Why is Australia still investing in a balanced defence force?

Jul 12, 2021

When the Prime Minister recently compared Australia’s strategic situation to that in 1939, he was right in two respects. Both in 1939 and in 2021, we have put too much trust in a ‘great and powerful friend’ to secure our independence. Australia’s problem is a Defence department that, simply put, lacks foresight, resourcefulness and innovation.

This has caused Australia to misdirect and under-invest in the military capabilities required for self-reliance. As in 1939, the Australian Defence Force (ADF) finds itself woefully unprepared to defend the country in a high-intensity conflict against a powerful adversary.

It is not that governments haven’t recognised the threat. Having reached its lowest level since 1938, Australia’s defence budget has increased in the last decade to over two per cent of GDP. But will the current defence acquisitions meet Australia’s future requirements? Will the multi-billion dollar submarine, frigate, air combat capability and tank programs deliver the assets we really need and in the required timeframe?

The answer to these questions is an emphatic “no”. Australia’s problem is a Defence department that, simply put, lacks foresight, resourcefulness and innovation. Planning for the last war rather than the next, the performance of Defence leaves much to be desired for not procuring weapons that are fit for purpose in terms of the contemporary battlespace and that can be acquired speedily, efficiently and cost-effectively.

The recent Strategic Update is precise. It identifies, although not explicitly, the growing strategic threat from China. Consequently, it argues for a significant change of approach towards a ‘defence of Australia’ strategy and away from far-flung coalition operations in the Middle East:

“The Government has decided that defence planning will focus on Australia’s immediate region: ranging from the north-eastern Indian Ocean, through maritime and mainland South East Asia to Papua New Guinea and the South West Pacific …. Consideration of making wider military contributions should not be an equally-important determinant for force structure compared to ensuring we have credible capability to respond to any challenge in our immediate region.”

There is, however, no evidence that a military strategy – even a secret one – has been developed to address the evolving strategic threat. If it had, it would have proposed major changes in the force structure. Yet the Force Structure Plan was a non-event. Notwithstanding the change in the defence strategy, the current acquisition programs remain in place with a delivery schedule that bears no relationship to the urgency of Australia’s strategic situation.

While Defence produced an accomplished Strategic Update, its ongoing reliance on the status quo in the force structure represents a failure of leadership and a lack of forward-thinking. In contrast to the US Department of Defense, the culture within Defence in Australia does not encourage creative or, worse, disruptive ideas, particularly if they challenge traditional doctrine or other well-established sacred cows.

In this context, the concept of a balanced force for the ADF has been almost an article of faith within Defence for a very long time. Paul Dibb, for example, was unable to shake this policy in his 1985 Defence Review, when he wrote to then Defence Minister, Kim Beazley:

One of the problems encountered by the Review was arriving at satisfactory estimates of the size of force elements we need to meet our particular strategic circumstances … The Review could obtain no material centrally endorsed by the higher Defence structure which explained, for example, the strategic rationale for a 12-destroyer Navy, three fighter squadrons, six Regular Army battalions and an Army Reserve target of 30,000.

It is striking that 35 years later, with Australia’s population 60 per cent greater and GDP nearly three times higher in real terms, the changes to this force structure have been only marginal. This is because the balanced force objective leads to the replacement of like with like, with no apparent regard for changing strategic circumstances, no concept of opportunity cost and little consideration of whether advances in military technologies could provide avenues to different and more effective solutions.

There are also cultural and organisational issues underlying the commitment to a balanced force. Each new defence force Chief understands that the need to avoid conflict between the services depends on maintaining a rough balance between Navy, Army and Air Force. It would be difficult, for example, to tell the Army, which for many years has been more engaged than the other services, that the balanced force has outlived its usefulness and in future, the Air Force and Navy should command the major share of resources.

As Keynes reputedly said, “when the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, Sir?” Similarly, Albert Palazzo argues in his occasional paper Planning to not lose a War, that Australia must dramatically change how to prepare for and think about war if it is to remain a sovereign nation. The situation has changed, as was acknowledged in the Strategic Update, yet Defence has neither changed its attachment to a balanced force nor has it developed a cogent military strategy.

Most of the ADF’s planned acquisitions still remain optimised for coalition operations alongside the United States. Instead, the logic of the Strategic Update is that the ADF needs to have the unilateral capability to pursue an effective anti-access, area denial (A2/AD) strategy in the approaches to Australia as far north as the archipelago and perhaps beyond. This would require a substantial investment in a modernised ADF with a different balance between the three services and a greater emphasis on maritime attack. Importantly, however, the ADF also needs a credible offensive force projection capability in order to deter an adversary from attacking Australia.

At a cost of $90bn, the diesel-electric Attack class submarines are designed for force projection ‘up threat’, working closely with the US Navy’s nuclear-powered Submarine Force within the extensive American ASW surveillance infrastructure. The Australian submarines’ effectiveness in this role is constrained by their slower sustainable maximum speed and need to snort. Much of their time will be spent in transit, severely reducing their ability to maximise force on station. The rapidly developing anti-submarine (ASW) capability of the PLA means that snorting will increasingly expose the submarines to detection and, with a low sustainable speed, will compromise their survivability if attacked.

The Attack class would also be compromised in a defence of Australia role. The boats are too big, too slow and too few in number. Nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSN) would be more effective. Undertaking high-end operations in our EEZ against submarines and surface ships, SSNs could also be deployed for opportunistic missions ‘up threat’, even if coalition forces had left and taken their infrastructure with them. A squadron of nuclear-powered submarines would pose a powerful capability in the defence of Australia as well as a credible, very potent deterrent.

The Hunter class frigate program, at an indefensible cost of $45bn, is a waste of money and resources. Since the Battle of the Atlantic, the balance of power between the submarine and its warship adversary has changed significantly in favour of the submarine.

Were the frigates to undertake expeditionary ASW operations in or beyond our EEZ, it would be akin to sending a chicken to hunt the fox. ASW will certainly play a significant role at a few critically important locations close to home in Australia, but with the submarine having a tactical advantage, together with major advances in anti-ship missile technology, the few big Hunter class warships are poorly matched to the threat. The budget priorities should go to building a multi-layered ASW capability, including satellites, sub-sea arrays, sea mines, land-based aircraft and SSNs.

Of course, the current acquisition problems do not lie entirely with the RAN. The submarine and frigate programs were conceived well before the Strategic Update. There can be no excuse, however, for the announcement of a massive (~$42bn) investment in new armoured fighting vehicles (AFVs) for the Army.

Unless Defence plans for an unlikely invasion of the Australian Continent, the acquisition of 75 new Abrams main battle tanks defies a rationale in terms of our defence. At 66 tonnes, they are too heavy for most bridges in northern Australia, let alone in the Indo Pacific more generally. It is hard to comprehend how main battle tanks could practically be deployed in almost any theatre in Australia’s region, even in the unlikely event that there was a strategic case for doing so.

Today the RAAF should arguably play the leading role in the defence of Australia. Its P-8 maritime patrol aircraft, as well as land-based ASW helicopters, are among the most important defence assets. The Australian designed Loyal Wingman drone appears to have potential. But the F-35 joint strike fighter is an inadequate aircraft in this region in terms of its range and payload. It can neither achieve dominance as an air superiority fighter nor perform adequately in terms of long-range strike. The new American B-21 bomber would provide a more credible deterrent in terms of long-range force projection, as well as offering a powerful strike capability within Australia’s EEZ, just as the F-111 did.

In her speech to ASPI in July 2020, Former Defence Minister Linda Reynolds said, “the future is now”. Across the Indo-Pacific, countries were modernising their militaries and increasing their preparedness for conflict. Regional nations now had next-generation submarines, combat aircrafts, and highly effective land forces. New weapons and technologies, including hypersonic glide and long-range missiles, autonomous systems, space capabilities, artificial intelligence and cyber capabilities have increased range, speed, precision and lethality.

The ADF must adapt to these rapidly changing strategic circumstances and be prepared for the complex and high-tech conflicts of the future. The Strategic Update is a welcome re-focussing of the ADF on our immediate region. It has failed, however, by not developing a military strategy and by not shifting the focus of our force structure away from coalition operations to the defence of Australia. Because of its organisation and culture, the Defence department shows no evidence it is up to the task of addressing this issue. There are experts within Australia who are.

The government should urgently commission a comprehensive review of the ADF’s force structure. The review team should include experienced military personnel, but should not be led by the Defence Department.

Parts of this article were first published in The Strategist

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