Reassessing Australia’s defence policy (part 3): Preparing for major war in the 2020s

While current concerns about Australian strategic policy are many, the underlying theme behind much of the disquiet is that we aren’t sufficiently prepared for the demands of major war in our own region, even before doubts about the extent of US assistance are taken into account. Australia doesn’t have the residual memory of Cold War organisation that the US and NATO now fall back on, and Australia’s Defence Department has been struggling in recent years to develop a concept for mobilisation.

The roots of some of the problems go fairly deep. For example, supplies of certain munitions ran low even for the relatively small coalition campaign in Syria. Our defence industry is not structured to deal with disruptions to supplies. Our noncompliance with our obligation to the International Energy Agency to hold 90 days’ worth of fuel consumption in country remains a strategic embarrassment. And our merchant marine includes few oil tankers and freighters that could be used for wartime resupply.

Still, there are good reasons to think that Australia should place more emphasis on preparations for major war than it has in the past: ‘competition’ is at least as much political, economic and diplomatic as it is military; the Australian Defence Force is already geared towards limited war, the outcomes of which will, however, continue to rest on US resolve; and developments in Moscow, Beijing and Washington since 2014 have all given greater credence to worst-case scenarios.

But we don’t have the luxury of time—if there was a time to declare strategic warning, it was in 2009, rather than 2019. Bringing forward the frigate and submarine replacement programs by a few years wouldn’t make a significant difference to the ADF of the 2020s, so what we’re left with in terms of new platforms are the off-the-shelf purchases already planned for the air force—F-35s, MQ-4C and MQ-9 drones, and MC-55A electronic warfare support aircraft—and the navy’s new offshore patrol vessels (OPVs). But even within the broad outlines of the force structure laid out in the 2016 defence white paper, Australia could make significant improvements focused on the possibility of major war during the 2020s.

In particular, the government should consider making Australia’s air combat capability more resilient by acquiring additional KC-30A tanker aircraft; increasing munitions stocks and resupply capability; integrating Kongsberg’s Naval Strike Missile on the F-35; reviewing the number of pilots, base support personnel and battle-damage repair capabilities required to maintain continuous high tempos of operation, including dispersed from civilian airfields; and improving fuel stock and resupply infrastructure at air bases across the north of the continent.

We should also strengthen the ability to protect the sea lanes across the Pacific and Indian oceans that we would depend on for the war effort against long-range submarine operations by acquiring additional P-8A Poseidons and fitting towed arrays to the Anzac-class frigates. We need to ensure the availability of sonobuoys for periods of large-scale extended use. If they’re equipped with towed arrays and a rudimentary self-defence capability, such as RAM or Phalanx systems, the new OPVs should also be able to make a meaningful contribution to antisubmarine operations in areas of limited air threat. If the OPVs were able to support lilypad operations of the MH-60R, additional antisubmarine helicopters may also be worthy of consideration.

Defence should consider accelerating the acquisition of land-based anti-ship cruise missiles, additional short-range air defence systems, and the foreshadowed medium-range air defence capability. It should also consider using those capabilities to establish a permanent army garrison on the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, which lie close to areas that major Chinese naval forces now regularly transit through but would be very difficult to reinforce, let alone retake from mainland Australia.

In addition, Defence should consider:

  • acquiring new long-range anti-ship missiles for the navy’s Hobart-class destroyers and Anzac-class frigates
  • increasing its investment in the development of autonomous and unmanned air and naval capabilities that have the potential to complement existing major platforms within a time frame of five to 10 years.
  • further improving intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance and battle management systems for long-range targeting in our neighbourhood, while beginning to harden (or provide redundancy for) critical nodes at risk from submarine-launched land-attack cruise missiles
  • exploring the acquisition of the B-21 Raider bomber, which is the only viable solution to drop ordnance in mass at a range that would enable Australia to suppress a possible Chinese base in the Southwest Pacific
  • rebuilding the territorial organisation of the reserves not just to deal with natural disasters but also to provide the logistic support that will be needed for mobilisation and dispersed operations from the continent and to support civil defence at times of fuel rationing or widespread cyber outages
  • strengthening the ability to repair battle-damaged aircraft and naval vessels in Australia with limited need for resupply from the US, for ADF as well as coalition forces.

All of this would not come cheaply. The odd billion may be saved from curtailing future armoured vehicles for the army, and perhaps it’s time to re-role existing units rather than expand the army for additional air and coastal defence capabilities (we won’t lose a conflict with China for lack of infantry). But strengthening Australia’s defences requires additional money that will take us to defence expenditure of 2.5% of GDP and beyond. If the government isn’t willing to spend more money than it intended to in 2016, it will have to make the case that the world hasn’t become a more dangerous place since then.

Investment of this kind won’t enable an Australia that’s abandoned by all friends and allies to make a last stand against an uncontested China, and the outcome of a major war would continue to rest on US conventional and nuclear forces. However, it would help us to stay in the fight for longer, make our immediate neighbourhood a less attractive theatre for Chinese operations, and increase our value and effectiveness as a base for US long-range air and naval operations that could bring the war to an end. Hence, it might make China just a little more cautious of initiating a limited or a major war during the 2020s that would also involve Australia. Surely, that’s not such a bad thing to have an ADF for.