The ADF’s land-based anti-ship missile ambitions: wishful thinking?

Image courtesy of Department of Defence

The ADF has evidently looked at the recent development of land-based anti-ship missile (LBASM) capabilities in East Asia and decided it wants in (see paragraph 4.46 in the 2016 Defence White Paper). The Integrated Investment Plan (PDF) puts the price tag on that new capability—which includes both a maritime and land-based capability—at between AU$4–5 billion over an unspecified time period (although the accompanying chart on p. 77 suggests a 17 year timeline).  

I’ve previously covered the ADF’s need for maritime anti-ship missiles on The Strategist, and it’s worth examining the land-based portion of that proposed capability in more detail. The argument for acquiring land-based missiles is rooted in the concept of joint amphibious operations (see here and here). Amphibious operations can be thought of as a dual-axis spectrum of ‘amphibiosity’ with small-scale, low-intensity operations in one quadrant and complex high-intensity operations in the opposite one. Small-scale, low intensity operations (such as humanitarian assistance/disaster relief missions) are less complex logistically and involve little to no opposition, whereas high-intensity operations (such as opposed landings in enemy territory) are more complex and face a much higher degree of opposition.

LBASMs aren’t very useful in low-intensity operations. However, in higher intensity amphibious operations, these missiles have more potential operational utility. That’s because they’re particularly useful for ‘sea denial,’ as deterring and destroying enemy ships is their only role. Sea denial is applicable when trying to hold a beachhead against determined naval opposition following an amphibious landing. Giving deployed land forces the ability to attack enemy ships boosts sea denial capability.

Thus the utility of acquiring LBASMs boils down to what the ADF wants to do (and what it can do) with its amphibious forces. The ADF has stated its amphibious forces must be able to operate across the entire spectrum of operations. The problem with that is that the ADF, as it’s currently structured, lacks the ability to conduct independent high-intensity operations. Protecting the two Canberra-class LHDs in hostile territory would require a significant portion (PDF, p. 28) of the ADF’s air and naval power, which leaves other areas vulnerable. Furthermore, does Australia face a problem that’s solved by landing and sustaining 2,000 troops, accompanied by the majority of Australia’s maritime capability, on a beach in enemy territory—all without the help of the US? Since that’s the exact situation in which LBASMs would be most beneficial to the ADF, I have to wonder about their actual operational utility.

If the ADF were to conduct high-intensity amphibious operations, it’d almost certainly only be in conjunction with the US or as a part of a coalition. Even then the rationale for acquiring LBASMs is weak. Operating as a part of a coalition increases the likelihood that other ‘sea denial’ capabilities like strike aircraft, submarines and surface ships would provide the same capabilities as a LBASM—and do so over a larger area, further complicating an adversary’s planning. And LBASMs fire at targets over the horizon, which requires near real-time targeting data to maximise the chances of scoring a hit. That data needs to be gathered somehow, be it via submarines, aircraft or surface ships. Since many of those platforms are capable of striking surface targets, why not use them to attack the target instead?

Where LBASMs do have a key advantage is in their persistence. Ships and aircraft can’t always be on station for both logistical (fuel or ammunition) and operational (enemy action) reasons. LBASMs are less affected by those constraints, as their mobility makes them easy to resupply but difficult to reliably destroy. This allows them to provide a persistent sea denial capability by being deployed for long periods of time, and in threat environments where other platforms would have difficulty operating persistently.

The other curious part of the ADF’s rationale for acquiring LBASMs relates to their supposed ability to protect ‘vital offshore assets such as oil and natural gas platforms’. Depending on how far offshore those assets are, they may be outside the targeting area of onshore LBASMs. Therefore, the protection of those assets would require the LBASMs be stationed on the offshore platform itself, which comes with many problems (e.g. is stationing missiles on a highly flammable oil platform really a good idea? Should the ADF be responsible for protecting commercial property?). Furthermore, from whom is the ADF protecting those platforms? Pirates and terrorists are likely threats, but is a multi-million dollar missile a smarter response than a Super Hornet? Even in a high-intensity conflict, offshore platforms mightn’t be the weakest point in the energy supply chain, so should their protection have a significant impact on ADF force structure?

The logic behind acquiring LBASMs appears to have fallen victim to some wishful thinking about future amphibious operations and some dubious logic about other potential applications. Given their sizable cost, the Australian government should offer a more cogently argued case for them.