The ADF’s new toys? (part 1)
18 Feb 2015|

I’ve often argued that the best predictor of the ADF’s future force structure is the current one. In other words, it’s much more likely that today’s platforms and capabilities will be replaced by something that looks pretty much the same, but with a technological refresh, than by something novel. So it is that six Oberon class submarines become six Collins class, three Perth class DDGs become three Hobart class DDGs and so on. The only qualitative change to the naval force structure in recent memory was the demise of the aircraft-carrier capability in the 1980s.

In the air and on land it’s a similar story, although rising unit costs have seen the numbers dwindle over time. Army’s 150 Centurion tanks were replaced by 101 Leopards and those in turn by 59 Abrams. Each generation was substantially more capable than the previous, but its role was the same. Similarly for fast jets; 167 Sabres and Canberras are now a hundred Hornets and Super Hornets.

But occasionally there’s a move to a genuinely new platform as technology and, dare I say it, military fashion dictates. As the government’s thinking about the use of the ADF evolves, or fiscal circumstances allow, new force structure options might appear. Here’s a quick market survey of some of the current possibilities. (We’ll look a bit further out in part 2.)

V-22 Osprey

In terms of performance, the tilt-rotor Osprey (see the photo above for Lego’s interpretation) sits somewhere between the Chinook heavy lift helicopter the ADF already has and the C-27J battlefield airlifter currently in the process of delivery. As well as matching the vertical takeoff and landing capability of the Chinook, which allows it into rough and short strips, the Osprey is faster and has a greater range, but with a smaller load of either troops or stores. The C-27J is faster still, and has better range than either, but requires a runway. Whether there’s space in the force structure for another roughly equivalent aircraft is debateable, and the Osprey is also expensive at almost twice the price of a Chinook.


Perhaps the demise of the Australian aircraft carrier capability has been greatly exaggerated? There’s certainly been a lot written on The Strategist and elsewhere about the possibility of putting jump jets onto the new amphibious ships. The calculus here is whether the capability gained is worth the combination of direct costs—and as a matter of principle I always worry when I’m told ‘it won’t cost much’—and opportunity costs in terms of alternative uses of the ships. Of course we could always buy more LHDs, but that ratchets the overall cost higher still, especially when through-life costs of manning the expanded fleet are factored in.

Armed drones

As I wrote last week, there’s a place in the ADF’s force structure for armed drones. In the right environment of lightly-armed but persistent opposition—the sort we’ve seen a lot of in the past fifteen years—they represent a cost-effective way of providing an enduring strike and fire-support capability. I’d be surprised if we don’t end up seeing this addition to the force structure sometime in the near future.

Nuclear submarines

In terms of public input to the white paper and almost any discussion of Australia’s future submarine, nuclear-powered submarines must be pretty near the top of the wish list, and the case has been put on The Strategist as well. There are lots of reasons to think that this won’t happen, not least of which being the likely eye-watering cost and the political difficulty of selling the idea to the wider population. It’d probably be doable if the will was there, but it would require even greater cooperation with the United States than already exists on other weapon systems. In the end the best reason not to go down that path is summed up by Mark Thomson:

A move to operate US-built nuclear submarines would entail a fundamental shift in Australian strategic policy—from a policy focused on continental defence, to one directly supporting and encouraging a strong US role in the region. The result would be a qualitatively different sort of alliance between Australia and the US with significant repercussions across the region.

Cyber weapons

Much of the talk about matters cyber is focussed on cybersecurity—protecting our own systems against the malicious activities of others. But there’s a flipside that’s rarely discussed—the development of cyber tools designed to disable or degrade systems operated by an adversary. There’s already evidence of the use of such weapons; the Stuxnet virus that damaged Iranian nuclear facilities is well documented, and maybe North Korea’s recent internet woes following their suspected hack of Sony Pictures wasn’t entirely coincidental? Don’t expect any decision for Australia to go down this path to be shouted from the rooftops, but given the centrality of computer systems to modern military capability, it’s a natural evolution in the cyber world.

Andrew Davies is senior analyst for defence capability and director of research at ASPI. Image courtesy of the author.