Admiral Prune: Defending Australia Part 2 of 4: Are we delivering the ADF we need?

Apr 7, 2022
Collins class submarine Australia.
Australia’s main force projection capability resides in six conventional Collins class submarines. Image: Wikimedia Commons

There will probably be more grand announcements in the lead up to the Morrison Government’s attempt to frame a “khaki election”. What we are doing, as opposed to talking about doing, is not reassuring.

Whether or not we operate with coalition forces or alone, the strategic objectives would be similar. These are: to shape the strategic environment, deter actions against Australia’s interests, and respond with credible military force, when required. This is the government’s defence policy.

To deter an attack on Australia’s interests, we need the capability to attack, degrade and destroy an adversary’s military assets. We need to be able to deny hostile forces access to the approaches to the homeland. This is referred to variously as force projection, sea denial and anti-access/area denial (A2/AD). Whatever term is used, powerful offensive capabilities are required to have any deterrent effect. We must be strong enough in our own right to make the prospect of suffering severe damage figure significantly in an adversary’s calculus. Similar logic is being discussed in Japan.

As well as the offensive capability, we need to be able to undertake defensive operations very effectively to shield against attack. We must be able to deliver this combat power substantially in and from the maritime environment. Together, these three concepts frame a defensive military strategy.

Whether we are alone or part of a coalition, our military operations will rely heavily on long range naval and air forces – ships, submarines and aircraft – delivering lethal combat power. Australia’s investment in the so-called balanced force fails to recognise this reality. Instead, we should invest in assets that maximise our ability to wage asymmetric warfare against a more powerful foe. Although dramatically different from Australia’s context, the war in Ukraine does seem to show how an apparently weaker force can perform creditably against one much larger and better armed; not for the first time in modern history.

A powerful offensive capability

The military assets that provide an offensive maritime capability are submarines operating close to an adversary’s harbours to sink his ships and submarines coupled with long-range aircraft, warships and missiles able to attack ships and land targets. Cyber domain capabilities are critically important too but are secretive and not discussed here.

Considered against this paradigm, what offensive maritime capabilities can the ADF offer today? The answer is not reassuring.

The range of our strike aircraft – the Super Hornet and the F-35 – is far too limited to pose a threat to our potential adversary in his own backyard while the tanker aircraft required for refuelling in-flight to extend their range and endurance would be vulnerable in a conflict. Eight P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft with Harpoon anti-ship missiles and a tactical anti-submarine capability add very little.

Australia’s main force projection capability resides in six conventional Collins class submarines. While the submarines are highly capable, to threaten (and therefore hopefully deter) our potential adversary within their perimeter they must travel very long distances to achieve that. With only six submarines, we can be confident of being able to maintain only one boat deployed on station for about half the time, for any significant duration.

These naval and air capabilities do not constitute a serious long-range deterrent against today’s most likely potential adversary.

A strong denial capability

A force projection capability for denying access is key to a credible defensive military strategy. What sort of assets does Australia require to deny an adversary access to our approaches, particularly north of the archipelago?

The US Navy is rightly emphasising that a maritime conflict in the Indo Pacific will be a missile-on-missile engagement, so it measures the capability of its ships on the basis of their missile armament. A strong defensive missile armament to defend against attacks is essential, but so is the ability to counter incursions by aircraft, warships and submarines; being able to attack them. Strike and air superiority fighter aircraft, warships with significant defensive and offensive missile firepower and submarines can provide these capabilities.

What can the ADF offer in this domain today?

The RAAF’s Super Hornets (including the squadron of electronic warfare ‘Growler’ aircraft) and the F-35s, have a limited payload and inadequate range in terms of Australia’s geography. The RAAF is acquiring the American Long Range Anti-Shipping Missile (LRASM), a subsonic missile with a range of about 300 km, to equip its Super Hornets. The Super Hornets and F-35s also deploy an effective missile armament for combating hostile aircraft. The P-8s have an anti-submarine capability and can carry the obsolescent Harpoon anti-ship missile, but there are far too few of them to be effective.

There are major problems with our naval capability, the most concerning being lack of numbers and firepower. While they are potent offensive weapons able to operate a long way ‘up-threat’, the six Collins class submarines can contribute little to the A2/AD duty. The eight aging Anzac frigates have an impressive point air defence capability to protect themselves and other ships very close by but a small missile magazine. The three Hobart class light destroyers, each with 48 vertical launch missile cells for a variety of missiles including the SM2 for wider area air defence, are more capable but their missile magazine is half the size or less than other regional destroyers. Collins, Anzac and Hobart also carry Harpoon missiles.

Overall, while the Air Force will make a modest contribution to enforcing maritime denial, the Navy will be able to contribute little. Even collectively, this force is too few to constitute a strong denial capability.

What of the promised new acquisitions?

After a disastrous approach over many years to replace the Collins class submarines, government announced in late 2021 that we would acquire at least eight nuclear powered submarines (SSNs). From a capability perspective, SSNs make sense for Australia. But the transition will be challenging and it will be well into the 2040s before we have enough SSNs to constitute an operationally useful capability. By then, the existing Collins boats will have long passed their most optimistic ‘best before’ date.

What of the offensive capability provided by anti-ship and land attack missiles? While the RAAF is acquiring LRASM, it is hard to see that, with only a 300 km range, it could be delivered into the adversary’s defensive perimeter. It is more likely to be employed much closer to home to enforce A2/AD.

While the government has announced that the Hobart destroyers will be armed with Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles (TLAM) their magazine capacity is too small to carry sufficient Tomahawks to be effective. The new Hunter class frigates, at a cost of over $45 billion and with the lead ship unlikely to be ready for operations much before 2035, will be the most under-armed ship for their size in our region. They come with 32 missile cells and one helicopter, meaning we will need three of them to match the firepower of one similar sized US Arleigh Burke destroyer. If the Hobarts, with 50 per cent more missile cells, will carry few TLAMs, it’s hard to see that Hunter will carry any at all.

In terms of the Navy’s force projection capability, it will be at least 20 years before we can deploy more than one submarine on station for more than half the time. The land attack and anti-ship missile capability provided by warships will be derisory. In addition, the Navy’s new ships will be underarmed to the extent that its contribution to the A2/AD defensive strategy will be severely compromised.

While the RAAF is in better shape, its capability is also underdone in both the force projection role and in enforcing maritime denial. Without a long-range bomber it has little offensive capability and its strike aircraft cannot operate north of the archipelago unless forward based in another country.

A significant part of Defence’s capital budget is going to the Army, with new main battle tanks, armoured personnel carriers, and helicopters, which suggests Defence remains wedded to the Balanced Force concept. This will not deliver the strong, asymmetric maritime capability we need.

In the 2009 Defence White Paper, the then government recognised the emerging strategic threat and committed to acquiring 12 new submarines and nine frigates. Yet 13 years later our naval shipbuilding industry lies wasting away in its latest ‘valley of death’ because it has no orders for new ships or submarines. The first orders, for inadequate frigates, are years away. Even when the promised orders come, it will be at least another decade before we will deploy even one more missile cell at sea. And submarine orders are shrouded in mist somewhere deep in the crystal ball.

The ADF’s maritime capabilities stagnate far below what is required to deter and perhaps fight an adversary, in coalition or alone. Self-reliance is no more; Australia is almost wholly dependent for its defence on the United States.

What should we do? Part 3 will address this question.

(I rarely post nom de plume articles but I do so in this case because there is an unfortunate record in the Defence establishment of reprisals against those who challenge its policies. I have confidence in the people who know ‘Admiral Prune’ well. They regard him highly and recommended him to me. If you missed it, read the first instalment of this four part series here. John Menadue)


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