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3 more years and a next-generation Defence wish list

With the Coalition returned and cabinet position announcements imminent – building on the success of the preceding six years in the Defence portfolio and in light of changing regional dynamics – it’s time to discuss a few wish list items to enhance Australia’s future defence capabilities. 

Despite a period of leadership instability, the Coalition has been returned to power with a new mandate and plans outlined during the election campaign to enhance Australia’s defence and defence industry capabilities. 

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The election of the Coalition in 2013 saw a major shake-up in the way defence was approached by government. Following what the Coalition describes as six years of neglect under the tumultuous Rudd/Gillard/Rudd governments, the newly formed government sought to create an environment of stability and consistency for defence with a number of key policy objectives. 

Central to this was the commitment to return Australia’s defence expenditure to 2 per cent of GDP following what both Prime Minister Scott Morrison and now former minister for defence Christopher Pyne explained as a 10 per cent reduction in real terms in the last year (FY2012-13) of the previous government – resulting in defence investment falling to its lowest levels since 1938.

While Australia’s defence expenditure looks set to increase to $38.7 billion in 2019-20, it is a case of business as usual for defence and industry, with the Coalition’s budget announcement signalling the governments continued commitment to supporting the capability and development of Australias sovereign defence industry capabilities. 

The Coalition remains committed to continuing the delivery of a number of key projects identified as part of the governments 2016 Defence White Paper, which focused on delivering a series of major capability upgrades and modernisation programs across the Australian Defence Force, including:

  • The delivery of the first unit as part of the $5.2 billion LAND 400 Phase 2 Boxer Combat Reconnaissance Vehicles
  • Industry partners presented their bids as part of the $10-15 billion LAND 400 Phase 3 Armoured Fighting Vehicle program
  • Construction progress for the $35 billion SEA 5000 Hunter Class guided missile frigate program
  • Construction commencement and milestones at the $535 million SEA 5000 Shipyard facility at Osborne, South Australia
  • The continued arrival of Australias Lockheed Martin F-35A Joint Strike Fighters
  • Signing the Strategic Partnership Agreement for the $50 billion SEA 1000 Attack Class future submarine program
  • Committing to the acquisition of 30 self-propelled howitzers and 15 support vehicles to be built and maintained at a specialised facility in Geelong 

The government has confirmed over the next decade to 2028-29 that it will invest more than $200 billion in defence capabilities. Building on these commitments and recognising the changing geopolitical, tactical and strategic realities of the Indo-Pacific, Defence Connect has put together a brief wish list and is encouraging conversation about capabilities for the Coalitions defence ministers to consider establishing in this next term of government. 

1. Acquire an additional three Hobart Class guided-missile destroyers 

Serving as the basis of Australia’s maritime-based area-air and missile defence capabilities, the Hobart Class is a critical capability for both Navy and the broader “joint force” ADF capability. Despite procurement and construction problems, Australia’s Hobart Class destroyers will provide a quantum leap in the capability of the Navy’s surface fleet, serving as a task force air defence screen, secondary command and control hub and invaluable surface and subsurface warfare asset. 

HMAS Hobart and her two sister ships, HMAS Brisbane and Sydney, are Hobart Class Air Warfare Destroyers based on the Spanish F-100 frigates. The Hobart Class Combat System is built around the Aegis Weapon System, incorporating the state-of-the-art phased array radar, AN/SPY 1D(V), will provide an advanced air defence system capable of engaging enemy aircraft and missiles at ranges in excess of 150 kilometres.

Acquiring an additional three Hobart Class vessels serves to enhance the nation’s naval shipbuilding capabilities – maintaining the critical skills in both Adelaide and/or Henderson shipyards until the major construction Hunter and Attack class programs commence – while providing additional redundancy for the Navy in the face of increasingly advanced anti-ship ballistic and cruise missile systems and enhancing the protective layers around other major Navy assets, namely the Canberra class amphibious warfare ships. 

Accordingly, the Coalition needs to lay down a Block 2 variant of the Hobart Class guided-missile destroyers with enhanced area-air and missile defence capabilities and enhanced anti-submarine warfare capabilities – specifically noise reduction characteristics – also need to begin upgrades of the existing fleet. 

2. Begin development of a ‘joint force’ long-range, stand-off missile system with conventional and electronic warfare variants 

The retirement of the F-111 long-range strike platform and the limited reliability of the Collins Class submarines present a significant long-range strike capability gap for the ADF. This continuing capability gap has been a focal point for many Australian strategic policy experts, including both Peter Jennings and Malcolm Davis of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

“We need to be placing more effort into developing the long-range strike capability. This includes things like cruise missiles that can be launched by platforms across the ADF. We also need to place greater emphasis on upgrading the capability provided by Collins, not just as a stop-gap, but as an imperative, as these submarines will continue to form the point of our deterrence spear for some time yet,” Jennings told Defence Connect in late 2018. 

Accordingly, developing a potent joint force – multipurpose long-range, stand-off missile system capable of fulfilling conventional maritime and land-focused kinetic strike roles with a variant capable of electronic warfare – to support the development of a conventional deterrent triad while minimising the logistics tail and enhancing the interoperability of each of the branches of the ADF, to be fielded in the late-2020s/early 2030s.

Additionally, developing a hypersonic variant to be introduced in the mid-to-late 2030s further enhances the long-range, stand-off strike capabilities of the joint force ADF.  

3. Begin development of a heavy, long-range, low-observable, unmanned strike platform

Australia has recently been gifted with the perfect opportunity to respond to this long-range strike gap in the form of the joint Defence Science and Technology and Boeing development of the “loyal wingman” concept, which when combined with the successful platform and technology demonstrators in the Reaper series and MQ-4C Triton paves the way for developing a fleet of long-range, unmanned, low-observable strike aircraft with a payload capacity similar to, or indeed greater than, the approximately 15-tonne payload of the retired F-111. 

Such a capability would also enjoy extensive export opportunities with key allies like the US and UK who could operate the platform as a cost-effective replacement for larger bombers, like the ageing B-52H Stratofortress, B-1 Lancer and B-2 Spirit, and supplement for the in-development B-21 Raider long-range strategic bomber.

Long-range strike serves as the “thrust” component of the broader force structure adjustment. The growing prominence of cruise and ballistic missile-based threats has resulted in the Australian government outlining the need for a layered, integrated air and missile defence (IAMD) system as part of the AIR 6500 program.

This program provides opportunities for the nation to develop a leading-edge battlespace management and IAMD capability while also incorporating lessons learned as a result of China’s successful introduction of anti-access/area denial systems to establish a virtually impregnable wall of steel throughout the sea/air gap, providing Australia with the opportunity to more actively and assertively engage with Indo-Pacific Asia. 

4. Focus on delivering two Attack Class submarines annually 

While, the Attack Class is expected to deliver a quantum leap in the capability delivered to the Royal Australian Navy and its submarine service by leveraging technology and capabilities developed for nuclear submarines, implemented on a conventional submarine, the projected delivery time frame and tempo of delivery presents significant concern for Australia’s “silent service”. 

It is time to focus on supporting the Australian industry’s capacity to deliver two submarines annually beginning in the 2030s – particularly as a result of the growing submarine fleets in the region and with the importance of the strategic importance of sea-lines-of-communication support over 90 per cent of global trade, a result of the cost-effective and reliable nature of sea transport. Indo-Pacific Asia is at the epicentre of the global maritime trade, with about US$5 trillion worth of trade flowing through the South China Sea and the strategic waterways and choke points of south-east Asia annually.    

Meanwhile, the Indian Ocean and its critical global sea-lines-of-communication are responsible for more than 80 per cent of the world’s seaborne trade in critical energy supplies, namely oil and natural gas, which serve as the lifeblood of any advanced economy. 

5. Conduct an updated force posture review – in line with the 2020 Defence White Paper, Integrated Investment Plan and Defence Industry Strategy

The opposition announced a commitment to conduct the first force posture review since 2012 – the changing dynamics of the Indo-Pacific and the steady march towards Australia playing an increasing role in the region requires a dramatic shift in the ADF’s force posture and force structure – to focus on greater expeditionary and power projection capabilities. 

Developing these concepts in conjunction with an updated Defence White Paper and expanded Integrated Investment Plan and Defence Industry Strategy to enhance the capabilities of Australias defence industry – splitting the focus on domestic demand and export-oriented industrialisation in a similar manner to the policy and doctrines that supported the development of South Korea.    

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3 more years and a next-generation Defence wish list
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