlook. The next defence white paper needs to identify capabilities and deployments that will enable the ADF to project power quickly at very long range (such as into the South China Sea or deep into the South Pacific) in the next few years.

A good A2/AD system must combine a survivable and effective intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) component with a strike capability. Australia’s current long-range ISR approach is centred on acquiring 15 P-8A Poseidon aircraft, and six (possibly seven) MQ-4C Triton high-altitude long endurance unmanned aircraft to undertake maritime surveillance. They will be supported by the Jindalee Operational Radar Network (JORN), which offers surveillance up to 3,000 kilometres from three bases in central Australia.

Extending JORN coverage north could be achieved by adding new transmitters. An additional transmitter at RAAF Tindal in the Northern Territory would significantly extend the network’s reach into the southern part of the South China Sea. Negotiating with New Zealand to host a transmitter on the North Island would extend coverage deep into the South Pacific and provide complete air and sea surveillance support to the New Zealand Defence Force.

The decision to limit Australia’s fleet of Tritons to six or seven gives the RAAF a minimum capability depending on operational demands. Buying additional aircraft would give greater mission assurance. The number of airframes required would be determined by the complexity of operational demands.

Triton and JORN could also be supplemented with a robust space-based ISR capability that would enable us to see deeper into a hemispheric battlespace. From low-earth orbit, we could cue and employ long-range strike capabilities more rapidly and effectively. Defence’s DEF-799 Phase 2 project provides a golden opportunity to acquire such capabilities quickly and affordably.

We should open our minds to the new strike capabilities that could be considered in the next white paper. First on the list should be hypersonic standoff weapons that could be launched from land, air or sea to undertake rapid, long-range land strike and anti-surface warfare.

Australia is a leading player in the research and development of hypersonics and this capability shouldn’t be left in the lab. The likely collapse of the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty would, ironically, open up opportunities for Australia to develop non-nuclear long-range, high-speed strike capabilities.

Unmanned combat air systems (UCAS) are also on the horizon. These aircraft could restore the long-range punch the RAAF lost with the retirement of the F-111, complement the F-35 into the 2030s and support Australia’s strike and surveillance capability into the 2040s and beyond. The next defence white paper should commit to the acquisition of UCAS, perhaps in collaboration with the US or our European partners, either for AIR 6000 Phase 6 or as an entirely new project.

Developing these capabilities will cost money. The 2016 white paper’s commitment to increase defence spending to 2% of GDP has been overtaken by events. It’s far from clear that 2% of GDP will be enough to fund Australia’s defence. It’s now time to make the political case that defence spending should be driven by strategic need and not by an arbitrary figure.