In his recent post on Australian policy towards acquisition of nuclear weapons, Rod Lyon responds to a thesis promoted by Christine Leah and Crispin Rovere that Australia should acquire its own independent nuclear deterrent capability. Their argument has generated strong counter-responses, here and here. Certainly a nuclear option for the ADF seems far-fetched given Australia strongly supports non-proliferation norms. However, Rod Lyon’s analysis suggests a ‘dark future’ scenario of the erosion of credibility of US Extended Nuclear Deterrence security guarantees, together with a decline in strategic weight for the US in Asia relative to rising revisionist powers that actively challenge its strategic primacy. The scenario implies a worsening strategic outlook where Australia can’t be certain the circumstances that allow its traditional non-nuclear posture would remain in place; it forces us to consider the unpalatable. What happens if things go wrong in our region? Setting nuclear weapons aside, what defence capability options beyond those currently planned for Force 2035 should Australian defence planners consider in this particular future?
In Lyon’s dark future scenario, Australian defence planners could confront a major rising power like China, who would seek to use coercion at a level below the nuclear threshold as part of a broader strategic competition with the US. However, it seems too farfetched to suggest, as Leah and Rovere do, that China would break nuclear taboos on non-use needlessly when more credible non-nuclear options were available. While China normally would coerce using its strategic weight and ‘grey zone’ activities, if China were emboldened in the face of a decline in US strategic influence, one option would be to exploit its strike warfare capability based around long-range conventionally-armed ballistic and land-attack cruise missiles to threaten Australian interests. Certainly Australia couldn’t depend on a US nuclear response to a Chinese non-nuclear attack that was limited in scope but which had strategic effect, and neither would Leah and Rovere’s proposed Australian nuclear option be a credible response to Chinese non-nuclear coercion. A logical and more usable riposte to Chinese long-range conventional ballistic and cruise missile forces would be to consider acquiring a BMD capability that could initially be deployed on the RAN’s Hobart-class Air Warfare Destroyers, and then extended ashore if needed.
There are however some clear challenges. Chinese development of hypersonic glide vehicles and deployment of longer range (and thus higher speed) DF-26 Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles, suggests that a classic offense versus defence race is underway. Andrew Davies and Rod Lyon have analysed the risks and opportunities of BMD and note that opportunities to counter short, medium and possibly intermediate-range systems are improving They are cautious of investing too soon in a sea-based BMD capability, but suggest continued investment in BMD research and development such that Australia is well placed to adopt them in the future, if needed.
The political cost of launching conventional ballistic missile attacks is low in comparison to stepping over the nuclear threshold, and missile threat developments argue for greater investment into BMD to counter the strategic coercion potential of Chinese strike warfare. Developing an Australian BMD capability that can ‘plug and play’ with similar US systems, as well as Japanese and potentially South Korean BMD systems, strengthens the self-reliance foundation of Australian defence strategy, and contributes towards strengthening vital alliance and strategic partner relationships. It sends a strong message of resolve to a rising China, reinforces deterrence by denial, and offers a degree of insurance against what Davies and Lyon refer to as the ‘cheap shot’ threat of a single missile that could be launched by a regional rogue such as North Korea. In spite of the challenges, a BMD capability for the ADF is worth pursuing sooner rather than later.
In addition to coercive use of ballistic missiles, the challenge posed by Chinese land-attack cruise missile (LACM) capabilities based on submarines, naval surface combatants and long-strike strike aircraft must also be considered. China’s DH-10 LACM has a range greater than 1,500km, and the CJ-20 has a range of 2,200km. Those could easily be directed against Australia’s vital oil and gas infrastructure along the north-west coast. In meeting this potential threat, the ADF will be depending on the F-35 JSF, supported by KC-30A tankers and E-7A Wedgetail AEW&C aircraft. Given the range of LACMs, the F-35’s which has an unrefuelled combat radius of 590 nautical miles (1,092 km)must be refuelled from KC-30A tankers to enable the aircraft to counter a LACM threat as soon as possible. The role of RAAF E-7 Wedgetail AEW&C aircraft would be to fly forward to detect cruise missiles in flight at the earliest possible opportunity, a task for which the Wedgetail is well suited, but which would leave both the Wedgetail and the KC-30A tanker more exposed to long-range air-to-air missile threats. They must therefore be escorted, and the logistical complexity of a counter-LACM operation rises considerably. Alternatively, Carlo Kopp argues for a multi-layered approach that seeks to prevent the launching of cruise missiles in the first place—shooting the archer before he releases his arrow. Such an approach would see joint expeditionary operations to prevent an opponent projecting power against Australia. However terminal defences could also be considered as part of such a solution that would be effective against both ballistic and cruise missile as well as air threats. Recent analysis of ADF land capability notes a significant capability shortfall in modern ground-based air defences. Although the analysis suggests a long-range wide area defence system such as Patriot is beyond realistic budget aspirations, in countering LACMs that assessment may need revision.
The twin challenge of ballistic and land-attack cruise missile threats highlights the importance of Australia ensuring its networked C4ISR systems are resilient in the face of adversary threat, and preferably able to deny a knowledge edge to an adversary. Therefore countering the ballistic and cruise missile threat may demand complementary investment in counter-information warfare capabilities, as well as a counterforce potential against China’s ability to project naval or air power against Australia’s maritime and air approaches. These will be considered in the second part to follow.