Getting Australia’s defence capability right in time to deter a future enemy
7 Feb 2022|

The 2020s have begun a period of rapid change for Australian defence planners. The government’s 2020 defence strategic update and accompanying force structure plan refocused strategic and operational priorities to the Indo-Pacific. They highlighted the growing risk of major-power war and the outdated assumption that we would have 10 years of strategic warning time for a major power conflict. The AUKUS agreement followed and further upended our traditional policy settings. Suddenly Australia was getting nuclear-powered submarines. These changes have come fast and the defence organisation must keep up.

So, what might 2022 bring? Hopefully, a concerted effort to close the yawning disconnect between the government’s recognition of a rapidly worsening strategic outlook characterised by a rising challenge from a hegemonic China and the Defence Department’s relatively relaxed approach to major capability acquisition.

A fast and meaningful review of key projects is required to ensure they’ll be fit for purpose in a much more dangerous future. We also need new thinking on how to get major capabilities quickly—in years, rather than decades.

Sailing on an assumption of calm waters and accepting a two-decade acquisition cycle are no longer appropriate. While it’s undeniable that major defence projects take time—a frigate can be built only so fast—a parallel approach is needed to rapidly acquire new capabilities concurrently with slower projects.

The first step must be to identify capabilities to be acquired quickly, through collaborative development under AUKUS or via military off-the-shelf acquisition, to bulk up the Australian Defence Force’s long-range strike capabilities. That’s where the greatest capability gap lies.

The process must begin by ensuring that capabilities match our strategic and operational priorities. A good start would be for Defence to review its capability context scenarios to ensure they’re relevant to the ADF’s future defence strategy, capability development and force posture.

There should be a debate over an expanded approach to the traditional ‘defence of Australia’ task that embraces long-range power projection and prioritises advanced long-range strike weapons at the centre of ADF capability. Projecting forward defence in depth based on long-range strike and emphasising advanced space, ‘near space’ and cyber operations should be our next step in getting ADF capability right to deter a possible aggressor.

It’s here that we run into some challenges. Now, there’s a mismatch between the capabilities we acquire and the likely nature of operations in which they’ll be employed.

In August 2021, the ADF announced that it intended to join the US-led Precision Strike Missile (PrSM) program to develop new land-based missiles that can strike surface targets and ships up to 500 kilometres away. These missiles would be launched from the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS). As I noted in an earlier article:

A 500-kilometre-range precision strike missile could form an inner layer for an anti-access and area-denial (A2/AD) system along Australia’s north and northwest coasts into the sea–air gap. Given that the system is based on HIMARS, a forward-deployed capability would enable the army to contribute to sea denial in support of expeditionary operations.

This sits well alongside decisions reannounced under AUKUS for Defence’s acquisition of AGM-158C long range, precision-guided anti-ship missiles (LRASMs) and AGM-158B joint air-to-surface standoff missiles—extended range (JASSM-ER) for the air force and BGM-109E Block V Tomahawk land-attack cruise missiles (TLAMs) for the navy’s Hobart-class destroyers. This is in addition to Australia’s involvement with the US in the SCIFiRE Program to develop hypersonic weapons.

Yet, for Australia’s operational requirements, 500-kilometre-range missiles are limited. If based in northern Australia, near key defence facilities such as Royal Australian Air Force Base Tindal, a 500-kilometre-range PrSM system could only respond to threats immediately offshore from Darwin. That’s fine for a last-ditch defence against a force off Australia’s northern coastline, but it does little to hold at risk an adversary within maritime chokepoints like the Makassar Strait, or to contribute to coalition operations in a Taiwan conflict scenario.

The PrSM capability represents a significant boost in long-range firepower for the army, compared to outdated towed artillery, or even the new K-9 Huntsman self-propelled artillery pieces. But it represents in microcosm a macro challenge for the ADF in that all the planned long-range strike capabilities fall short of the vast geographic scale of the Indo-Pacific region. And they could not penetrate deeply into China’s A2/AD envelope.

Given the serious strategic challenges Australia faces, it’s sensible to develop the ability to strike an adversary’s naval forces a long way away.

New antiship systems such as air-launched LRASMs and ship-based Block V TLAMs enhance our ability to achieve this, but only in an environment in which aircraft and naval vessels can penetrate and survive. As ASPI senior fellow Andrew Davies notes, it will become increasingly challenging for large and complex naval surface combatants to survive advanced A2/AD. In the air, platforms such as the RAAF’s F/A-18Fs carrying LRASMs may not have the luxury of support from airborne refuellers inside an adversary’s A2/AD envelope that continues to expand.

A potential solution to the ADF’s long-range strike gap is to use AUKUS to acquire B-21 bombers from the US—what ASPI’s executive director Peter Jennings refers to as ‘Plan B-21’—in lieu of acquiring nuclear-powered submarines that probably won’t appear until the late 2030s. A B-21 solution, if it could be realised quickly enough, would give Australia the ability to deliver advanced missiles such as LRASMs and JASSM-ERs, and ultimately hypersonic weapons.

Another option would be sea-based antiship ballistic missiles based on a navalised PrSM, launched from the navy’s Hobart-class air warfare destroyer or the planned Hunter-class frigate. That would emulate, ironically, China’s approach to the development of a sea-based anti-ship missile that can be launched from its Renhai-class cruiser. The challenge is that the navy doesn’t have enough ships, and the Hobarts and Hunters have too few vertical launch system cells to accommodate what would likely be a new and quite large missile system.

Also, the Hunter class is unlikely to appear before the mid-2030s. ASPI’s Marcus Hellyer has highlighted the possibility of new offshore patrol vessels that are missile armed and additional Hobart-class destroyers that could carry missiles including TLAMs and an antiship ballistic missiles.

The third option would be reconsideration of PrSM from a capability with a range of 500 kilometres to a high-end medium-range or low-end intermediate-range capability of around 3,000 kilometres. That could enable the army to deploy advanced land-strike and antiship ballistic missiles from the Northern Territory, dramatically extending the ADF’s ability to strike an enemy at much greater range.