Navy The Big Winner - But When?

The Government’s long awaited White Paper – Defending Australia in the Asia Pacific Century: Force 2030 has been greeted with consistently mixed reviews.

6th May 2009


Navy the big winner – but when?

The Government’s long awaited White Paper – Defending Australia in the Asia Pacific Century: Force 2030 has been greeted with consistently mixed reviews. While most commentators accept the logic behind a buildup of forces – especially naval – they also point out the troubling lack of detail about funding arrangements.

And another noteworthy aspect of the paper is that it calls for almost all of the buildup to take place more than 10 years from now. It seems that in the meantime almost nothing will change. The only exception seems to be Air 9000 phase 8 – the Seahawk replacement – which will be brought forward from its original date of 2016 as a matter of urgency. But that was always on the cards after the cancellation of the Seasprite contract early in 2008.

The Government has also stated that a new White Paper will be produced every 5 years, meaning that many of the announced decisions in this document will be reviewed at least once before any commitment is given.

Force 2020 will also need to be read in conjunction with the forthcoming Defence Capability Plan to give greater meaning to dates and dollars. With luck the DCP should be available later this year. In some areas the document is repetitive – perhaps deliberately so – and in terms of style seems to reflect the involvement of a number of different authors.

Summarising a 140 page report is necessarily selective. The heart of the document – from a future capability viewpoint – is Chapter Nine:

Maritime forces

The first announcement concerns submarines:

The Government has decided to acquire 12 new Future Submarines, to be assembled in South Australia. This will be a major design and construction
program spanning three decades, and will be Australia's largest ever single defence project. The Future Submarine will have greater range, longer endurance on patrol, and expanded capabilities compared to the current Collins class submarine. It will also be equipped with very secure real-time communications and be able to carry different mission payloads such as uninhabited underwater vehicles.

These submarines will be far and away the largest and most expensive conventional submarines in the world - ever. Why something of this capability is needed is not explained directly, though other part of the document make clear that the buildup is largely motivated by a massive increase in China’s forces. The submarines will need to operate at very long ranges and have an array of advanced capabilities. The Government states that it will be vital for Australian industry to be involved in all stages of the project – including design. It is also stated that a continuing close relationship with the United States for undersea warfare activities will be an essential ingredient in the project.

Surface combatants are next discussed, with the paper unsurprisingly reaffirming commitment to the already contracted 3 Air Warfare Destroyers, adding that they will eventually be equipped with Raytheon’s SM-6 long range surface-to-air missile. The option of a 4th AWD is not excluded, despite earlier breathless media reports that the idea would be scrapped because of the global financial crisis. Indeed it is surprising that the option of the 4th AWD has not been taken up, given that this would be a tangible sign of the Government’s sense of urgency to dramatically boost maritime capability. It would also have been a visible sign of the Government’s commitment to Australian jobs during a time of recession.

Another surprise is the decision to replace RAN’s 8 ANZAC frigates with something much larger:

The Future Frigate will be designed and equipped with a strong emphasis on
submarine detection and response operations. They will be equipped with an integrated sonar suite that includes a long-range active towed-array sonar, and be able to embark a combination of naval combat helicopters and maritime Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV).

It is much too early to predict what these ships might look like as technology for surface ships is evolving rapidly, as are the threats to them. The timing is also uncertain as the ANZACs are being upgraded and will only start to run out of hull life around the year 2025. The emphasis on anti-submarine warfare appears to be justified not only by China’s buildup but also that of many other regional navies.

In an innovative move, Force 2030 will replace 3 existing classes of ship with a single new Offshore Patrol Combatant: The Government has therefore decided that Defence will develop proposals to rationalise the Navy's patrol boat, mine counter measures, hydrographic and oceanographic forces into a single modular multirole class of around 20 Offshore Combatant Vessels combining four existing classes of vessels. This has the potential to provide significant operational efficiencies and potential savings. The new vessels will be larger than the current Armidale class patrol boats, with an anticipated displacement of up to 2,000 tonnes.

This is a direct result of modular technology involving the use of containerized systems. A number of suppliers now offer customers a standard hull which can perform a variety of missions depending on the embarked ISO container the ship is carrying. These containerised solutions are especially attractive for minehunting missions. With the use of remotely operated underwater vehicles, the ship no longer has to move through a minefield to do its work. By shifting to a 2,000 tonne ship the navy will acquire a platform with significant range, weaponry and the ability to carry a helicopter – the latter now regarded as indispensable in warfare.

Land Forces

This part of the chapter sketches out the Army of the future and does not signal any major changes. The overall size of combat forces remains about the same at 3 brigades of 4,000 troops in each. For this Defence 2030 has received criticism, though it must be noted that increasing the number of troops can be done relatively quickly, unlike building an additional submarine or frigate.

Even the announcement of new vehicles is no revelation, with the venerable M-113s having to be retired at some stage:

The Government places a high priority on the survivability and mobility of our land forces. To meet this priority, Defence intends to acquire a new fleet of around 1,100 deployable protected vehicles. These new vehicles will replace existing armoured personnel carriers, mobility vehicles and other combat vehicles which, in the past, have had limited or no protection. These new vehicles will offer greatly improved firepower, protection and mobility, in response to the increasing complexity and lethality of land operations.

Mention is made of examining the balance between regular forces, reserves and part-time employees, but it appears that there will be no major structural changes.

As well as receiving 46 Multi-Role Helicopters (MRH) – 30 exclusively for Army -already under contract, there will also be an improvement in the heavy lift side of things:

The Government has decided to replace the current fleet of six CH-47D helicopters with a new fleet of seven CH-47F aircraft, the most modern and capable type of this proven and versatile helicopter. These new medium-lift helicopters will see Australia operating the same aircraft configuration as the US Army, which has a fleet of around 500 aircraft. Not only will these aircraft have improved electronic warfare self-protection systems and maintenance arrangements to increase their operational effectiveness and employability across the battlefield, but future operating costs will be reduced as we take full advantage of the development, engineering, training and spares systems that are in place for the US Army.

Many of the other announcements are a statement of what is already in the existing Defence Capability Plan. For example, saying that army will receive new towed and self-propelled artillery systems simply restates the objectives of LAND 17, which must be close to a source selection decision.

Surprisingly, almost no mention is made of tactical UAVs – an indispensable asset for ground forces.

Air Combat Capability

This section confirms intentions regarding the Joint Strike Fighter:

The Government has decided that it will acquire around 100 F-35 JSF, along with supporting systems and weapons. The first stage of this acquisition will acquire three operational squadrons comprising not fewer than 72 aircraft. The acquisition of the remaining aircraft will be acquired in conjunction with the withdrawal of the F/A-18F Super Hornet fleet, and will be timed to ensure that no gap in our overall air combat capability occurs.

However, there are several details to note. Firstly, it is clear from this statement that the acquisition will be made in at least 2 tranches, with the first clearly being for 72 aircraft, rather than a job lot of 100. The second batch of JSFs will only be ordered when the Super Hornets are withdrawn. Given that Australia has paid more than $6 billion for 24 of these aircraft, it seems prudent from a financial viewpoint to extract as much life from them as possible. The notion that they would be removed from service by 2020 – with less than 10 years of use for most of them – seems wasteful. APDR understands that there is some optimism within the RAAF that these aircraft could be sold back to the United States Navy at that time. On the other hand, they were purchased as an acknowledged gap-filler in case the JSF was running late and so perhaps the Government of the day will be prepared to cut their losses, as unlikely as that seems.

New stand off missiles will also be acquired to maintain RAAF’s capability for maritime strike.

Force 2030 seems quite upbeat about Wedgetail:

The Wedgetail AEW&C aircraft will transform our air combat capability when it enters service from 2011, by providing vastly improved situational awareness and an ability to control and coordinate aircraft to enable mission execution. Defence will also investigate upgrading the AEW&C aircraft with CEC to enable it to more effectively cue weapons systems and perform other functions in an air warfare information 'grid'.

Given that the first aircraft will not be delivered until later this year – and then only for training purposes – this in service date seems a little optimistic, though to be fair this does not represent full operational capability. Nevertheless anecdotal information indicates that the project is in far better shape than even 12 months ago.

Maritime Surveillance and Response

This is another area where Force 2030 sounds impressive but restates what has already been planned for some time to respond to regional naval growth:

The Government will acquire eight new maritime patrol aircraft to replace the current AP-3C Orion fleet. These new aircraft will provide a highly advanced surface search radar and
optical, infra-red and electronic surveillance systems. With these systems, along with a high transit speed and the ability to conduct air-to-air refuelling, these aircraft will provide a superior capability for rapid area search and identification tasks. They will also provide a highly advanced ASW capability, including an ability to engage submarines using air-launched torpedoes. After subsequent upgrades, they will be capable of firing stand-off anti-ship missiles.

These aircraft will be the Boeing Poseidon P-8 as there is nothing else available and Defence have long signaled their intentions. The report also says that Australia will acquire up to 7 large UAVs to supplement manned aircraft, but in non-committal on the type – something which is sure to disappoint Global Hawk advocates.

Air Lift Capability

The report says the RAAF will acquire at least 2 more C-130Js, scrapping the option of refurbishing the old H models. The Caribous will be replaced by up to 10 light tactical transports – but again this has been planned for a number of years.

Strategic Strike

One of the attention grabbers in Force 2030 has been the stated desire to acquire long-range missiles able to be launched from a variety of platforms:

The Government places a priority on broadening our strategic strike options, which will occur through the acquisition of maritime-based land-attack cruise missiles. These missiles will be fitted to the AWD, Future Frigate and Future Submarine. Defence will fit the necessary control and firing systems to the AWD as an early enhancement. The incorporation of a land-attack cruise missile capability will be integral to the design and construction of the Future Frigate and Future Submarine. We will not seek to retrofit this capability to the Collins submarine fleet.

Previous Governments have shied away from making such commitments, partly out of fear of antagonizing our neighbours and sparking a regional arms race. However, it can be assumed that concerns over the size of China’s buildup is of such magnitude as to over-ride these considerations. It is unclear why cruise missiles will not equip the Collins Class, which will be at the front line of Australia’s deterrent capability for the next 15 years. The report continues:

The acquisition of a maritime-based land-attack cruise missile capability for the ADF will provide the Government with additional options to conduct long-range precision strike operations against hardened, defended and difficult to access targets, while minimising the exposure of ADF platforms and personnel to attack by enemy forces.

We will have to await the Defence Capability Plan to have a better idea of the timing for the introduction of this very powerful additional capability.

Information Superiority

The paper describes several areas where increases in capability will be required – including cyber warfare, intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and electronic warfare. Some of this might once again be directed at China, which is believed to be behind a number of recent attempts to break into secure defence networks. While Network Centric Warfare is not referred to as such in the report, there are repeated references to the principles of information sharing, situational awareness and many other components of NCW.

Chapter 11 of Force 2030 details our alliances and unsurprisingly places great emphasis on the United States and reinforces points made in earlier chapters. Some of this recounts the history of the alliance and goes on to detail aspects of the joint facilities on Australian soil and the benefits received from intelligence sharing arrangements.

Japan also receives an overwhelmingly positive assessment, especially in the light of recent agreements to increase the level of co-operation with Australia.

However, as China is nominated as the single biggest factor in Australia’s planned military expansion the report is worth quoting:

As China assumes a greater role on the regional and world stage, the Government recognises that Australia must build a deeper understanding of China's security policies and posture. China is critical to stability in Northeast Asia and the wider region. Its approach to regional security in North Asia and the wider region, and how it interacts with our key strategic partners (the United States, Japan, and increasingly India), is fundamental to Australian interests. Along with these countries, China will be central to the development of a cooperative security community in the Asia-Pacific region. Closer to home, we need to engage China as a responsible stakeholder in support of our common desire to see
stable, prosperous and well-governed nations in our immediate region.

While stressing the importance of the relationship with the US, the report makes clear that China might have the world’s largest economy by as early as 2020, and is acquiring the military muscle to go with it. So while it is prudent to plan for a more aggressive China it also makes good sense to try to engage and develop long-term constructive relationships.

The second last chapter outlines how all of this additional capability can be achieved and funded. The acquisition goals summarized above can only achieved with a combination of real growth – something the Government has guaranteed – combined with substantial internal savings of $20 billion by Defence in the next 10 years.

This is widely regarded as the Achilles heel of Force 2020, but the report does provide some information about the planned internal reform process:

The Strategic Reform Program will drive efficiencies without compromising effectiveness. It draws on detailed analysis of almost every aspect of the Defence enterprise, including strategic planning; capability development; the estate; ICT; intelligence; sustainment; logistics; non-equipment procurement; preparedness, personnel and operating costs; science and technology; shared services; and workforce management. This analysis was informed by an independent audit of the Defence budget.

This refers in part to the classified Pappas Report, which at one stage was rumoured to have found internal savings of around $1 billion per year. At the time these stories were hosed down, but now a number of Ministers must be hoping that his estimate is correct.

Finding internal savings of $2 billion will require a lot more than restricting travel budgets. 

 

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