Government decisions on major equipment acquisitions can signal the government’s estimate of the future international environment and national strategic priorities. The government’s justification of the MQ-4C Triton leaves important strategic policy questions unanswered.
Defence acquisitions aren’t simple but in general it is the post-decision contract management problems and cost overruns that get most attention. Yet prior to taking decisions governments; make presumptions about future states of the international environment, projections about what types of threats could arises in those situations, and the level and types of risks to which Australia would be exposed.
Government will consider specialist input on technology, science, industrial capability, and seek professional military judgement about how operational and tactical factors will affect future conflict. These decisions invariably involve subjective (often political or ideological) elements.
But at their core is the issue who Australia is going to fight.
The government’s joint media release announcing the $1.4 billion acquisition of ‘the first of six MQ-4C Triton remotely piloted aircraft’ is odd. The 2016 Defence White Paper foreshadowed the purchase of ‘seven high altitude MQ-4C Triton’ and while the variation wasn’t explained, it is likely because of changes to the cost estimate rather than changes to capability requirement. The 2012 Defence Capability flagged the purchase of up to seven MQ-4C Tritons at a cost of between $2 billion and $3 billion (or $300-500 million each). The price increase didn’t dampen the government’s determination to make the purchae.
Moreover, it was implied in the media release that the join purchase of the MQ-4C Triton and P-A8 Poseidon was as a replacement for the P-3C Orion; ‘Together these aircraft will significantly enhance our anti-submarine warfare and maritime strike capability, as well as our search and rescue capability’. It claimed the ‘investment will protect our borders and make our region more secure’.
Earlier the 2016 White Paper was even more benign, describing the MQ-4C Triton as ‘providing a persistent maritime patrol capability and undertaking other intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance tasks.’ When compared to the maritime surveillance and anti-submarine P-A8 Poseidon deal where initially Australia gained four platforms for $1.49 billion, or roughly the equivalent of one MQ-4C Triton, it raises a question about the role of the drones.
The MQ-4C Triton has a range of around 15,000 kilometres, or sufficient to reach nearly to Mauritius, or the Sea of Okhotsk, or the Cook Islands and return. Or, more significantly, to deploy to the South China Sea and remain on station for around 15 hours. This perhaps explains the preference for six of these drones rather than an 18-20 additional P-A8 Poseidon platforms.
The US Navy’s concept of distributed lethality sheds some light on this issue. For the US Navy the MQ-4C Triton and P-A8 Poseidon are additive and not complementary capabilities. Rather than deploying together they are regarded as undertaking separate roles with in a bigger enterprise; ‘The MQ-4C Triton will provide combat information to operational and tactical users such as the Expeditionary Strike Group (ESG), Carrier Strike Group (CSG) and the Joint Forces Maritime Component Commander (JFMCC)’. Its payload is an impressive suite of advanced technology communications, intelligence and surveillance capabilities. The USN considers deployment of the MQ-4C Triton ‘alone or in conjunction with other assets to respond to theatre-level operational or national strategic tasking’ is a secondary role.
Which brings us back to the issues of why is Australia investing so much in so few of these drone platforms. If surveillance of our proximate maritime area were the role, then surely more P-A8 Poseidons would be better value for money.
Recently, the Chief of the Australian Navy has said that Navy needs to offer government ‘significant and necessary options to meet the full spectrum of threats’. To achieve this Navy will build ‘a powerful and influential force that can pack a real punch’ that enables “distributed lethality” and ‘importantly’ to ‘enable interoperability with our US Ally’. The Chief referred to ‘the commonality of systems and operational objectives we share with the USN and USAF’.
To achieve the distributed lethality system, Navy’s ability to integrate the ‘P-8 Poseidon, Triton’, and other mission systems will be essential. In realising ‘the force supremacy potential of these platforms’, he said, ‘interoperability with comparable US systems will also be fundamental to achieving success’. The Navy must be ‘capable of contributing individual ships, submarines, aircraft or task groups to coalition operations at both the regional and global levels’.
The US Navy’s plan for fighting intense, high-end wars against a technologically advanced and militarily capable peer adversary is driving this purchase. Either when integrated into a larger US force or operating independently but in coordination with US forces, the MQ-4C Triton is intended to enhance the Australian Navy’s interoperability with the US. That six of these very expensive platforms would be intended to provide continuous maritime patrol against illegal fishers and people smugglers is ridiculous. They are war fighting assets.
If the purchase of the MQ-4C Triton is a priority in order to make the Australian Navy a plug-in element of US forces it can only be with the conviction that Australia’s strategic interest is served by providing forces to a US coalition in a war with China. The timing might indicate that the government is of the view that the probability of conflict in East Asia is climbing.
Maritime surveillance is an important role performed by the ADF, as is maintaining an anti-submarine warfare capability. In and of itself inter-operability with US forces is not a bad thing and the closeness of our allied capability development has allowed Australia to enjoy a highly effective ADF. But when the shape and direction of the ADF’s force structuring seems to be influenced by the prospect of fighting a major war the government should not dissemble.
A war with China would be a short term and long term catastrophe for Australia. If the government thinks it is in Australia’s interests to go to war, it should make that case with the public and not try to evade the issue with misleading media release spin.
Mike Scrafton is a former senior Defence executive, former CEO of a state statutory body, and former chief of staff and ministerial adviser to the minister for defence.