Admiral Prune: Defending Australia Part 3 of 4: What sort of ADF do we need?

Apr 8, 2022
Arleigh Burke class.
Australia should immediately engage American support to build here the current US Navy destroyer, the Arleigh Burke class. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Commentators suggest that the Morrison Government is attempting to frame a “khaki election”. It would be far better were it a “blue election” – sea and sky blue.

In Part 1 of this four piece study, we examined the government’s defence policy objectives and described what military strategy for Australia would be required in order to achieve them. In Part 2 we looked at how today’s ADF and the force in prospect measured up in terms of its ability to deliver such a strategy. In our view, the comparison was odious; the ADF is in no state to respond effectively to a serious military threat. Australians have a right to be dissatisfied and to demand action.

In this part, we suggest what those actions should be, with a focus on two elements: hardware and industry. But first, there is the question of money.

A case can be made that for decades, Australia has spent far less on Defence than is necessary. Although defence spending has now reached 2 per cent of GDP, it had dropped to the lowest level since 1939 soon after the publication of the 2009 White Paper that recognised the threat that is now emerging. A case can also be made that the Department of Defence is sclerotic and has wasted money on ill-conceived acquisitions. These issues must be addressed. But even then, what we propose here will require government to spend more than is currently projected in the forward estimates and beyond.


We have argued that to deter an attack on Australia’s interests and respond effectively if deterrence fails, we need a powerful, long-range offensive (or force projection) capability including the ability to deny hostile forces access to the approaches to the homeland (anti-access/area denial or A2/AD). We need strong defensive capabilities too.

This strategy emphasises the need for ships, submarines and aircraft able to deliver sustained lethal combat power with sufficient weight, reach and endurance.

Submarines. The situation with Australia’s submarine capability is disastrous. We now confront a very serious capability gap. In recent articles, Rear Admiral Peter Briggs and Dr Marcus Hellyer described and analysed this sorry situation precisely, concluding that “…Australia still needs a new conventional submarine to ensure we can safely transition to a nuclear fleet.” We agree.

But first we must perform a major and risky life extension on the Collins boats. This fact has been obvious for well over a decade but it is still in planning. We must get on with that with urgency. As soon as possible we must also build at least six modern versions of Collins incorporating all the lessons we have learned, to grow the submarine force to 12 boats. This is the only sure way to have a suitable, modern, conventional submarine force, which we must have both to provide a credible submarine capability for Australia’s defence and also to bridge the two decades or more until we have an operational SSN force. This bridge is essential to both generating submariners we need and preparing industry for the task ahead. All other options have been examined and dismissed.

Frigates & Destroyers. In Part 2 we highlighted the miniscule offensive capability and very small magazine capacity of Navy’s existing small frigate and light destroyers, a force of just 11 ships. We also highlighted the inadequacy of the planned new Hunter class frigates, orders for which are still years away. These ships are comprehensively overmatched and outclassed by all comparable combat ships in the region.

Australia should immediately engage American support to build here the current US Navy destroyer, the Arleigh Burke class. We should also examine in parallel building more Hobart destroyers and quickly get on with doing that in the interim if it can deliver more Hobarts earlier than we can build Arleigh Burkes. But Burkes, not Hobarts (and certainly not Hunters) are the sort of firepower we need. We could also investigate the South Korean Navy’s destroyer as an alternative to the Burke class, with which it shares a close kinship.

We need also to expand the fleet to at least 16 combat ships as quickly as possible and acquire two additional replenishment ships. This would enable Navy to maintain indefinitely a self-sustaining task force of four powerful destroyers in the region if we needed to, and more for shorter periods.

We will need enough additional MH60 variant helicopters to provide 2 aircraft embarked in 12 of the destroyers and three of the replenishment ships concurrently. This would require about 90 aircraft overall, compared with the current fleet of 24.

Aircraft. We should acquire P8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft, for surveillance, anti-submarine warfare and maritime attack, in sufficient numbers to establish two fully operational squadrons and an operational training unit (OTU). This would require about 36 aircraft overall, compared with today’s paltry inventory of just eight. This is not at all excessive. Australia used to operate two squadrons and 34 P3 Orions until only a few years ago, prior to the P8s replacing them.

We should investigate replacing the F111 long range bomber capability with sufficient aircraft for two fully operational squadrons and an OTU, to provide a land and maritime attack capability. The only potential candidate is the US’s developmental B21 bomber, but we would be wise to wait until it is proven. Our experience with the F111 acquisition and currently the F35 provide lessons we should heed. This would require about 36 aircraft. We could consider an interim purchase of more Super Hornets as a bridge.

We should also examine acquiring a substantial number of large, un-crewed combat air vehicles as well as the unarmed MQ4 Triton. The US MQ20 Avenger or others in that family would be suitable candidates and Australia’s MQ28A Ghost Bat developmental aircraft shows great promise.

Missiles. China has already threatened Australia with a missile attack on our homeland if we became involved in a conflict over Taiwan. Australia needs the capability both to defend our bases and major facilities against incoming missiles and to launch our own land attack missiles.

The next government should commission Defence to investigate the best means of providing an affordable anti-missile defence to counter both ballistic and cruise missiles. We also need an assessment of the best means of developing our own missile-based land attack capability. The range required of a land-based missile capability with the ability to be precisely targeted may rule it out on the grounds of cost effectiveness. Better perhaps to base the capability on the Tomahawk and similar missiles, launched from warships, SSNs and aircraft. It also needs to be noted that targeting for such missiles requires access to the complex and costly infrastructure operated by the United States.


There is a strong imperative for building ships and submarines in Australia that is often misunderstood. The fact is we have very little choice. If we choose the ships that make the most sense for Australia, the designs are of US origin, as are the combat systems and weapons fitted in them. The same is true with our combat aircraft. But there is a big difference.

American aircraft manufacturers have long production runs, usually serving global customers as well as the US military. Australia purchases relatively small numbers of aircraft as just another overseas customer. American industry is set up to satisfy all these demands while still meeting the US military’s own needs.

US shipyards are very different. They are flat out meeting the US Navy’s own needs; they have no capacity to build for Australia, nor do they build for anyone else these days. Among sovereignty and other considerations, this is one reason Japan and Korea have their own continuous warship building industries that produce derivatives of US designs, outfitted with US combat and weapon systems.

Australia must do the same, simply because if we’re building the right ships for our needs, no one else will be able to do it for us. And despite ill-informed criticisms, Australian industry produces a quality product, so long as it doesn’t have to shut down every few years while it waits for the next spurt of orders from Defence. For several critically important reasons, our shipbuilders must be wholly Australian owned, not subsidiaries of overseas primes.

There is another vital point. Australia produces world-leading technology, like CEA Technologies’ CEAFAR2 radar system, which we want (and have) in our ships because there is nothing better. We should be selective in sharing with others. Ghost Bat, hypersonic missile technology and artificial intelligence are other examples. Australia’s interests are undoubtedly served by supporting Australian industry, acknowledged by government at long last as being one of the fundamental inputs to defence’s capabilities. In fact, it always was.

(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. John Menadue)

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