Managing Trade-Offs in Force Structure Development

By Robbin Laird

When a nation is facing a deteriorating threat environment, one key challenge in ramping up defence investments is how to balance enhancing the current fight to night force with new future platforms as part of a future force structure.

This problem is compounded by the changing nature of the threat envelope for the liberal democracies.

They now face a multi-polar authoritarian state and movement threat envelope whereby these states play off of one another and have various kinds of working relationships which fall short of a complete alliance, but together generate a diverse and diffuse threat to the liberal democracies.

And when it comes to information war, they have a huge advantage of access to the social media-dominated world provide by liberal democratic systems compared to the face recognition controlled authoritarian regimes.

But there is another challenge as well facing force structure design.

The most dynamic new systems for innovation are software designed and AI enabled systems which simply do not follow the pattern of developing and procuring legacy platforms. If you don’t use maritime autonomous systems, for example, you cannot re-design them for you do so in direct relationship to their use.

And as your current force becomes a hybrid one with the growing input from autonomous systems, what then is the nature of the future force which one designs based on legacy thinking?

The challenge of the tension between dealing with growing threats now and delaying design responses much later was highlighted in Peter Jennings, Director of Strategic Analysis Australia, presentation to the recent Sir Richard Williams Foundation Seminar held on April 11, 2024.

The main thrust of the presentation was Jennings perceiving a significant gap between the government’s emphasis on the near-term threat and its defence investments. The Australian government is not dealing with ways to enhance ADF capability in the near term but putting their priority investments into a future force.

Jennings noted:

Our worsening strategic outlook is a constant theme in Defence Minister Richard Marle’s speeches.

Here is Mr Marles’ comments at the Sydney Institute on April 4:

“Recorded military spending in the Indo-Pacific region has increased by almost 50 per cent in the past ten years, with China engaging in the biggest conventional military build-up in the world since the Second World War.

“In the year 2000, China had six nuclear-powered submarines. By the end of this decade, they will have 21. In the year 2000, China had 57 major warships. By the end of this decade, they will have 200.

“These investments are shifting the balance of military power in new and uncertain ways. We are in an environment where the risk of miscalculation increases, and the consequences are more severe.

“And as China’s strategic and economic weight grows, it is seeking to shape the world around it.

“For a country like Australia this represents a challenge.”

In these comments Mr Marles is absolutely right.

If you don’t understand that Australia is facing an increasingly threatening strategic environment, one where the risks of war in the mid-2020s is substantially growing, well, either you must be paying no attention to international developments, or you might conceivably be working in DFAT (Defence Foreign Affairs and Trade).

But what has been the practical response according to Jennings?

“The more our governments seem to talk about strategic risk, the less it seems that we are actually able to take practical steps to strengthen the ADF to present a deterrence to conflict.”

In his presentation, he ends by highlighting the impact of investment in the autonomous systems technologies which Australia already has access to and has experimented with. Indeed, one of the great ironies is that Australian industry has contributed significantly to Ukrainian defence efforts in various forms of air and sea autonomous systems, but has not applied this technology to the operational ADF.

Here is what Jennings emphasized: Australia really should engage in a crash program to field an array of drone technology relevant to the maritime domain. There is existing capability available – including Australian proprietary IP which we could bring into service this year or next.

Imagine how motivating for Defence and industry it would be if the Government said there was a billion dollars available for the rapid development of TRL level 9 — System Proven and Ready for Full Commercial Deployment – drones.

The challenge would be to have fielded capabilities in 2025, let’s say before the next federal election.

Impossible I hear you cry? The Ukrainians are doing it every week.

Our enemies – everyone from the PLA through to the other authoritarian powers, organised crime and the people smuggling cartels – these groups show themselves to me more agile and faster technology adopters than we are in Australia.

We need to think fast and laterally about how to respond. By definition that means current policy processes in Defence are not well adapted to this task. Not fit for purpose as the DSR said.

Hopefully this conference will be able to surface some new and creative ideas for Australian maritime strategy and that those ideas will get a fair hearing.

I would note that a clear example of what Jennings is talking about is what is happening in the context of Nordic integration.

And when one looks at recent Norwegian decisions to ramp up its defense budget and to spend it on programs already being built, one gets the idea of what is possible for a focus on enhancing the current force rather than pushing investment into a conceived of future force.

Notably, several years ago the Norwegian Ministry of Defence worked with the German government on building common procurement of a German submarine. The Norwegians are putting forward more money to build out this program, rather than putting that money aside in a future design build.

Jennings highlighted a crucial question: How do you ramp up ADF capabilities now? And I would add, how do you do so in a way that is a building block for your future force?

It is not about putting money in a drain hole: it is about pump priming the process of improving your fight tonight capabilities and building towards a more capable future force.

For Jennings full presentation, see below:

Crisis what crisis -- Williams foundation talk -- Final -- 11 April 2024