When Prime Minister Scott Morrison compared Australia’s strategic situation to that in 1939, he was right in two respects. We have again put too much trust in a ‘great and powerful friend’ to secure our independence and have both underinvested in the military capabilities required for self-reliance and chosen them badly. As in 1939, the Australian Defence Force finds itself woefully unprepared for a high-intensity conflict.
It’s not that governments haven’t recognised the threat. Australia’s defence budget has increased to over 2% of GDP. But will the multibillion-dollar submarine, frigate, air combat capability and tank programs deliver the assets we need, and in time?
Emphatically, they will not.
Planning for the last war rather than the next, Australia’s Defence Department has not procured weapons that are fit for purpose and that can be acquired speedily, efficiently and cost-effectively.
The 2020 defence strategic update identifies the growing threat from China and argues a significant change of approach towards a defence of Australia strategy and away from far-flung coalition operations in the Middle East:
The Government has decided that defence planning will focus on Australia’s immediate region: ranging from the north-eastern Indian Ocean, through maritime and mainland South East Asia to Papua New Guinea and the South West Pacific …
Consideration of making wider military contributions should not be an equally-important determinant for force structure compared to ensuring we have credible capability to respond to any challenge in our immediate region.
There is, however, no evidence that a military strategy has been developed to address the evolving threat. And if there is such a strategy, there’s no evidence that it’s affecting the force structure, which, except on the margins, is basically unchanged since the 2009, 2013 and 2016 defence white papers, with very familiar slow delivery timeframes that don’t address the urgency described by the update.
While Defence produced an accomplished strategic update, its ongoing reliance on the status quo in force structure reflects a lack of forward thinking.
The concept of a balanced force has long been almost an article of faith within Defence. Paul Dibb was unable to shake this policy in his 1985 defence review. In his letter of transmittal to Defence Minister Kim Beazley, Dibb wrote:
One of the problems encountered by the Review was arriving at satisfactory estimates of the size of force elements we need to meet our particular strategic circumstances … The Review could obtain no material centrally endorsed by the higher Defence structure which explained, for example, the strategic rationale for a 12-destroyer Navy, three fighter squadrons, six Regular Army battalions and an Army Reserve target of 30,000.
It’s striking that 35 years later, with Australia’s population 60% greater and GDP nearly three times higher in real terms, the changes to this structure have been marginal. The balanced force notion leads to the replacement of like with like, with no apparent regard for changing strategic circumstances, no concept of opportunity cost and little consideration of whether advances in military technologies could provide different and more effective solutions.
John Maynard Keynes reputedly said: ‘When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?’ Similarly, Albert Palazzo argues in his recent paper for the Australian Army Research Centre, Planning to not lose a war, that Australia must dramatically change how it prepares for and thinks about war if it’s to remain a sovereign nation. The situation has changed, but Defence has not changed its attachment to a balanced force or developed a cogent military strategy.
The logic of the strategic update is that the ADF needs its own capability to pursue an anti-access, area-denial (A2/AD) strategy in Australia’s northern approaches. This would require a substantial investment in a modernised ADF with a different balance among the three services and a greater emphasis on maritime attack and airstrike capabilities.
The ADF also needs a credible offensive force-projection capability to deter an adversary from attacking Australia.
Costing $90 billion, the diesel–electric Attack-class submarines are intended for force projection ‘up threat’, working closely with the US nuclear-powered submarine force within the extensive American anti-submarine warfare (ASW) surveillance infrastructure.
Their effectiveness is constrained by their slower speed and their need to snort. Much of the boats’ time will be spent in transit, severely reducing their ability to maximise force on station. The People’s Liberation Army’s rapidly developing ASW capability means that snorting will increasingly expose them to detection, and their low sustainable speed will make them vulnerable if attacked.
The Attack class would also be compromised in a defence-of-Australia role. The boats are too big, too slow and too few. Nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs) would be more effective. Undertaking high-end operations in our exclusive economic zone against submarines and surface ships, SSNs could carry out opportunistic missions ‘up threat’, even if coalition forces had left and taken their infrastructure with them. A squadron of SSNs would be a very potent deterrent.
The Hunter-class frigate program, at an indefensible cost of $45 billion, is a questionable investment. Since the Battle of the Atlantic, the balance of power between the submarine and the surface warship has changed significantly in favour of the submarine.
ASW will play a significant role at a few critically important locations close to Australia. With the submarine having a tactical advantage, and major advances in anti-ship missile technology, the few big Hunter-class warships will be poorly matched to threat. Defence priorities should address multi-layered ASW capability, including satellites, sub-sea arrays, sea mines, land-based aircraft and submarines.
To be fair, the submarine and frigate programs were conceived well before the strategic update.
But there’s no excuse for the massive (approximately $42 billion) investment in armoured fighting vehicles for the army. And, unless Defence expects an unlikely invasion of the Australian continent, the acquisition of 75 Abrams tanks defies a rationale. They are too heavy for most bridges in northern Australia, let alone in the Indo-Pacific. It’s hard to comprehend how main battle tanks could be deployed in almost any regional theatre, even if there were a strategic case for doing so.
Today, the air force should arguably play the leading role in the defence of Australia. Its P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft, along with the navy’s Seahawk helicopters, are among the most important defence assets.
The Australian-designed ‘loyal wingman’ drone appears to have potential, but the F-35 joint strike fighter is inadequate in this region in terms of its range and payload. It can neither achieve dominance as an air-superiority fighter nor perform adequately in terms of long-range strike. The new American B-21 bomber would provide a more credible deterrent in terms of long-range force projection and offer a powerful strike capability within Australia’s EEZ, just as the F-111 did.
In her speech to ASPI in July 2020, the then defence minister, Linda Reynolds, said: ‘The future is now.’ Across the Indo-Pacific, countries were modernising their militaries and increasing their preparedness for conflict. Regional nations now had next-generation submarines, combat aircraft and highly effective land forces. New weapons and technologies, including hypersonic glide and long-range missiles, autonomous systems, space capabilities, artificial intelligence and cyber capabilities, had increased range, speed, precision and lethality.
The ADF must adapt to these rapidly changing circumstances and be prepared for high-tech conflict. The strategic update is a welcome refocusing of the ADF on our immediate region, but it lacks a military strategy and doesn’t shift the focus of our force structure away from coalition operations to the defence of Australia.
So far, the Defence organisation hasn’t shown the urgency or capacity to address these issues.
The government should urgently commission a comprehensive review of the ADF’s force structure. The review team should include experienced military personnel, but the process should not be led by the Defence Department.
Hans J. Ohff is a former CEO of ASC, which built the Collins-class submarines. Jon Stanford is principal of the think tank Submarines for Australia, and was formerly a senior official in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.
This article was published by ASPI on July 7, 2021.