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Off-the-shelf opportunism

Posted By on May 30, 2016 @ 14:30


While researching a recent post, I went to the Pentagon’s Defence Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) website, looking for notifications of sales to Australia on its Major Arms Sales page [1]. I didn’t find what I was looking for (a story for another day), but I did find a couple of other interesting items that have been otherwise unremarked upon.

It seems that the RAAF has been on something of a shopping spree. The DSCA page lists an April approval of a possible sale of ‘up to 450 advanced medium-range air-to-air missiles [2]‘ (AMRAAMs), with associated test and support equipment, at a total price of US$1.22 billion. And, also in April, there’s an approval of a sale of ‘up to 2,950 GBU-39/B Small Diameter Bomb I [3]‘ (SDB), at a total cost of US$386 million.

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with either purchase. The AMRAAMS are the latest AIM-120D model, which are a significant step up in both range and lethality over the previous -120C models. The D model went into service with the USN [4] just last year, so Australia’s Hornets and Super Hornets (and F-35s later on) will be flying with state of the art air-to-air weapons. And the SDBs are a precision strike weapon with a relatively small warhead, making it more suitable than larger weapons for strike missions in urban areas or when collateral damage is a significant concern—as is the case for strike missions in Iraq and Syria, for example.

My only query about either purchase would be ‘why so many’? The RAAF hasn’t fired an air-to-air weapon in anger for decades, and they aren’t something that you can just leave in the box in the warehouse for years in case you need them. There’s a significant resource implication in the safe storage and maintenance of high-tech weaponry. And almost 3,000 strike weapons? The Defence budget for this year contains operational supplementation of around $730 million, some of which will be to replace munitions expended in Middle East operations. But 3,000 is enough for a sustained campaign at high rates of effort, and the SDB won’t always be the weapon of choice, being just one of many weapons in the air-to-ground inventory. The overwhelming likelihood is that the bulk of this A$2.2 billion weapon purchase will age off unused.

In some circumstances that isn’t necessarily bad policy. America’s NATO allies quickly ran short of precision strike weapons [5] during the Libya campaign in 2011, and the same concern was raised [6] when operations over Syria were first mooted. Sales people from the defence materiel sector observe that some customers buy weapons in such small quantities that they essentially have no capacity to go to war with them at all. By stocking up, Australia would be a more capable ally less reliant on resupply from America—a position consistent with the White Paper’s overall thrust of being a stronger and more capable ally within ANZUS.

But I wonder if that’s the complete explanation. And if we really want to stock up on SDBs, why not add some Laser SDB weapons [7], which are capable of hitting laser-designated moving targets? And when the F-35 joint strike fighter arrives, the weapon of choice will be the Block II SDB [8], with an autonomous targeting capability allowing it to hit moving targets even in zero visibility weather conditions.

So why so many, and why now? I was puzzling over this until Mark Thomson did his usual magic on the Defence budget, and pointed out that there was a deferral of $500 million [9] in spending this financial year, as well as a projected underspend of almost as much. That might offer a clue—there’s something of a track record of Air Force being the happy recipient of spending late in the financial year when an underspend looms. A couple of the C-17 transport aircraft fit that pattern, with the purchase of the fifth aircraft [10] announced in March 2011, and the sixth a year later [11]. Again, there’s nothing wrong with that—the aircraft have been hugely successful and being FMS purchases, were on time and budget.

Which brings us to the ‘opportunity’ part of this post. As Mark pointed out in the launch of his budget brief last week, the government has a new-found fondness for DIY defence materiel acquisition [12], a vastly oversubscribed project approval timetable over the next couple of years, and a promise of substantial additional funds for defence [13]. Defence will be loath to hand money back to government—after all, that would make it hard to justify an expanding budget envelope in later years—so I suspect we can expect to see more ‘just in time’ FMS purchases. Of all the services, the Air Force is best placed to take advantage of that, and will likely be browsing the DSCA catalogue every February.

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

URL to article: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/off-shelf-opportunism/

URLs in this post:

[1] Major Arms Sales page: http://www.dsca.mil/major-arms-sales

[2] up to 450 advanced medium-range air-to-air missiles: http://www.dsca.mil/major-arms-sales/australia-aim-120d-advanced-medium-range-air-air-missiles

[3] ‘up to 2,950 GBU-39/B Small Diameter Bomb I: http://www.dsca.mil/major-arms-sales/australia-gbu-39-small-diameter-bomb-increment-i

[4] went into service with the USN: http://www.naval-technology.com/news/newsus-navy-achieves-ioc-on-raytheons-aim-120d-amraam-missile-4551297

[5] ran short of precision strike weapons: https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/nato-runs-short-on-some-munitions-in-libya/2011/04/15/AF3O7ElD_story.html?hpid=z1

[6] same concern was raised: http://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/natosource/nato-allies-may-lack-sufficient-precision-bombs-for-syria-contingencies

[7] Laser SDB weapons: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Small_Diameter_Bomb#Laser_SDB

[8] Block II SDB: http://www.raytheon.com.au/capabilities/products/sdbii/

[9] deferral of $500 million: http://www.aspistrategist.org.au/the-no-surprises-defence-budget/

[10] purchase of the fifth aircraft: http://australianaviation.com.au/2011/03/raaf-to-get-fifth-c-17/

[11] sixth a year later: http://www.minister.defence.gov.au/2012/03/19/minister-for-defence-and-minister-for-defence-materiel-joint-media-release-purchase-of-additional-c17/

[12] a new-found fondness for DIY defence materiel acquisition: http://www.aspistrategist.org.au/making-sense-of-the-governments-defence-industry-policy/

[13] substantial additional funds for defence: http://www.aspistrategist.org.au/good-riddance-to-2-targeting/

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