The return of combat losses?
18 Sep 2018|

When governments send their militaries into conflicts, the forces usually suffer combat losses—deaths of people and destruction of machines.

Between East Timor in 1999 and now, though, there have been (only) 60 deaths as a result of service with Australian units across all deployments. When the tragedy of an Australian death on deployment happens, Australia has been able to hold funerals with the governor-general, the prime minister and/or the leader of the opposition in attendance, if the family wanted it. That’s possible when combat deaths are limited.

But is that what we should expect in future conflict? World Wars I and II involved thousands of combat deaths. The 521 Australian deaths in Vietnam are an order of magnitude greater than anything we’ve seen in the past two decades.

The ADF is a small, highly professional military of some 60,000 people, supported by a capable department and local industry, with mainline technological and logistical assistance from our US ally and its industries. The government is investing some $200 billion over the next 10 years to equip it with new systems and platforms.

That should, and does, make a lot of national security types feel rather good. There are two problems, though. First, the environment such systems will operate in is changing, and second, the ADF has very few of these sophisticated military systems.

A strategic fact that Australia has relied on in designing and structuring its military forces has changed over the past decade in a way that removes any sense of smug comfort we may have had.

Since Vietnam, Australia has been able to plan a small ADF with a small number of high-technology ships, planes, ground systems and submarines because we have had a clear technological edge over potential adversaries. That has given governments confidence that ADF forces would prevail—and suffer minimal casualties.

Unfortunately for strategic planners, defence chiefs, members of the ADF and even the Australian taxpayer, that technological edge has dissipated. China is now a source of high-tech defence systems, and civil systems with disruptive military applications, and, more importantly, a source of potential technological surprise on the battlefield. Moreover, Chinese military technology is available to regional customers.

A government deploying the Australian military into a conflict in the Indo-Pacific in the 2020s would send the ADF into combat against adversaries likely to have similar advanced capabilities, perhaps in greater numbers. This is a consequence of military modernisation across the region as economies and defence budgets grow.

Regional militaries operating near-peer capabilities would inflict combat losses on the ADF: ships, planes, armoured vehicles and even submarines—with their crews.

And if Australia were to send its military into a coalition conflict with an adversary like China, then despite being in the company of the hugely capable US military, the ADF would face the prospect of technological surprise during the conflict. That term ‘technological surprise’ hides a nasty truth: on the battlefield, it means combat losses and deaths.

Ships, aircraft and vehicles that are lost in combat with their ADF operators are almost impossible to replace in a timely way given their complex nature.

The lead time for getting a new ship is at least five years. For an F-35, it’s a matter of joining a global queue.

But even if a new platform was available, the bigger limiting factor to sustaining combat of this type is that replacing skilled military personnel takes years, and, in some cases, over a decade.

That means we might be deploying a force that’s unable to sustain itself against losses long enough to prevail. That’s a fancy way of saying it would probably lose.

So, in the near future, into the 2030s as future frigates join the fleet, and even later as the first new submarines turn up, Australian governments deploying the ADF will face very different risk balances than John Howard, Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard, Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull had to consider.

To cope with this future, the ADF’s force design has to change. Investment needs to shift towards complementary capabilities that protect the small number of advanced ships, aircraft and ground vehicles from loss and operate in ways that provide stand-off capabilities for these forces.

And that needs to happen not by tapping the small bucket of innovation funds or next-generation technology funding, but by using a proportion of each of the multibillion-dollar budgets for the megaprojects in the integrated investment program.

Defence needs to stop focusing just on the low-number, high-capability approach it has used for decades and embrace instead a force design that includes mass capabilities able to be deployed, lost and replaced in numbers.

Such complementary capabilities probably need to include large numbers of ‘consumables’ like precision-guided munitions and missiles with ranges at least equal to the ranges of adversary systems, as well as large numbers of low-cost systems—like smart sea mines, dispersed sensors, small satellites and cheap armed and unarmed drones. Machine learning applied to low-cost unmanned systems is likely to make them more lethal and effective.

The value-for-money equation appears to be swinging against exquisitely advanced but eye-wateringly expensive manned platforms. We are paying around $20 million each for the Boxer combat reconnaissance vehicles. In a few years, an artillery tube- or rocket-launched smart, expendable hunter–killer drone that can loiter, identify CRVs and destroy them might cost around, say, $100,000. The calculus is similar with frigates and anti-ship missiles or smart mines.

Luckily, Australian industry is more likely to be able to produce those systems than complete ships, submarines and aircraft. And giving Australian industry this focus will limit the constraints on resupply and mass manufacture during times of conflict that we face now with precision weapons and all the big platforms.

The current and planned ADF is a highly professional and well-equipped force—but our near-term and future strategic and military circumstances mean it’s at high risk of sustaining large combat losses without a radical shift in how the force is designed and structured.

May future combat losses not be the way that Australian governments and the Australian public confront this nasty strategic fact.