The Challenge of Defence Transitions: The Australian Case

By Marcus Hellyer

The ghost of Christmas yet to come scared the bejesus out of old Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol with its vision of Scrooge’s miserable future. The Australian Army’s failed utility helicopter transition is scaring the bejesus out of me because it may well be the ghost of failed capability transitions yet to come.

Let’s be clear, military capability transitions are inherently difficult. The existing capability is ageing and unreliable. That’s why we are moving on from it. But the incoming capability requires new skills, workforce, facilities, supply chains, training systems, and safety procedures that don’t fully exist yet. Setting them up takes people and effort—and generally those can only be drawn from the existing system.

Consequently even if the new capability arrives on schedule, it’s unlikely that the process can be completed without some decline in capability during the transition. But sometimes it’s more like a dramatic drop followed a long recovery period as in the transition from the Oberon-class submarines to the Collins-class.

Defence’s conspiracy of optimism may deny this at times. It tried telling itself and the Government that there wouldn’t be a shortfall in air combat capability during the transition from the F-111 and classic F/A-18 Hornet fleet to the F-35A Joint Strike Fighter. Defence’s plan involved retiring the F-111 and focusing effort on the Hornet. But the numbers simply didn’t add up; there were too few Hornets and too many upgrade activities taking aircraft offline for Defence to have enough aircraft available. I was involved in crunching the numbers and getting advice to Government on this and I didn’t believe the numbers could be made to work despite the desire for this to be possible.

Fortunately the then Minister for Defence Brendan Nelson didn’t believe it either. Consequently Defence ended up with 24 Super Hornets as a ‘interim’ capability to bolster the classic Hornet fleet to get us through the transition. We can argue whether the Super Hornet (or the F-35A for that matter) truly fills the F-111’s long-range strike niche, but overall, Nelson’s decision has paid off.

The current transition from the Armidale-class patrol boats to the Arafura-class offshore patrol vessels is similar. The Government has directed the acquisition of eight Cape-class patrol boats as a buffer to hedge the capability risk realised by the Armidales wearing out before they could be replaced by OPVs.

Defence actually knows that there is generally a dip in capability during transitions, which is why it historically has sought to transition rapidly, both to minimise the shortfall and to avoid the overhead of operating two different classes of platform at the same time. That’s one reason why I’ve always been sceptical of the supposed capability benefits of ‘continuous naval shipbuilding’; to sustain a continuous build process we’d have to deliver ships at such a slow rate that we would always be in transition, from the old to the new and then straight into the replacement for the new. And that constant transition would always bring disruptions and cost.

The transition in Defence’s battlefield helicopter capability from the MRH-90 to a new fleet of Blackhawks was meant to be a transition in this old model—short and sharp. While any activity involving aircraft has risks, this was meant to be a straightforward transition. Defence was moving from a helicopter fleet that was still relatively young, supported by a large international user community of users and existing supply chains to a new fleet that was a mature system, with an existing production line and also supported by a large international community and supply chain.

Nevertheless, the transition has resulted in a situation where we have no capability at all. In the wake of the tragic accident that caused the deaths of four Army aviators, the Australian Government has decided to permanently ground the entire MRH-90 fleet. Rather than a gradual ramp down of MRH-90 operations as Blackhawks ramped up, it’s been an abrupt end. And so far only three Blackhawks have been delivered, which doesn’t constitute a capability. According to the Portfolio Budget Statements there will only be five by the end of 2023-24 financial year—unless Defence can somehow jump the production line queue and get more aircraft sooner.

With such a small number of Blackhawk aircraft in service there are serious questions about whether Defence can achieve any of the following tasks let alone all of them:

  • conduct amphibious operations;
  • move troops by air around the battlefield;
  • maintain the currency of its pilots;
  • conduct special forces operations such as hostage recovery; and
  • provide any assistance in the coming bushfire season which looks like it will be very severe if not catastrophic.

The Australian people might be particularly interested in knowing whether the ADF can perform the last two of those tasks.

Of course, Defence was not planning on the tragic MRH-90 accident. But that’s the nature of the business; risks can be realised. Simply saying that we have other helicopters—like Chinooks, Seahawks and leased commercial helicopters—that can fill the gap is not a risk mitigation strategy, because they can’t. If they could, why were we getting the new Blackhawk fleet in the first place? Of course, one might say there’s no pressing need for a battlefield helicopter capability at the moment so we can live with a gap until the new fleet is in place. But it’s hard to have perfect knowledge of possible future contingencies.

If this was meant to be a relatively straightforward transition, what of future ones that have much greater risks and where we can’t afford to accept a capability gap, let alone no capability at all?

Defence has already embarked on two much more demanding capability transitions. Both are planned to be very long processes. The first is for its surface combatant fleet, where it is moving from the orphan Anzac fleet to a new fleet based on an essentially developmental design. The Anzacs will be well past their life of type even if the Hunters are delivered on their current (already significantly delayed) schedule.

Simultaneously, it is conducting an extremely high-risk transition from the orphan Collins submarine fleet to what is probably the most demanding capability imaginable, nuclear-powered submarines (SSNs). Again, the Collins vessels will have to serve well beyond their life of type, even if the SSNs are delivered on the schedule announced under the ‘optimal pathway’. At their retirement most will likely be older than the Indonesian submarine KRI Nanggala when it was lost with all hands two years ago.

As the transitions drag on through the 2030s, potentially into the 2040s, the challenges of operating two ageing, orphan fleets will only grow.

The risks around these transitions have been articulated by many analysts and commentators. But what mitigations are in place for those risks? In the submarine transition, the Collins-class life of type extension was originally the strategic risk mitigator for declining Collins capability and delays to the new submarines, but the whole saga has taken so long we’ve had to play that card already, so it’s baked into the current plan. Or in project management speak, the risk has been realised and the ‘just in case’ risk mitigation has already had to be used.

Plus the Collins’ life of type extension is facing a whole raft of risks of its own. Similarly, transfer of SSNs from the United States Navy in the 2030s is baked into the current plan so it’s not a risk mitigator either. Moreover, nobody has yet identified how the US Navy will be able to hand over SSNs to the Royal Australian Navy without its own capability being impacted. Availability of ex-US Navy boats is itself a key risk to the transition.

One might argue that having rotations of US Navy and Royal Navy SSNs through HMAS Stirling are mitigators against a decline in Australian submarine capability. Putting aside the argument that this is not a sovereign Australian capability, this again is part of the current plan, not a mitigator against the risks it. There are already serious risks around this part of the ‘optimal pathway’ such as the Royal Navy’s inability to get SSNs to sea, suggesting prolonged deployments to the Indo-Pacific cannot be taken as given.

Nor does there appear to be a risk mitigation strategy in the frigate transition. There are no other programs delivering ADF surface combatant capability. The surface fleet review might identify potential alternative pathways to having actual warships, but we’ve dithered for so long it’s hard to see how they can deliver before the Hunter program—and if they can then it will need to be at much faster rate than  the stately ship delivery drumbeat in the idealised ‘National Continuous Shipbuilding’ strategy.

And with Defence’s investment program already oversubscribed, any pathway involving billions of dollars of shipbuilding would likely require cancelling or significantly deferring the Hunter program, not just cutting later ship numbers. So we’d essentially be replacing one high risk path with another. In sum, any viable risk mitigation approach likely lies in simultaneously pursuing a completely different approach.

The battlefield helicopter transition collapsed with a tragic accident causing the loss of four Army aviators. Recent reports of fire on the Collins-class submarine HMAS Farncomb (after two fires on HMAS Waller) are reminders of the inherent dangers of operating submarines, particularly ageing ones. We may be one tragic accident away from the collapse of either our surface or subsurface combatant capabilities.

But a premature end to the Collins and Anzac classes may well come through more prosaic path. As the fleets age, the Government may decide that the funding, people and industrial capacity needed to keep a progressively declining capability in service could be put to better use in bringing the new fleets into service. That may pre-empt a catastrophic accident (or loss in combat due to being overmatched), but if it occurs before the bulk of the new fleets have arrived the outcome will be a gap in a core ADF capability—just like Army aviation is now experiencing. The current government may be willing to live with a gap in utility helicopter capability, but will the Australian people in a decade’s time be willing to forgive a government for a gap in core Navy capability?

The shock of seeing his future presented by the ghost of Christmas yet to come made Scrooge change his ways. What is the government and the Department of Defence learning from the latest capability failure?

First published by Strategic Analysis on 17 October 2023.

Featured Photo: The MRH-90 Taipan helicopters will be withdrawn from service in December 2024. Photo: Lance Corporal Riley Blennerhasset

Also, see the following:

What has Happened Since the DSR has been Published: The Perspective of Marcus Hellyer