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Op-Ed: The disastrous costs of failing to back AIC

Defence must adopt a bolder AIC strategy or risk bearing the high cost of dependence on foreign suppliers for capability enhancement, AIDN chief executive Brent Clark warns.

Defence must adopt a bolder AIC strategy or risk bearing the high cost of dependence on foreign suppliers for capability enhancement, AIDN chief executive Brent Clark warns.

The long-feared day arrived, on 1 May, with the PLAN launching an invasion convoy across the Taiwan Straits. President Biden responded to calls from Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen for support, with assets from the third and seventh fleets joining into a maritime engagement.

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President Biden issued an ultimatum to Chinese President Xi Jinping to call back the PLAN fleet or face immediate consequences, and called on allied nations to join an international naval coalition to engage the PLAN and enforce the peace in the Taiwan Straits.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison responded to this call by deploying a task group to the naval coalition. HMAS Sydney, which had been in a stand-off position 350 kilometres south of Taiwan, immediately joined the fray, firing multiple salvos of long range Evolved Sea Sparrow Missiles (ESSM) at PLAN targets in the Straits.

Apparently, the USN and RAN action was successful, with no PLAN ships reaching Taiwan. Media reports suggested that the ESSM’s had been particularly effective and had scored many direct hits on PLAN vessels. PLAN launches of DF-26 anti-ship missiles at HMAS Sydney were ineffective, and foiled by use of advanced electronic countermeasures (ECM).

The silence from Beijing from 3 May suggested that President Xi was licking his wounds, and considering how to back out of a crisis he had engineered without losing face. Polls taken in both the US and Australia indicated that each country’s public strongly supported their government’s military action.

Unbeknownst in Washington and Canberra, the real posture in Beijing was very different. During the initial engagement, the PLAN had collected a wide range of Electronic Intelligence (ELINT) covering the operation of the ESSM’s guidance system, and the operation of the ECM deployed against their own DF-26 missiles. This intelligence was immediately transferred to the China Electronics Technology Group (CETG) Corporation that had designed the guidance system of the DF-26, and the ECM utilised on PLAN warships.

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The CETG engineers had an intimate understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of the algorithms used within their systems, and within two days had understood why the DF-26 missiles had been deceived into missing their targets. And on the third day their engineers pieced together the puzzle of how the ESSM guidance system had remained locked onto their ships while their own ECM was deployed.

Armed with this understanding, CETG’s engineers updated the algorithms of the DF-26 guidance system and the fleet’s ECM suite, implemented the changes within the software systems, and used the collected ELINT to ‘replay’ the engagement, but this time with the updated algorithms in place. The replay suggested a reversal of the outcome.

Chen Zhaoxiong, CETG’s managing director and his senior executives hastily arranged a meeting with Vice Admiral Shen Jinlong (Commander of PLAN) and described the outcome of the technical investigation. During the meeting, VADM Shen signed an order for the immediate update of all of the missiles and the fleet’s ECM suite. By 9 May, all the updates had been made, and a second invasion fleet sailed towards Taiwan.

As previously, USN and RAN assets conducted long range strikes against the PLAN fleet. Unfortunately, the reports indicated that these were not successful, and PLAN vessels were able to cross the straits reaching Taiwan. Even worse, DF-26 launches against USN and RAN vessels scored direct strikes. Media reports indicated appalling scenes; opinion polls indicated that the Australian public’s support of the war had plummeted.

President Biden was also shocked by the loss of USN vessels. His military experts updated him on how the PLAN’s successes had been based on recent improvements they had made to the EW capabilities of their systems, but also that American military industry was itself working round the clock to overturn those advantages. Re-assured that the pendulum would swing back to the USN, President Biden declared that the US would continue to fight for the freedom of Taiwan.

Prime Minister Morrison discussed with Biden whether the RAN would also be able to receive the equipment updates. After all, without the updates, the RAN’s ESSM’s were now effectively useless against the PLAN. And the ships of the RAN task group were in grave danger unless their ECM was updated to cope with the new versions of the DF-26. The US President assured Prime Minister Morrison that the RAN would receive the updates.

This would occur after the USN fleet was itself updated, and once the military communications satellite link to Australia had been re-assured as being secure. This was a factor PM Morrison had not expected, and enquired further about the link.

Unfortunately, during the week after 1 May, US intelligence had identified that the link had been breached by cyber attack, and it could not be used to relay to Australia the software updates until the exact nature of the breach had been understood and rectified. Apparently, this might take some time, as the US had other internal cyber breaches that needed to be addressed as higher priorities.

Prime Minister Morrison hastily convened the National Security Committee of cabinet, and demanded from his minister’s answers to two questions: How was it that after the hundreds of billions the government had invested in Defence capability, that Australian forces were left vulnerable and unable to have their capability updated to match our adversary? And had we not learned anything from the COVID crisis about the need for self-reliance?

While the tale above is fiction, it largely follows actual events that occurred between Israel and the US during the 1973 Middle-East war. In that war, the Israel Air Force (IAF) was surprised by new model SA-6’s Surface Air Missiles which the IAF’s existing electronic countermeasures (ECM) could not handle. The SA-6 was downing unsustainably large numbers of aircraft. The IAF was forced to suspend close air support missions on the Golan Heights, where the Syrian army was on the verge of defeating the Israeli army. Whether for political reasons, or simply because it still did not have them, the US did not supply Israel with updated ECM effective against the newer SA-6’s.

However, there is a key difference between the two stories.

Unlike Australia, Israel had for many years nurtured within its domestic industry the capacity to undertake scientifically and technologically advanced tasks. When the hour of need arose, industry (Rafael) was able to rapidly implement a countermeasure that did defeat the SA-6 threat, restoring the IAF’s freedom of action over the battlefield.

The purpose of relaying these tales – both fiction and fact – is to set out the real risks that face the ADF if we continue to rely on off-shore supply of military equipment.

In the current environment, warfare between high-end adversaries with technology-based warfighting materiel, becomes an arm wrestle between the algorithms and software of one side’s systems against the equivalent capabilities of the adversary’s systems.

During warfare, these systems rapidly become obsolescent as each side analyses how their opponent’s equipment works, and how the algorithms and software within their own side’s equipment can be adjusted to defeat the adversary. This work is done by technologists who have been intimately involved in the design of the algorithms and software of the original equipment.

A nation that does not have access to sufficient scientific and technological smarts in industry to keep pace with these modifications, is a nation that is willing to place its service men and women in grave risk. AIDN cannot accept that Australia is willing to treat its brave service people this way.

Yet, Australia’s consistent approach to procure military equipment on the basis of price competitiveness does exactly this, and deprives the ADF of critical industrial support from its domestic industry.

AIDN’s position is clear. CASG must adjust its approach to procurement, if the issue is one of policy or procurement rules, then government must revise both of these to ensure that Australian controlled Industry is able to provide this service to the government and therefore the ADF.

The reflexive assumption that all advanced, science-based systems must be procured from overseas, rather than be developed in Australia must stop. Australia must be allowed to develop these industries. Doing otherwise undermines the ADF’s ability to sustain operations against technologically capable adversaries.

Brent Clark is the chief executive of the Australian Industry and Defence Network (AIDN). 

Op-Ed: The disastrous costs of failing to back AIC
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