There’s a deeply held view that underpins our defence industry policy, namely that as an island girt by sea Australia has to build its warships here. Which is rather odd when you think about it because we are also an island girt by air, yet very few people insist we should build our military aircraft here.
The upshot of this inconsistency is that the Royal Australian Navy is standing on the edge of a capability precipice in which both its surface and subsurface fleets could reach obsolescence before they are replaced, while the Royal Australian Air Force has already achieved many of the attributes of a fifth-generation air force.
Whatever the outcomes of the Defence Strategic Review and the work of the Nuclear-Powered Submarine Task Force, the navy is unlikely to resolve this strategic risk soon. That’s the nature of large shipbuilding programs.
The strategic irony of our times is that as our strategic circumstances become more volatile, shipbuilding timelines are becoming longer. We’ve already seen the Attack-class submarine declared irrelevant even before it started construction despite a sunk cost of $4bn.
The Hunter-class program is also facing questions of relevance. To illustrate this, WWII in the Pacific (perhaps better termed the first Asia-Pacific war in light of the looming second) lasted around 45 months.
It’s already been about 56 months since the government announced the Hunter-class frigate as the winner of the competition for Australia’s future frigate. It’s still another 16 months to the start of construction. And while Defence is coy about the date the first ship will enter service, we are probably looking at another 8-10 years, or something in the order of more than 100 months.
Put another way, you could have fought three world wars in the time it will take to deliver the first future frigate. And it’s hard to see any SSN solution being delivered faster than the Hunters.
So on the occasion of the Avalon Airshow, it’s useful to drag our attention away from the gravitational pull exerted by AUKUS and shipbuilding to remind ourselves of the key role airpower plays in the vast reaches of the Indo-Pacific.
It’s impossible for militaries to operate successfully in the Pacific without control of the air. US marines and soldiers performed superhuman efforts in seizing islands across the Pacific in the first Asia-Pacific War, but those operations were conducted to establish airbases.
Moreover, those forces could not have landed in the first place without Allied control of the air. Perhaps the most important function of the huge US surface fleet was to deliver airpower when and where it was needed.
Similarly, Australian land forces performed heroically on the Kokoda Track, but the reason that campaign was fought in the first place is that at the Battle of the Coral Sea, Allied sea- and land-based airpower defeated Japan’s plan to land at Port Moresby.
Much of the war in the South West Pacific was an air campaign, aimed at neutralising the enemy’s air power to allow sea and land manoeuvre.
This isn’t to say we should cancel shipbuilding projects or dump AUKUS, but we can open up our thinking about how airpower can help meet the Australian government’s capability requirements and quickly address looming gaps.
These suggestions are offered with the proviso that I am completely unaware of the contents of the report the DSR delivered to the government on February 14.
First, we should acknowledge that new combat aircraft programs also take a long time – the Australian government identified the Joint Strike Fighter as its preferred solution for its future air combat capability in 2002, and while an initial operational capability was achieved in late 2020, we still haven’t achieved final operational capability.
So with our warning time having evaporated and the government’s capability focus on the next decade, we should focus on options that exist, or that soon will, rather than embarking on open-ended developmental enterprises. That means thinking about existing technologies in new ways and combinations.
Second, we need to constantly remind ourselves to focus on delivering effects rather than imagining the perfect hardware.
The technical differences between various systems are eroding – between crewed and uncrewed aircraft, drones and missiles – so the traditional assignment of roles and capabilities between the services and their platforms is increasingly irrelevant.
If a surface ship is launching UAVs that are surveillance aircraft and anti-ship missiles that are essentially uncrewed kamikazes with a range of 1000km, isn’t it now acting like a small aircraft carrier and exercising airpower?
What about the navy’s large amphibious ship with the army’s HIMARS long-range missile launchers operating from their deck along with swarms of containerised drones supported by the air force’s long-range land-based surveillance aircraft?
Third, range is vital. That was a key lesson of the Pacific campaigns. It still lies at the heart of the US military’s current dilemma in the western Pacific.
So while additional squadrons of F-35As may fit the bill in terms of being a mature solution that could be delivered reasonably quickly, 200 F-35As won’t have any greater range than the current 72. And there are real-world limitations on how far air-to-air refuelling can get you in the face of a highly capable adversary.
Forward basing could address the range limitations of existing system, but thinking about securing overseas bases is not part of Defence’s DNA. So we need to think creatively about how to achieve what the Deputy Prime Minister has termed “impactful projection”. More of the same approaches is unlikely to achieve it.
Fourth, the war in Ukraine has confirmed once again that modern states are resilient and can absorb massive punishment. So mass is important; we need to be able to absorb losses as well as repeatedly inflict them. And while missiles might seem to fit the bill of delivering large amounts of affordable lethality, we should be wary of the siren song of “cheap missiles”.
Much has been made of the “massive firepower” provided by nuclear-powered submarines’ Tomahawk cruise missiles.
This may deliver a massive effect if the target is a limited number of surface ships, but long-range strike missiles have never compelled an adversary state to yield. In fact, SSNs are about the least cost-effective way imaginable to deliver land strike, and surface ships with vertical launch cells are little better.
Fifth, while it may not make sense to design and build our combat aircraft here (although the case of the Ghost Bat UAV illustrates how the tools of the fourth industrial revolution are overturning the conventional wisdom around what is involved in designing combat aircraft), we need to be doing everything possible to produce the “consumables” of airpower. Above all, this means ordnance and UAVs.
Australian industry already has demonstrated excellence in the production of components for guided weapons as well as drones and loitering munitions.
“Missile adjacent” sectors such as space and autonomous systems are growing this industrial base. And as the technologies involved in producing such systems proliferate, more and more players can overcome the cost of entry into the field.
But the government and the Department of Defence have to back Australian industry. Defence keeps picking foreign solutions to its capability requirement because in their current iteration they appear more mature, cheaper, more interoperable (that can always be used to nix the Australian solution) or just somehow better than local ones.
But then it scratches its collective head and wonders how Australia will mobilise when conflict breaks out and it can’t rely on foreign suppliers to provide what we need when we need it in sufficient quantity. Building resilience and the capacity to mobilise means backing Australian industry now even if it involves accepting some short-term risk.
Finally, airpower can’t be delivered without another key consumable, namely fuel. A better investment than more aircraft may be more fuel storage at more locations in the north.
In the longer term (admittedly outside our 10-year window), an even better solution may be to develop emergent power to liquid technologies that take advantage of Australia’s abundant sunlight and plummeting solar energy costs to generate liquid fuels where we need them. That would decrease our dependence on foreign fuel supplies and boost resilience.