In this second article we discuss the need to develop a defence strategy that involves shifting from a force structure designed for coalition warfare to one optimised for the independent defence of Australia. We focus on the requirement for new submarines, given that these are the assets best suited for the prosecution of asymmetric warfare against a stronger power.
If we accept the possibility that Australia could no longer rely on America for military support, what would this mean for the government’s defence strategy?
First, soft power is a critical factor underlying any nation’s defence strategy and diplomatic avenues to enhancing our national security are very important. In our strategic situation, given Australia’s historical dependence on great and powerful friends, it may well be that our first instinct would be to seek another one. Australia’s recent interest in the Quadrilateral group consisting of the US, Japan, India and Australia provides some support for this idea. Yet while superficially appealing, the prospect of forming a military alliance with other regional powers is not necessarily attractive. Australia does not have the same congruence of interests with potential allies such as Japan, Korea, India or Indonesia as we do with the United States. A new military alliance could see Australia drawn into a terrible war for reasons that may not advance our national interest.
Indonesia has a population ten times that of Australia and sits astride the choke points to Australia’s north, through which an attack on Australia would likely come. Australia’s diplomatic engagement with Indonesia is of the highest importance and in recent years we have not managed it very well. Our focus on ‘stopping the boats’ and the execution of Australian drug smugglers has been allowed to obscure a bigger and more important picture. Australia also needs to lift its game in the Pacific. Were China ever to launch a naval and airborne assault on Australia it would need at least one forward base. Australia’s diplomatic effort in the region, and its parsimonious foreign aid policies, should be framed with that threat front of mind.
Soft power is not enough, however, and in the future we will also need to carry a bigger stick. By no means does this mean the end of ANZUS but we need to become smarter in using the treaty to our best advantage. Even if we cannot always rely on American military support, the alliance can continue to provide other critical benefits. These include sharing high-grade intelligence, which, in a doomsday scenario, could also prove vital in the event of an attack on Australia. In addition, as Kim Beazley recently emphasised, Australia benefits very substantially from access to American military technology. The value of this to Australia increases as the costs and complexity of these technologies escalate and move further into the cyber domain.
Australia is a big, remote country and, as Japan realised in 1942, it is difficult to invade. In a modern conflict, however, if territorial conquest were not the goal, invasion may not be necessary to deliver an adversary’s objective. Instead, it would be sufficient to degrade Australia’s naval and air force assets so to be able to disrupt our trade and attack our cities with conventional bombs and missiles until the government would be forced to come to terms.
Clearly an independent defence strategy would seek to prevent such a catastrophe. Given that Australia has a small field army and a very large landmass, it would be extremely difficult to defeat an invasion once a great power had gained a foothold. Instead, the strategy would aim to defeat in detail an airborne and naval attack in the air sea gap and the maritime approaches to Australia.
Another drawback of relying too heavily on great and powerful friends has meant that Australia’s choice of defence assets has generally been based on an assumption of fighting in a coalition. While this may involve the procurement of advanced capability, the assets acquired may be too focussed on achieving interoperability with allies and not best suited for the independent defence of Australia. As well as advanced missiles, the major assets required to defeat a major power attacking Australia would be state-of-the-art aircraft and submarines.
With one important exception, Australia is procuring some excellent aircraft that would be of considerable value in the defence of Australia. These include the Wedgetail early warning and reconnaissance aircraft, airborne tankers and particularly the P-8 Poseidon long range maritime patrol and strike aircraft, a military off-the-shelf (MOTS) acquisition with an advanced anti-submarine capability. In the future, we would need these aircraft, particularly the P-8, in significantly greater numbers.
The exception, however, is the most important aircraft, namely the F-35 joint strike fighter. Without going into its problems, suffice it to say that even if it were ever to meet its designed performance parameters, with one aircrew, one engine, a small payload and a relatively short range, the F-35 is fundamentally ill-suited to Australia’s need for an aircraft, like the F-111, that could undertake sustained missions over Australia’s maritime approaches and beyond. Its need for frequent refuelling means that, should the enemy target the tanker aircraft, the F-35 would be vulnerable to being stranded over the ocean without ever engaging in combat. While Defence continues to deny any problems with the F-35, other countries are well aware of its inadequacies. Japan is reported to be negotiating with the US to produce an evolved version of the F-22 Raptor, a far superior strike fighter. If this plan comes to fruition, the F-22 would be an excellent option for the RAAF.
Turning to the RAN, submarines are the classic assets by which a weaker power can level the playing field and prosecute asymmetric warfare in its defence, particularly when confronting an enemy operating in a theatre far distant from its bases.
In defending Australia, with a very long coastline to protect, how would the submarine force operate? Current doctrine is for Australian submarines both to loiter outside enemy naval bases in order to attack warships and submarines, and also to patrol the archipelagic choke points to our north to prevent hostile forces from penetrating Australian waters.
To prosecute these missions effectively, a sizeable submarine force would be necessary. Currently, with only six submarines of the Collins class, which are on the verge of obsolescence, a maximum of only two ageing submarines could be in their areas of operations (AOs) at any time. Because their base is far distant from these AOs, they also face a major disadvantage with about 30 days of a 55-day patrol spent in transit.
With 18 conventional submarines, for example, in the absence of a floating or terrestrial base closer to the AOs, it is likely that a maximum of six could be on patrol at any one time. In wartime, this would be the bare minimum force required, before allowing for the likelihood of attrition. Were the adversary to develop a forward base, more submarines, perhaps 24, would be needed. If Defence established a base closer to the AOs or if some of the submarines were nuclear powered, perhaps fewer boats would be required.
While the government has recognised the need to increase the size of Australia’s submarine force, not only is its ambition inadequate but it is also moving much too slowly. Were Naval Group’s design to be accepted, twelve extraordinarily expensive conventional submarines will enter service between 2034 and 2050. As with all ab initio submarine designs, they will inevitably be delivered late. In addition, and apparently against the advice of Naval Group, they are being designed with an inefficient pump-jet propulsion system, only found on nuclear submarines, that will make them more vulnerable to detection. They also will not incorporate air-independent propulsion (AIP), a critical new technology that allows a submerged endurance of up to three weeks rather than three days. If, down the track, major design changes were undertaken to fix these problems, further delays would eventuate.
Apart from installing new sensors, the government has apparently decided not to undertake a comprehensive life extension of Collins. This implies that these submarines will be unable responsibly to be sent into harm’s way beyond the late 2020s, leaving Australia with an unacceptably dangerous capability gap before the new replacement submarines come on stream. In the mid-2030s, perhaps one submarine, at best, will be available for operations. In other words, the Government is planning for a period of about a decade where there will be no credible submarine deterrent to a sea-borne attack on Australia.
What then is the alternative? First of all, while continuing the contracted design process with Naval Group, as a matter of urgency to reduce the prospective capability gap, order six new submarines based on a MOTS design to replace Collins. Subject to acceptable cost and delivery criteria, these new submarines could be built in Australia.
Secondly, address the issue of long transits by developing either a new base in the north or procuring a submarine tender ship for deployment in a forward location. In addition, there would be significant benefit from moving to a fly-in, fly-out system for submarine crews. Not only would this increase productivity by cutting transit times, but crew members could live anywhere in Australia, thereby substantially increasing the recruitment pool.
Next, in the early 2020s, decide between ordering more MOTS boats, building the French design or taking a different approach, such as procuring underwater drones or seeking to acquire nuclear-powered submarines (SSNs). Perhaps a combination of submarine technologies would provide the best outcome.
Indeed, Paul Dibb and Richard Brabin Smith have stated “there’s a strong case to consider whether Australia should plan to acquire nuclear-powered attack submarines beyond the replacement of the Collins class”. Apart from their superior submerged endurance, which would be extremely valuable given Australia’s operational requirement, the major argument in favour of SSNs is their high speed. With China estimated to have 70 modern submarines in commission by 2020, defending Australia against a large number of hostile naval vessels would require our submarines to cover an extensive area of ocean with multiple choke points. A SSN can cruise underwater three times as quickly as a diesel-electric submarine and without having to ‘snort’ close to the surface, when conventional boats are most vulnerable. Yet it would take at least 15 years for Australia to acquire its first nuclear submarine and, while not insuperable, the practical difficulties and training requirements are formidable.
Finally, Australia has faced the threat of nuclear attack both recently by North Korea and, in the Cold War, by the Soviet Union (focussing on Pine Gap). In order to be able to respond to such a threat, Australia should consider acquiring an anti-ballistic missile defence capability.
Clearly this enhanced defence capability would come at a significant cost. One essential corollary is that the government must bring the cost of new defence assets under control. We simply can’t afford to pay over twice as much for submarines and warships as other countries do. If we cannot build naval assets efficiently in Australia, we should import them, as we do with combat aircraft. Winning seats in South Australia may be important to both the government and opposition, but prioritising narrow sectional advantage above the defence of Australia would constitute a sad indictment of our political system.
Under the Constitution, a key role for the Commonwealth is to protect the nation against attack. In this time of strategic uncertainty, we cannot be confident that the government has a strategy and an acquisitions policy in place that will allow it to discharge its constitutional responsibility. This should at least provide a focus for a serious national conversation on the future defence of Australia.
Dr Michael Keating is a former head of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. Jon Stanford is a Director of Insight Economics and was a senior official in PM&C in the 1990s.