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Australian Army’s long-range strike capability could be firing blind

Posted By on November 30, 2022 @ 14:30

The Australian government has committed to spending $5 billion on procuring a land-based long-range strike capability, which will almost certainly be the US-produced High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, better known as HIMARS. This investment, under the Defence Department’s Land 8113 project, includes $70 million in spending on the US’s Precision Strike Missile program to develop land-based strike munitions with a range of 499 to 5,000 kilometres.

This significant investment will deliver an essential element for the Australian Army to develop a robust and persistent anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capability. But acquiring the missile-delivery system without a dedicated surveillance and target acquisition, or STA, capability means that Australia’s long-range fires will have no eyes.

Without accurate targeting data, the capability will be unable to provide accurate kinetic effects at the time and place required. However, as discussed below, there are a few options to remediate this deficiency and generate a decisive land-based strike capability for the Australian Defence Force.

Land 8113 will procure the long-range fires missile launcher with appropriate command and control, logistics and an organic counter-fires radar capability. These radars can detect and provide highly accurate target data on adversary surface-to-surface fires to enable them to be quickly and accurately struck. In this, the army will have a very effective and efficient counter-fires capability.

However, this will only support close combat of 30–100 kilometres and is inherently reactionary: the enemy must fire artillery shells or missiles for the radar to provide target data. Long-range fires need sensors in their engagement range to proactively target non-firing or passive enemy positions.

Long-range fires will be employed mainly in support of the joint force at the operational level. One of the primary intended STA capabilities for the joint force, the MQ-9B SkyGuardian, was planned under project Air 7003, which has now been cancelled in part to fund the $10 billion REDSPICE cyber program. The SkyGuardian was to provide an ‘armed, medium-altitude, long-endurance, remotely piloted aircraft system providing persistent airborne Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance, Electronic Warfare, and precision strike capability for both land and maritime environments’. It could be argued that the capability offered under Air 7003 was essential to the ADF’s aspirational A2/AD capability and that a major gap now exists.

Now that Air 7003 has been cancelled, the STA capability for the joint force falls to ‘other joint and strategic sensors’. This ambiguous term refers to using two sets of capabilities. The first consists of the air force’s P-8 Poseidon and the yet-to-be-delivered MC-55A Peregrine and MQ-4 Triton platforms—all of which have arguably already been assigned necessary air and maritime domain tasks. Regarding the second, the loose argument is that strategic collection assets would support joint force targeting.

However, the reality is likely to be that none of these systems or capabilities would be assigned to directly support long-range fires, and any targeting support would be incidental or opportunistic at best across undefined and fragile communications systems. This tenuous ‘solution’ is not conducive to Defence having a responsive, agile and robust long-range fires capability to support the joint force.

The army has its own STA capability, based on the 20th Regiment, Royal Australian Artillery, which operates the RQ-7B Shadow tactical uncrewed aerial system, or TUAS. From 2023 to 2026, Phase 3 of the Land 129 project will replace the Shadow with the Boeing Integrator, with an expansion from two subunits to three and an increase of two TUAS to six. (A TUAS consists of sufficient air vehicles, ground control stations, launch and recovery and ground support equipment to enable 24-hour persistent operations.)

Despite the three-fold increase in capability and the possibility of an extended-range version of the Integrator, this platform is not being positioned to support long-range fires despite its suitability. The dislocation of a suitable STA capability can be primarily attributed to 20th Regiment’s impending move to the Army Aviation Command. While the move will facilitate the regiment’s stated role of providing intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) support to combat brigades inside Forces Command, it will not allow it to build the relationships, practices and integration pathways needed to support long-range fires.

The expanding role of TUAS will exacerbate this problem, because the systems are also set to support armed reconnaissance helicopters under Land 4503 and provide ISR to joint taskforces, the Amphibious Task Group and Special Operations Command. This breadth and a lack of prioritisation of ‘customers’ for the army’s TUAS means it is also unlikely to be a reliable direct STA capability for long-range fires.

So, what are the possible solutions for filling this STA capability gap? Defence could accept the risk and seek to coalesce an STA capability with the various peripheral capabilities mentioned here. However, that approach would be problematic, fragile and likely not tenable in combat. Another option would be for Defence to reinvest some of the Land 8113 funds into an STA capability, possibly expanding Phase 3 of the Land 129 acquisition while it’s still in production, combining counter-fires and TUAS STA capabilities within the fires brigade being established in 2023. That is possible, but would require funding of $250–350 million, noting that the total cost for Land 129 Phase 3 is $650 million. A third option would be to re-establish Air 7003 and fill the capability gap its cancellation created at a cost of $1.3 billion.

The army needs a specified STA capability that can provide direct target acquisition as part of a joint, operational system for the long-range fires units. Without such a capability, the government’s $5 billion investment is unlikely to provide the long-range strike and A2/AD capability deemed critical in Australia’s increasingly uncertain and complex geostrategic environment.

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[1] High Mobility Artillery Rocket System: https://www.australiandefence.com.au/defence/land/army-selects-himars

[2] Precision Strike Missile: https://www.australiandefence.com.au/defence/land/some-context-around-the-recent-precision-strike-missile-announcement

[3] anti-access/area denial: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/australia-needs-a-radical-expansion-of-its-land-based-strike-capabilities/

[4] surveillance and target acquisition: https://cove.army.gov.au/article/what-artillery-surveillance-and-target-acquisition

[5] cancelled: https://adbr.com.au/raaf-air-7003-skyguardian-uas-cancelled/

[6] REDSPICE: https://www.lowyinstitute.org/the-interpreter/australian-cyber-what-s-redspice

[7] Phase 3 of the Land 129: https://www.defenceconnect.com.au/land-amphibious/9658-insitu-pacific-secures-major-land-129-phase-3-order

[8] Land 4503: https://www.defenceconnect.com.au/major-programs/land-4503-armed-reconnaissance-helicopter#:~:text=The%20government%20has%20brought%20the,of%20the%20Australian%20Defence%20Force.