Evolving the ADF: Force Design for the Joint Force in the Direct Defense of Australia

By Robbin Laird

With the reshaping of the ADF as a manoeuvre force operating from the continent and projecting out to Australia’s first island chain and beyond (where desired,  needed or appropriate), how then to build out that force going forward?

What kind of lethality is needed at what range and with what effect?

How to distribute the force effectively and integrate the force to provide the desired lethal effects?

How to build out the force within the limits of what manpower, budgets and society can enable?

Put in other terms, it is not about coming up with a platform shopping list and then going on a shopping spree and simply adding the new stuff to the force.

The ADF can not afford significant disruption to the force as it needs to be able to fight tonight, but does need creative innovation driving forward a more lethal and sustainable force going forward.

In my interview with Commodore Darron Kavanagh who is in charge of the Royal Australian Navy’s maritime autonomous systems, he underscored that his focus was on constructive disruption. As he underscored: “if you actually want to deliver something different, if you want to actually get what I’d call asymmetric war fighting effects, then you must be prepared to experiment.

“Because those concepts of operations are not going to come from replacing what you have. Or indeed, an incremental improvement of what you have.

“You actually have to leverage what the technology will give you. It is because less and less, it’s about a platform. It’s more and more about your intent. So, that’s command-and-control, and the payloads that deliver that intent.”

Commodore Darron Kavanagh underscored that the ADF is evolving and building out an ADF capable of effective distributed operations. And maritime autonomous systems will be a key enabler for such operations.

To do so, the systems need to be operating in the force as part of the overall operational capability for the force. As the ADF gains experience with these systems, these systems will face ongoing development and experimentation, both in terms of the payloads they carry as well as the operating systems on the platforms, as well as seeing platform development to better enable payload performance and targeted relevance to the operating force.

As he put it: “The challenge is being able to field them at the speed of relevance.  That is the difficulty in a bureaucracy such as any military.

“And so, one of the reasons it’s important to spend that time to work out how do we constructively disrupt? We are not building a one-off system. The focus is upon delivering asymmetric warfighting effects again and again.”

During the seminar, several speakers highlighted the importance of relying on robotic systems such as Kavanagh was working with as a key way to ramp up ADF combat capability going forward.

This is necessary for manpower reasons (the operational size limits of the ADF), rapid upgrading reasons (software enabled things can be upgraded much more rapidly), cost factors, and the need to ramp up the effects of mass with a relatively small combat force.

This is certainly a key part of shaping a way ahead in terms of force design.

MAJGEN Anthony Rawlins, Head of Force Design, put the challenge of building out from the force in being to a more lethal and survivable force precisely in terms of looking beyond major platform buys.

He started with a core emphasis on ramping up the capability of the force that has to fight tonight. As he underscored: “fighting tonight means going with what you have, and what you can feasibly obtain and field in the short term. We need to as a first imperative immediately and maximally lethal and survivable against a very different potential adversary in the short-term.”

He then turned to the development of robotic and autonomous systems as a force multiplier in the short and medium turn as well as laying a foundation for a shift in the nature of the mission-payload mix in the combat force.

This is how he posed the transition: “Has the hardening of expensive, exquisite, arguably irreplaceable platforms now reached its logical zenith? This is manifest in the arguments for the cheap or the expendable as a supplement or potentially a replacement for expensive crewed platforms going forward.

“Defence is not just investing in exponential developments in autonomy, artificial intelligence, remote sensing, etc, etc as an R and D line of effort. But defence is doing so with a view to fielding capability in the immediate short term.  And It hardly meets the definition of survivability to be investing in platforms and capabilities that are designed to be expendable.”

In this sense the line between autonomous systems and weapons is a very thin one – the line between a loitering weapon and an autonomous air system when that system is not an expensive UAV but is designed as part of rapid upturn in ISR and C2 capabilities is not very deep.

There is no area where the debate about how to shape force design going forward is more significant to the future of the ADF than the focus on lethality. Although there is a clear commitment to add long range strike weapons like Tomahawk to the force, what role do non-lethal tools play in enhanced lethality against an adversary?

Rawlins put this point very clearly as follows: “What does it mean for a capability to be lethal in a gray zone or a competition environment? Can we describe a capability that is lethal or at least has effects akin to the definition of lethality in the competition or the phase zero environment? Can cyber or other non-kinetic effects be described, and therefore designed going forward through a lithology lens?

“There’s no doubt that traditionally, we would argue and we have argued that they contribute to the efficacy or the impact of other lethal effects.

“But the question now is should we consider them in the same way we have traditionally done with our explosive penetrative weapons sets.  I can assure you that this isn’t just sophistry for a presentation purpose; it’s truly a force design consideration in the contemporary geo-strategic environment. And this is because many now contend that the cyber domain should be treated as another warfighting domain. In fact, this view is gaining increasing traction in other militaries as well as their own.

“Many now contend that it’s no longer just an enabling domain. Lethal and destructive effects of great significance can be delivered through this domain. And it might be the chosen domain, the first domain through which we seek to do so.

“But if we look beyond a mortality definition to lethality, into the harmful destructive realm, we’re into designing non kinetic capabilities to achieve lethal or highly destructive effects. We already use a very similar targeting methodology in this domain as well as our traditional domains….

“And it’s argued by many that greater deterrence at a lesser cost is achieved through investment in these types of capabilities.”

If we continue with the discussion of weapons and lethality, how to best design a way ahead from a force design perspective with regard to kinetic weapons? Long range strike weapons are costly and are imported from the United States even with a ramping up in the short to midterm of Australian capabilities to participate in a broader arsenal of democracy with allies.

What mix of weapons can be built going forward?

What targeting options does Australia need?

If there is no desire or need to strike Chinese territory directly (as China is a nuclear power), how best to strike Chinese forces to get the kind of crisis management and combat effect desired?

Can Australia build a more cost-effective mix of weapons than the United States currently possesses?

How to develop partnerships with other allies to do so?

How to manage the inevitable conflicts among allies when priorities are dictated by national survival rather than working together an exercise regime?

The weapons cost and availability issue was put to me very clearly during a visit to NAWDC in 2020 where I met with Captain Edward Hill, the oldest Captain in the U.S. Navy but who was also the most respected officer on weapons technologies as well.

We discussed how the fleet will be empowered by new ways to build out weapons arsenals and provide for adequate stockpiles for the force. Because he goes back to the Cold War operating Navy, he can bring forward that experience to the return to the contested environment challenges facing the weapons enterprise.

Clearly, building adequate stockpiles of weapons is crucial. But also important is working a new weapons mix to ensure that one is not forced by necessity to rely on the most expensive weapons, and the ones that will almost always have a stockpiling issue, but to have a much more cost-effective weapons set of options. As Captain Hill put it: “We need to get beyond golden bee-bee solution. We need to have a weapons barge come with the battle group that has an affordable weapons mix. We need $50,000 weapons; not just million-dollar weapons.

“We should have weapons to overwhelm an adversary with Joe’s garage weapons and not having to use the golden bee-bees as the only option.”

“To get to this point raises a second aspect, namely, working out where one engages an adversary and what weapons mix one might need in that engagement area. With regard to the Pacific, as we address sea denial and sea control reaching out into the Sea Lines of Communications or SLOCs, what weapons mix do we need in which particular engagement zone? It is not going to be all about hypersonic weapons.”

At the seminar, the most comprehensive discussion of the challenges facing Australia in shaping a way ahead for the weapons enterprise was provided by Dr. Andrew Dowse, Director, RAND Australia.

This is what he argued: “weapon demands might be assessed in terms of conflict intensity and conflict duration. In any substantial conflict, it’s likely that our stocks of exquisite weapons would be quickly consumed.

“Even if supply routes remain open, we should not be too confident of resupply for two reasons.

“First, high intensity conflict will also most likely involve our U.S. allies the source of most of our weapons. This raises the prospect of divergent allied priorities.

“Second, weapons manufacturing over the years has been rationalized to peacetime efficiencies, with limitations on the global ability to surge production. So typically, the high end weapons that we need to fight need to be held in inventory.”

He then went on to argue that targeting tradeoffs on high end weapons underscored the need to shape a broader weapons arsenal. “In any conflict, there will be tension in targeting processes between the use of such weapons early in conflict, and ensuring some capabilities are held in reserve. It will be important that the replenishment of weapons during protracted conflict keeps pace with demand.

“Thus, it may be reasonable to prioritize domestic production of explosive ordnance and low end weapons that can be supplied in operationally relevant timelines. In developing priorities for inventory and domestic production, which might be somewhat aligned to demands of initial and protracted conflict, respectively, we should consider the value of affordable mass weapons, especially if they might be replenished at a rate that matches demand.

“This quality through quantity approach is increasingly being facilitated through technological development, which provides greater precision for less cost. It is a concept that can be applied to employment of multiple weapons against high value targets, including use of asymmetry to simultaneously use dissimilar weapons.

“It is also a concept that is relevant to our platforms with dispersion and integration of force elements, enhancing collective lethality and survivability, at the same time, reducing the impact of the attrition of our own force.

“Hence, it may be opportune for the ADF to pursue smaller platforms and greater use of network uncrewed systems. And such a concept of reducing the concentration of our force is one that can be extended to passive defense as a significant risk for Australia is that of a pre-emptive attack.

“Thus, measures of hardening redundancy, dispersion and disaggregation are critical to ensure that we don’t suffer attrition at the beginning of conflict. And this is not only about the physical domains, but also about protecting systems in the cyber domain.”

In short, force design considerations build out from the reworking of how best to deploy, operate and sustain the current force and in so doing identify critical gaps that can be filled in the short to mid-term.

Enhancing lethality through working an integrated lethal and non-lethal offensive strike force is a high priority.

Leveraging automated systems for appropriate mission sets is a key part of enhancing both mass and reducing the challenge of survivability; when designed to be attributable, survivability is not the dominant consideration for that part of the force.

Featured Photo: MAJGEN Anthony Rawlins, Head of Force Design

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