The recent arrival of Australia's first two F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, the turning of the sod for Australia's future submarine and future frigate shipyards in South Australia, the announcement of BAE's Type 26 Global Combat Ship as the successful SEA 5000 bidder, mounting concerns about the delivery time frame, cost and capability of Naval Group's SEA 1000 bid, and finally growing regional tensions and arms races are all powerful examples of the topics Defence Connect has covered throughout 2018.
Each of these has provided us with the opportunity to deep dive into these areas, to provide you with a detailed insight and analysis into these key developments, program updates and technologies that will influence Australia's defence planning and procurement strategy over the coming decades.
Australia's transition to a fifth-generation air force has just begun following the arrival of the RAAF's first F-35s early in December. Fifth-generation fighter technology represents a major step-change in the way modern air forces conduct contemporary air combat operations.
With a combination of full-aspect low observability stealth, low-probability-of-intercept radar, high-performance air frames, advanced avionics and highly integrated computer systems, these aircraft provide unrivalled air dominance, situational awareness, networking, interdiction and strike capabilities for commanders, which makes fifth-generation fighter aircraft powerful tools on the modern battlefield.
Accordingly, many nations have begun investment in fifth-gen fighter aircraft. This piece allowed Defence Connect readers to deep dive into the growing regional fifth-gen fighter race, which was further enflamed by Japan's growing desire to develop a regionally superior, fifth-generation, air superiority fighter to replace tits ageing F-15 platforms.
China's own J-20 and FC-31 aircraft and Russia's Su-57 are prime examples of the fifth-generation aircraft being developed to counter F-22 Raptors and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, of which Australia will operate a fleet of 72 across Number 3, 75 and 77 Squadrons of the RAAF.
More recently, Japan has announced an expanded order for the F-35 aircraft. This new order will see the Japanese Air Self-Defense Force operate a fleet of about 105 F-35As and 42 of the short take-off, vertical landing F-35 'B' variants, following modifications to the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force's Izumo Class vessels.
SEA 1000 is the largest defence program in Australia's history. Worth about $50 billion, the program has not been without contention following the announcement of Naval Group's Shortfin Barracuda, now to be known as the Attack Class in Australian service, following a competitive evaluation process.
Defence Connect has closely followed the evolution of the SEA 1000 program and the controversy it has courted from academics, former service personnel, politicians and industry experts.
This article provided us with the opportunity to take a closer look at each of the individual concerns and the responses from government about the future of Australia's submarine force.
We discussed capability, cost, Australian industry content and delivery concerns with South Australian senator Rex Patrick, who raised growing concerns about the contracting arrangements between the Commonwealth and Naval Group.
"Additionally, if we are having trouble with our strategic industry partner (Naval Group) in the contracting phase, it doesn't bode well for the future of the program," Senator Patrick told Defence Connect.
Defence Connect also spoke with physicist Aidan Morrison, who raised concerns about the suitability of the pump jet propulsion system as planned for the Attack Class vessels. Morrison raised particular concerns about the hydrodynamic performance and operational capabilities of the vessels.
Despite the concerns raised by Morrison, the Department of Defence remained resolute in its choice of propulsion unit.
"Similar considerations apply to decisions about other technologies for the Future Submarine, including battery and other propulsion technologies," a Defence spokesperson said.
Dr Malcolm Davis of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) relayed concerns about the shifting sands of Australia's region and the delivery time frame of the first boats.
Dr Davis expressed growing concerns about possible capability gaps in Australia's long-range strike capabilities which are currently carried out by Australia's Collins Class vessels.
Finally, Defence Minister Christopher Pyne strongly refuted the concerns raised. Minister Pyne issued pointed commentary about the strategic partnership between the Commonwealth and Naval Group and the capability of the vessels.
"Yes, they [combat systems] are [included in the $50 billion]. So, the contract that’s currently running the submarine project is the design and mobilisation contract; that’s exactly as it’s supposed to be," Minister Pyne explained.
Minister Pyne remained resolute in defending the capability to be delivered by the Shortfin Barracuda, despite concerns about the long lead time to deliver the submarines, with all 12 expected to be in operation by the mid-2050s.
The minister went on to explain that the submarines, as with their global counterparts, will evolve throughout the construction cycle.
"The first submarine will be based on the most up-to-date technology when it goes into the water. The last submarine is obviously not going to be exactly the same as the first submarine. It will be based on the most up-to-date technology by the time it goes into the water," he said.
Indo-Pacific Asia is undergoing a major shift in the power paradigm that has guaranteed regional peace, prosperity and stability since the end of the Second World War. Growing regional economies, competing interests and ancient animosities has seen many nations begin developing major strategic deterrence forces in the form of submarine fleets as a means of securing their national interests.
This second piece in a two-part series, allowed us to focus on the emerging regional submarine powers of India, Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia as they embark on vast modernisation and expansion programs for their respective submarine fleets.
India's growing diverse fleet of conventional and nuclear submarines, juxtaposed against the conventional submarine fleets of the above mentioned nations each present a different set of challenges Australia's own fleet of submarines, guided missile destroyers and frigates will potentially face in coming decades.
It also highlighted that Australia's region is going to be increasingly congested as both great and emerging powers continue to invest heavily in their own submarine capabilities.
The growing proliferation of steadily more capable platforms across the nation's northern approaches presents significant challenges for the nation's existing Collins Class submarines in the short-to-medium term and the future submarine force of the future.
Destroyers have long served as the backbone of modern navies. Filling the role between smaller, more agile frigates and larger cruisers, battleships and aircraft carriers, modern destroyers are increasingly complex, highly capable surface combatants capable of anti-submarine, anti-surface, anti-air warfare and ballistic missile defence operations.
For nations like South Korea, India and Australia, modern destroyers serve as powerful battlegroup guardians, potent force projection assets and statements of national intention and commitment.
South Korea's fleet of advanced Aegis capable warships, share many similarities with their American, Japanese and Australian counterparts, namely a common combat system and similar design basis.
India's growing fleet of destroyers draws on designs from the Soviet Union and more modern platforms, locally designed, incorporating advanced combat systems and advanced weapons systems, which make them potent surface and subsurface adversaries.
Australia's fleet of Hobart Class guided missile destroyers, based on the Navantia F-100 Class, provide the Royal Australian Navy with a step-change in maritime capability. Hobart and her two sister ships provide unprecedented levels of interoperability with allied vessels and anti-submarine, anti-surface, anti-air warfare and potentially ballistic missile defence capabilities into the future.
As with their submarine fleets, many emerging Indo-Pacific powers are beginning to modernise and expand the capabilities of their fighter aircraft fleets. This second part of a two-part series provided us with the opportunity to deep dive into the aircraft and capabilities of emerging regional powers like Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand.
The transition from third and fourth-generation aircraft of American, Russian/Soviet and European designs toward 4.5 generation and potentially, fifth-generation platforms, characterises the transition for many of these air forces, further complicating the strategic calculus of Australia's defence planners.