At last year’s Air Power Conference in Canberra I spoke around the theme of the future of air power for Australia. Beyond recognising a continuing need for an air power capability, I suggested that there were three key tasks that needed to be considered to make sure the Air Force was optimised to meet Australia’s likely strategic needs. Those tasks included:
- ‘irreducible core tasks we should make sure we can perform without allied assistance in support of our own defence needs in Australia and our nearer region’
- ‘critical high-end niche roles we’d expect to deliver only in an alliance or coalition context’ and
- ‘air power capabilities we should maintain to deliver in a broader regional context’.
As a follow-up to my recent post on integration, it’s useful to ask what particular integration challenges are raised when we consider those three key tasks.
The challenge of conducting operations without allied assistance in support of our own defence needs is one that places a premium on the capacity of the Australian Defence Force to be able to operate jointly. On the face of it, I’d argue that our capacity to integrate for joint operations is no-where near as developed as I understand single-service plans to be.
In Israel, the distance between Jericho in the north of the country and Be’er Sheva in the south is about 115 km, going via Jerusalem. That’s a lot closer than the distance between Air Force’s Plan Jericho and Army’s Plan Beersheba. Those are both necessary, rigorous, important and valuable plans. The same can be said for the New Generation Navy Plan, which in name, bypassed the Old Testament.
But I’m still looking for the convincing explanation that shows how these plans connect—the integration factor, if you will—showing how the ADF will fight as an organisation. The kinds of details which would provide for a compelling explanation here would include things like:
- How will the Joint Strike Fighter operate with Army’s deployed LAND 400 vehicles?
- How will Navy’s Air Warfare Destroyers operate with the JSF in a forward-deployment scenario?
- How will our future SEA 1000 submarines operate with the P-8 and Triton capabilities?
- What are the integration capabilities required to provide appropriate targeting information for the many capable new weapons and platforms coming into service?
- How will our Canberra-class amphibious vessels operate within this capability framework?
- On the industry front, what are the shared industrial support capabilities that will be needed to maintain JSF, SEA 1000, SEA 5000 and LAND 400 capabilities?
Those questions are deceptively easy to ask but difficult to answer. I’m not persuaded that joint service integration is as well developed as it needs to be for operations where Australia might have to operate alone. How is it that our approaches in this area have been so under-done? I think part of it has to do with the lack of an effective defence capability plan since about 2009—and even back then the DCP was principally just a list of programs.
I will take my second and third critical tasks for defence together. These were maintaining the capacity for high-end niche roles we’d deliver in a coalition context and capabilities we should optimise in a broader regional context. Here I think there’s also a mixed report card. The ADF continues to show that it’s able to operate effectively in niche roles in coalitions and particularly in the alliance context. But I don’t think we’re moving quickly enough to make sure we can build on that type of niche role.
The key challenge to building closer integration in coalition operations will come in making it a priority to train with allies and close friends in Australian exercise areas. There are a couple of obvious opportunities. We should do more in amphibious training with the US marines training in northern Australia. We should look for options to create a regional training hub for over-land operations for Asia–Pacific countries using the JSF. And we shouldn’t forget the regional context—for example, designing a Pacific regional maritime surveillance capability rather than limiting our engagement to a Pacific Patrol Boat replacement program.
The Australian Defence Force is relatively well placed in terms of acquisition programs, but it’s still too focused on platforms and not the integrating glue. The agenda for integration is broadening. Yes, it must start with integrated and interoperable Service entities, but our definitive edge will come from Australia’s ability to exploit joint, allied and regional abilities to integrate. We will need to be substantially better in this domain if our strategies and plans are to live up to the capabilities inherent in many systems—like the JSF, currently in acquisition.