Independent Strike and Australian Sovereign Options: The Perspective of Air Marshal (Retired) Geoff Brown

By Robbin Laird

The Williams Foundation has held a series of seminars over the past few years, which have progressively looked at the transformation of the Royal Australian Air Force and to the shaping of cross-modernizing Australian Defence Force.  Referred to overall as building a fifth generation force, the focus has been upon how force integration can be enhanced in the process of Air Force, Army and Navy modernization.

The core point is that an integrated force can provide a more effective impact for what their force can achieve as well as to enhance its deterrent impacts.

But with the growing nature of the challenges in the region, notably from the North of longer range strike and systems able to operate against Australia, what needs to be woven into the force integration process to give the Australian government a wider range of sovereign options?

While the main thrust of Australian investments is upon force integration, the sovereignty focus is very clear but how best to bring a more decisive edge to the force and give it greater reach is not.

Sovereignty is clearly evident in the shipbuilding program where Australia is tapping the United States, Britain and France to shape a way ahead in building the new Australian Navy. With the United States, a key emphasis is commonality with regard to combat systems and a continuing recognition of the key role working with the United States military in the region really is for the operational approaches of the Australian forces themselves.

Both Britain and France present interesting cases of sovereign emphasis by the most significant military powers within Europe.  For the Brits, the shipbuilding relationship is a key part of preparing for the post-Brexit process, which is rooted in the expression of sovereignty.  For the French, de Gaulle invented the French approach to sovereignty in defense within NATO by building the French nuclear deterrent.

It is clear that the working relationship with the United States, Britain and France is a work in progress while Australia crafts its way forward in shaping its 21stcentury defense force and its approach to crisis management.

And in the background of this strategic reconfiguration is the future of Japanese security and defense policy in the region and how Japan will build its forces and invest in defense industry for the next two decades.

It is clear that United States remains the core partner for these states; but reconfiguration of those relationships is clearly under way.

The latest Williams Seminar focused on discussing the idea of building an independent strike capability Australia, one that builds upon or leverages the integrated force building process?

What should Australia do faced with nuclear threats in the region?

What should Australia do with the Chinese building out strike capabilities clearly capable of striking Australian operational forces and evolving capabilities for greater reach into the continent itself?

The seminar was held on August 23, 2018, and a report will follow.  The main thrust of the seminar was to discuss the changing strategic environment and considerations for what Australia might do next.

It was less focused on the types of systems or capabilities Australia might acquire and more focused on cutting through the Australian strategic culture to put independent options onto the table.

After the seminar, I sat down with Air Marshal (Retired) Geoff Brown, Chairman of the Williams Foundation, to discuss the seminar and the way ahead for the ADF.

Question: How do you view the way ahead with regard to the evolution of the ADF to provide a wider range of sovereign options?

Air Marshal (Retired) Brown: The Defence White Paper of 2016 guides the current modernization effort. It provided a coherent framework for force modernization.

But a lot has changed since then and we need to rethink the strategic guidance and the shape some additional force modernization elements.

The future is much more unpredictable. With Trump, we have seen a honest statement of the priority of American interests.  We need to take account of the priority, which America will place, on its interests when we go forward. And to be clear, this is not simply Trump, but the reality of what powers will do in an Alliance as well.

We need a much more sovereign approach to defense.

That’s not saying we should walk away, or not contribute to or benefit from the American alliance. But, we’ve got to be much more prepared to be able to act on our own in certain circumstances.

And by being able to do so, we will be a better Alliance partner as well,

Question: There clearly is the nature of the changing threat to Australia as well, notably in terms of North Korean nuclear weapons and the Chinese pushing their capabilities out into the Pacific and expanding their regional presence as well.

 How do you view this part of the equation of the need for greater sovereignty?

Air Marshal (Retired) Brown: We need to have a greater capability to hold competitors at risk at greater range and distance.

The North Korean case shows that nuclear weapons are not going away any time soon. The Chinese have clearly focused on significant investments in longer range strike.

This means as we do the next defense review, we need to focus on options which can allow us to deal directly wit these challenges and to shape how we do so within the reworking of the relationship with our allies going forward.

We need a major reset building upon the force integration process which we have set in motion.

Do Japan or South Korea go nuclear?

We need to have a realistic discussion of the nuclear impact on our defense policy as well.

What makes sense to do?

And how to do it?

Question: The question of the reach of Australian forces in a conventional sense also raises the question of the relationship between Australian territory, notably NW and Western Australia and the evolution of your defense forces?

 How does the territorial dimension come back into play?

Air Marshal (Retired) Brown: Clearly, we need to look at ways to enhance our force mobility and to build out both active defense and long range conventional strike in our territories closest to the areas of operational interest, both ours and the competitors.

The Australian Army is focusing in part in the evolution of fires both defensive and offensive, but we need a bigger commitment on this side of the force and with longer range, which could operate from our own territory as well as being projected forward outside of Australia.

Question: How does the strategic shift in Australian industry fit into this calculus of enhanced sovereignty?

 Air Marshal (Retired) Brown: It is crucial.

As you noted, the shipbuilding side of industry is clearly about sovereignty and we need to look to expand sovereignty in the strike domain as well.

A key area going forward clearly should be in the missile development, build and sustainment area, where we can clearly build out our own capabilities in relationship with core allies also interested in this process.

And by flying the F-35 with a number of partner nations, there clearly is an opportunity to build out this capability as well.

Question: I assume if you are interested in longer range strike you would be looking to something in the range of a 2,000 mile missile but given the focus on industry and working with allies, wouldn’t a modular build process make the most sense, where you can build various ranges into your missile production based on modularity?

Air Marshal (Retired) Brown: That would make sense.

But I think we need a serious look within our focus on shaping industry that both meets Australia’s needs as well as those of key allies in the missile or strike areas.

We build ammunition and general purpose bombs in Australia but we have never taken that forward into a 21stcentury approach to missiles and related systems. We should rethink this aspect of our approach.

There are plenty examples of success in arms exports; there is no reason we can not do so in the weapons area, for example.