The eye of the Tiger: Is the Australian Army preparing for the right conflict?
5 Nov 2020|

The decision to replace the Australian Army’s 22 Airbus ‘Aussie Tiger’ armed reconnaissance helicopters was first announced in the 2016 defence white paper and then re-announced in this year’s force structure plan. The process to choose a replacement is underway, but it’s clear that retaining the Tigers and using the billions of dollars that would otherwise be spent on a new helicopter to provide complementary unmanned systems doesn’t seem to be on the cards. That’s despite the fact that these aircraft now have greater levels of operational readiness and capability than ever before and despite the rapid development in technologies that will threaten helicopters on the battlefield.

If the army is determined to simply conduct a like-for-like replacement of the Tiger, the logical choices are the Boeing AH-64E Apache and the Bell AH-1Z Viper. But limiting the project in this way would mark a missed opportunity for Defence to take on a major transformation of its land-warfare capability. Such a transformation seems justified by the technological developments already evident now, which will only accelerate over the time it will take take to acquire and introduce a new helicopter.

Defence should make this decision in a way that treats the new helicopter as part of a networked system of capabilities, rather than as a stand-alone platform. A key failing of the Tiger has been its inability to network with other elements of the Australian Defence Force, and the new platform must plug and play seamlessly and securely with existing army and ADF forces from the outset.

The new helicopter is one part of a team of crewed and uncrewed platforms. ‘Manned–unmanned teaming’ on the future battlespace, in which crewed attack helicopters work alongside swarms of armed uncrewed aerial vehicles, and even armed autonomous ground vehicles complementing crewed armoured fighting vehicles, has to be the vision that the army aspires to.

What’s most important is that the decision should reflect a land-warfare vision that includes large-scale use of armed autonomous systems in the air and on land. Adversaries will be taking advantage of the military power of such systems to complement—or even replace—crewed systems, and if our own defence organisation doesn’t, Australia will be at a disadvantage.

Such a system will demand investment in battlespace command and control that is resistant to countermeasures such as electronic warfare, cyberattack and kinetic attack. Such a capability needs to embrace the ‘small, cheap and many’ approach of ‘command clouds’ operating in the air, over land and even from space, using low-cost, small and easily deployable components. Very high altitude, long-endurance UAVs operating in near space can complement locally developed and launched small satellites and constellations of smart cubesats to provide tactical communications and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance support to swarms of lethal autonomous weapons. In such a scenario, an attack helicopter would hang back, managing the swarms via the command cloud, and avoid needlessly putting itself at risk over what will be an intensely contested battlespace.

Factoring in the role of autonomous systems is crucial to thinking about the future of army capability, and the decision to replace the Tiger should be used as an inflection point in how we think about future war.

As I noted in an earlier article, armed drones are becoming more and more prevalent, placing large armoured fighting vehicles in increasing peril. We’ve watched cheap suicide drones strike large, complex and expensive tanks in the battles between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh with relatively impunity. We should fully expect an adversary to use similar capabilities against the ADF. China’s military, for example, has already tested massive swarms of suicide drones that can be launched from the back of a truck. Add in much more capable battlefield rocket artillery, more advanced armoured fighting vehicles, and advanced electronic warfare and cyberattack capability, and 29 helicopters alone aren’t going to provide a clear solution to a much more challenging future battlespace.

With these challenges in mind, the Tiger replacement project must at a minimum provide a follow-on phase that considers lethal autonomous weapons to defend the helicopters themselves, protect forces on the ground and attack an opponent’s forces—including enemy swarms of UAVs. And it would be far preferable to begin such a complementary capability approach now, rather than after any new helicopter is acquired, even if this means buying fewer airframes.

Obviously, operational context matters, and whatever platform Defence chooses will have to be able to operate in Australia’s predominantly maritime environment, particularly as part of operations supporting the US to deter and counter any threat posed by an adversary in the Indo-Pacific. We shouldn’t buy helicopters with a view to using them only in a low-intensity, lightly contested operational environment against an irregular adversary.

Yet, even a low-tech threat can be dangerous. The US lost 19 Apaches and 3 AH-1W Super Cobras to hostile fire in Iraq between 2003 and 2009. With the ADF facing the worsening strategic outlook outlined in the strategic update, the Tiger replacement decision should be looked at as part the army’s preparation for Australian involvement in a high-intensity war in the Indo-Pacific.

The thorny issue of the army’s strategic readiness and mobility must also be addressed, as well as Australia’s ability to sustain high-intensity combat operations potentially far from home. The army has to be able to play a role in such a fight. So, how will it do it? The next attack helicopter isn’t the biggest issue on the table—it’s how new capabilities are used to ensure the ADF can defend Australia’s interests in a very high intensity operational environment during or even before war.

Achieving a mass of combat forces by investing in large swarms of lethal autonomous weapons to operate alongside crewed platforms such as Apaches or Vipers would be a start. Complementing that capability with resilient battlespace command and control is essential. And ensuring the Australian Army is highly mobile and can decisively project force into a contested operational environment should be our goal in thinking about the future of war in our region.