Reverse engineering Australia’s FMS requests
28 Jul 2016| and

Edited image courtesy of Flickr user origami_madness

On 31 May, yet another Australian FMS purchase approval was listed on the US Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) website. This new sale is for ‘up to eighty (80) Standard Missiles, SM-2 Block IIIB’, as well as associated engineering and support equipment, at an estimated value of US$301 million. It comes hot on the heels of two recent Australian FMS approvals, for ‘up to 2,950’ GBU-39 Small Diameter Bomb I (SDB-I – US$386m) and ‘up to 450’ AIM-120D air-to-air missiles (US$1.22b).

We’d like to understand the rationale for Australia’s requests, but we haven’t got much to work with. The Defence Department’s publications are light on details, so we have to rely on data we get from the American side via DSCA. Australia’s disclosure contrasts markedly with the open and transparent American acquisition process. We’re left with an incomplete picture, but here are our best guesses.

Let’s start with ‘why SDB-I and why so many’? The USAF budget last took delivery of SDB-Is in FY2011, with a cumulative total of 12,300 weapons delivered (PDF). The USAF operates a total of 1,419 SDB-I capable tactical aircraft (219 F-15E; 183 F-22A; 1,017 F-16C/D) and 82 bombers (62 B-1B and 20 B-2A), and it’s soon to be integrated onto the F-35A. Other than two F-35s in the test pool in the US, Australia has zero such aircraft, which will be the case until at least 2021, when the RAAF’s first F-35As are scheduled to reach initial operational capability.

Meanwhile, the much more capable GBU-53 SDB-II is slated for integration onto all of the USAF’s SDB-I-compatible aircraft, and the USN is aiming to integrate it onto the F-35B, F-35C and Super Hornet. The RAAF has 24 Super Hornets and, if the USN’s integration efforts are completed by 2019 as scheduled, they’d be able to field SDB-II two years before their F-35As can field SDB-I.

SDB-I is cheaper than the SDB-II (US$40k versus US$122k), but that’s an insufficient reason for Australia to buy a less capable and less compatible weapon. It seems an odd decision to seek approval for so many lower capability bombs, and we fully expect a later request for SDB-IIs, but there’s no way to fully understand Defence’s rationale from the information we have.

It’s possible that only a fraction of the approved number will actually be acquired, as the approved number is only an upper bound, and that the initial purchase will be a small number for testing. Some might be acquired later as gapfillers until SDB-II integration onto the F-35 is completed, currently scheduled for 2022, and the weapon is cleared for foreign sales.

Similarly we’re not sure why we need more SM-2s. The USN bought its last eight SM-2 Block IIIB naval surface-to-air missiles (the same missile FMS approved for Australia) in FY2011 (PDF), although the production line has been reopened for foreign customers. The USN is now focused on purchasing the newer SM-6 Block I. The SM-6 has greater speed, range and accuracy than the SM-2, and was identified by Australia at least as far back as 2009 White Paper (PDF) as the preferred weapon for our AWDs. We fully expect a purchase of SM-6 at some future time.

It’s true that the SM-2 is cheaper than the SM-6 (roughly US$1.4 vs. $3.9 million), but Defence has an even more cost effective option: upgrade and reuse the SM-2s they’ve already got. In 2005, Australia sought FMS approval for up to 175 SM-2 Block IIIA missiles (US$315 in then-year dollars). We don’t know (and Defence doesn’t disclose) how many missiles were actually acquired. They have shelf-lives, so it’s unclear how many operational weapons remain, but the USN’s still fielding 25 year old SM-2s, so Australia’s much newer missiles should have years of life left.

The AWDs’ vertical launch systems have 48 missile cells each, with a mixed loadout of SM-2s and other missiles. We know that Defence is modifying its stock of SM-2s for AWD use under project SEA 4000 Phase 3.2, at a projected cost of A$110 million (of which roughly A$66 million has already been spent (PDF)) but we have no indication of numbers. If the full approval of 175 SM-2s was acquired after the 2005 approval, and the RAN receives 80 new missiles, they should have more than 250 SM-2s in total—enough to completely fill five to six AWDs, even though they’re only getting three.

So we can make some reasonable inferences, but overall we’re a bit stumped. Extra war stocks are useful in extended hostilities, but having the newest and best capability in the first place is probably a lot more useful. There might be good reasons why Defence has sought approval for less-capable weapons, but that hasn’t been explained. Given the Australian government’s plan to increase Defence spending to 2% of GDP by 2020–21, the recent trend towards less and lower quality public information is disappointing.