Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Defence Minister Linda Reynolds have revealed the long awaited Force Structure Plan and Defence Strategy Update, detailing $270 billion worth of expenditure designed to increased Australia’s strategic capabilities and seriously impair an adversary’s capacity to coerce the nation.
Across the globe, the post-Second World War economic, political and strategic order appears to be in tatters, the impact of COVID-19 has exposed a startling over-dependence on global supply chains, with the continued threat of asymmetric competitors, political warfare and broader global trends each serving to impact the security and sovereignty of many nations, including Australia.
Adding further fuel to the fire is the global and more localised impacts of COVID-19, which range from recognising the impact of vulnerable, global supply chains upon national security as many leading nations, long advocates of "closer collaboration and economic integration", grasp at the life boats of nation-state to secure their national interest.
Despite its relative isolation, Australia's position as a global trading nation, entrenched in the maintenance and expansion of the post-Second World War order, has left the nation at a unique and troubling cross roads, particularly as its two largest and most influential "great and powerful" friends – the US and the UK – appear to be floundering against the tide of history.
With the spectre of COVID-19 far from diminished across the globe and waves of civil unrest and violence tearing their way across the US, and the UK still under strict lock downs, these two great powers are limited in their capacity to actively and assertively intervene on behalf of their allies around the world, despite intent.
The fragility of these two nations has prompted many global dictators to take advantage of the absence, as the old saying states: "When the cat is away, the mice will play", leaving Australia and many other allies, including Taiwan, Japan and South Korea, exposed to the whims of nations dedicated to ending the post-war order.
Nowhere is this more evident than across the Indo-Pacific as an emboldened Beijing continues to punish Australia for pursuing a global inquiry into the origins and China's handling of COVID-19, while also leveraging the diminished presence of the US military in the region to project power and intimidate both Japan and, critically, Taiwan.
While the Australian government, and the Prime Minister in particular, has taken the proverbial bull by the horns in standing up to China's blatant antagonism and hostility to the post-World War II economic, political and strategic balance of power, ironically the same one China owes its economic transformation to, the need for a truly co-ordinated response has fallen by the wayside, at least until now.
Recognising these emerging and existing challenges, Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Defence Minister Linda Reynolds have outlined a major 'step-change' in the nation's approach, role and responsibilities in the Indo-Pacific.
The Defence Strategic Update and the Defence Force Structure Plan reinforce the Prime Minister's focus on the Indo-Pacific, stating, "Our region is in the midst of the most consequential strategic realignment since the Second World War, and trends including military modernisation, technological disruption and the risk of state-on-state conflict are further complicating our nation’s strategic circumstances.
"The Indo-Pacific is at the centre of greater strategic competition, making the region more contested and apprehensive. These trends are continuing and will
potentially sharpen as a result of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic."
To this end, both documents articulate a key focus for the government and ADF moving forward, namely:
- To shape Australia’s strategic environment;
- Deter actions against Australia’s interests; and
- Respond with credible military force, when required.
Building on this, the 2020 Force Structure Plan states: "The range of capabilities that Defence will maintain, develop, enhance and acquire under the 2020 Force Structure Plan will provide the government with a flexible range of options to deliver the government’s objectives to shape Australia’s strategic environment; deter actions against Australia’s interests; and respond with credible military force."
So, with the $270 billion announced, what capabilities have been identified as Australia seeks to navigate a period of growing geo-political, economic, political and strategic competition?
Cyber, ISR and information warfare
Potential adversaries have adapted to the cyber domain far quicker than many traditional powers, including Australia, accordingly, the new Force Structure Plan and Defence Strategy Update account for the shifting and evolving threats faced by Australia in the cyber domain, from both state and non-state actors.
As part of this, the Prime Minister and Defence Minister have announced investments worth approximately $15 billion over the next decade to improve "network security and resilience, and the capacity to share information with international partners."
Building on this, "Defence intelligence capability will be bolstered with funding to integrate intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance programs and data, and continued investment in signals intelligence capabilities. Funding will be set aside to ensure Defence remains competitive in the future as emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence, arise in this domain."
Additionally, the government identifies the need to "strengthen the intelligence and cyber capabilities of the Australian Signals Directorate, which are critical for identifying and responding to foreign threats targeting Australian interests".
"The government has committed to enhance the Australian Signals Directorate’s capability to protect government agencies, critical infrastructure, businesses and the Australian community from the growing scale and severity of malicious cyber activity," the government said.
Joint Cyber and Joint Command, Control, Communications and Computers (C4) will play a pivotal role in supporting both deployed Australian and allied operations – this focuses on:
"The government’s plan for the ADF’s joint C4 capabilities include upgrades to the Deployable Joint Force Headquarters and the 1st Signals Regiment, to make Headquarters’ communications capability more deployable and survivable. This will complement ongoing investment in tactical datalinks, cryptographic equipment, multinational information sharing systems, command and control software applications, and high frequency radios."
This will be further supported by Joint intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities to better support the use of precision munitions, integrated ISR and command and control capabilities in the contested battlespace.
Maritime control, power projection and strike
As an island nation, Australia is directly impacted by the ocean and control of critical sea lines of communication, this was identified as part of the Commonwealth's unprecedented building in naval capability identified in the 2016 Defence White Paper and supporting Naval Shipbuilding Plan.
Supporting this, the government has committed to $75 billion over the next decade to "enhance Australia's maritime capability" and will be supported by an updated Naval Shipbuilding Plan scheduled for release later this year.
The government has reaffirmed its commitment to key investments, including the Hunter Class frigates, the Attack Class submarines, sustaining and upgrading the Anzac Class frigates and the Hobart Class destroyers.
These factors will also be supported by the "acquisition of maritime strike and advanced surface-to-air weapon systems to give the ADF more options to project force and protect itself in an environment where more countries have increasingly advanced systems".
Additionally, this will see Australia "acquire a range of advanced maritime guided weapons, including long-range anti-ship and land strike weapons, and extended range surface-to-air missiles, to give Defence more options to deter aggression against Australia’s interests".
Each of these will be additionally supported by the "expanded acquisition of maritime tactical remotely piloted aerial systems to enhance situational awareness across Australia’s vast maritime operating environment, and the provision of a torpedo self-defence suite to the surface fleet to counter advances in torpedo systems in our region".
Shifting to the submarine domain, the government has committed to maintaining the Attack Class submarine program and will continue to provide capability enhancements and life-of-type upgrades for the Collins Class submarines to ensure that Australia maintains a credible submarine force.
This will be further supported by the development and introduction of an "an integrated undersea surveillance system (including exploration of optionally crewed and/or un-crewed surface systems and un-crewed undersea systems), an undersea signature management range, and expanded undersea warfare facilities and infrastructure."
Australia's support and amphibious capabilities will also be supported as essential components of Australian power projection capability and will include the acquisition of the two Supply Class vessels and Canberra Class LHDs, supported by the "design, development and acquisition of two Australian-built multi-role sealift and replenishment vessels to replace HMAS Choules. This will greatly extend Navy’s ability to project and sustain the joint force".
Mine hunting, maritime border patrol and hydrographic capabilities will be supported through the continued acquisition of the Arafura and Cape Class vessels and will also pave the way for the introduction of additional unmanned mine hunting and hydrographic support vessels and the potential of an eight additional mine countermeasure and hydrographic vessels, "potentially based on the Arafura Class offshore patrol vessel design".
The fifth-gen Air Force and space capabilities
Air Force has been the high profile recipient of many major capability developments in recent years, with the acquisition of the F-35A Joint Strike Fighter, Super Hornets, Growler electronic attack aircraft and a range of support capabilities, this is something the government remains committed to as part of extending Australia's capability in the Indo-Pacific.
To support this, the government has identified a commitment to include:
- A fully integrated air combat management system to meet future air combat and air control management needs, and assure the ADF’s ability to deter or defeat threats to Australia’s interests amid rapid modernisation of air combat capability in the Indo-Pacific;
- The development, test and evaluation program for high-speed long-range strike and missile defence, including hypersonic weapons, leading to prototypes to inform future investments;
- Acquisition of remotely piloted and/or autonomous combat aircraft,including teaming air vehicles, to complement existing aircraft and increase the capacity of the air combat fleet; and
- Procurement and integration of advanced longer-range strike weapon systems onto combat aircraft to allow the Air Force to operate at greater range and avoid increasingly sophisticated air defences – this will also be supported by the acquisition of loitering munitions.
Both JORN and the Air Force's manned Growler, Peregrine and Sky Guardian RPAS fleets will be expanded to maintain Australia's regional technological advantage and ensure that Australia's strategic situational awareness remains peerless – these capabilities are expected to be supported by "ground control systems to enable situational awareness in heavily defended environments and/or where the electromagnetic system is contested by adversaries".
The government has also committed to the "replacement and expansion of the airborne electronic attack capability upon the retirement of the EA-18G Growler to ensure Australia retains an advanced electronic attack capability".
Air lift and tanker capability will be supported by the planned expanded replacement fleet for the C-130J Hercules and KC-30A multi-role tanker transport aircraft, respectively, and will see the introduction of additional C-17 heavy-lift aircraft and two additional KC-30As.
The pursuit of an integrated air and missile defence capability will also take precedent as part of a joint development program with the US and will also see an upgrade to the E-7A Wedgetail AEWC aircraft ahead of a planned replacement:
"In addition, plans for the E-7A replacement will now involve increasing the fleet to provide greater coverage of the highly-complex future air and joint-battlefield environment that will include a proliferation of autonomous systems and long-range and high-speed weapons."
Sovereign space capabilities will also see an extensive increase in capability, with the Prime Minister earmarking $7 billion to development space capabilities to include: "Investment of around $7 billion in space capabilities over the next decade, which includes investment in sovereign-controlled satellites, will provide assured access to these services when needed."
This capability will support "satellite communications and position, navigation and timing data are essential for the command and control of deployed forces".
"These systems enable the sharing of real-time operational and logistical information and or the placement, navigation and synchronisation of Defence assets," the government said.
Additionally, Australia will expand its support of space situational awareness capabilities with the US to maximise the integration and capabilities of existing and planed space-based intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and communications capabilities in the increasingly contested space domain.
Government's first port of call - the 'networked and hardened Army'
Not to be left out of the loop, the Australian Army is expected to undergo an extensive modernisation and capability enhancement program over the next decade with nearly $55 billion earmarked to enhance the capability of the Army in contested and high intensity combat scenarios.
These include the continued acquisition of the Boxer combat reconnaissance vehicle and replacement for the M113AS4 armoured personnel carriers, it will also see extensive upgrades and modernisations to the M1 Abrams tank fleet to ensure it remains a "regionally superior main battle tank, and measures to improve the sustainability of the tank fleet".
Additionally, this will be supported by defence preparing a list of options for the replacement of the Abrams as the platform reaches the end of its useful life with a focus on integrating the capability with the CRV and IFV/APC forces as they are introduced.
Expanding on the long-range focus outlined by the government, Defence will acquire a range of new capabilities, including:
- Procurement of a long-range rocket artillery and missile system and new combat engineering vehicles – including long-range rocket artillery and
missile systems, upgrades to the range of these systems to enable a land based operational strike capability, and the purchase of additional units to enable the capability to be expanded into a full regiment of three batteries;
- Two regiments of Self-Propelled Howitzers (the core of the Protected Mobile Fires capability), to be built in Geelong, Victoria, to complement existing land-based strike capabilities;
- Enhancement or replacement of the M777 155mm lightweight towed howitzer with a rapidly-deployable and lightweight artillery to maximise the flexibility of the ADF’s suite of artillery capabilities;
- Introduction of smart anti-tank mines, which will strengthen the ADF’s ability to shape the battlefield; and
- The establishment of a coordination office for the implementation of robotics and autonomous systems across the land force to enable, enhance and protect platforms and personnel in combat.
Expanding on Army's role in the force projection triangle, Army will be the beneficiary of "several large amphibious vessels to enhance the amphibious lift
capacity of the ADF, especially in Australia’s territorial waters and near region".
Meanwhile, Army Aviation will continue with the Tiger ARH replacement program under LAND 4503 and will continue to pursue the acquisition of a specialised special operations helicopter capability and the continued operation of the Ch-47F Chinook, supported by the "continued operation of tactical remotely piloted aerial vehicles to provide intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance in support of land forces".
Army is also committed to the longer-term acquisition of next-generation rotorcraft, similar to the US Army's Future Vertical Lift platforms currently under development and testing to better support long-range ground based power projection and high-intensity manoeuvre combat operations.
Land-based command and control, ISR and EW capabilities will also be supported through the replacement of the existing G Wagon fleet, and the acquisition of "next-generation counter remotely piloted aerial system to help counter the proliferation of these systems, and to raise a new Army unit dedicated to information warfare activities".
"Notably, Defence will substantially reduce the planned modernisation and consequent replacement of the G-Wagon vehicle fleet. Due to a lack of protection, these vehicles will not be deployable to future battlefields and their role will be accommodated by other vehicles such as the Bushmaster, Hawkei and heavy truck protected mobility fleets."
Australia’s position and responsibilities in the Indo-Pacific region will depend on the nation’s ability to sustain itself economically, strategically and politically.
Despite the nation’s virtually unrivalled wealth of natural resources, agricultural and industrial potential, there is a lack of a cohesive national security strategy integrating the development of individual yet complementary public policy strategies to support a more robust Australian role in the region.
Enhancing Australia’s capacity to act as an independent power, incorporating great power-style strategic economic, diplomatic and military capability serves as a powerful symbol of Australia’s sovereignty and evolving responsibilities in supporting and enhancing the security and prosperity of Indo-Pacific Asia.
However, as events continue to unfold throughout the region and China continues to throw its economic, political and strategic weight around, can Australia afford to remain a secondary power or does it need to embrace a larger, more independent role in an era of increasing great power competition?
Further complicating the nation’s calculations is the declining diversity of the national economy, the ever-present challenge of climate change impacting droughts, bushfires and floods, Australia’s energy security and the infrastructure needed to ensure national resilience.