Australia’s strategic force multiplier, the JORN network, has been earmarked as a major beneficiary of the government’s $270 billion 2020 Defence Strategic Update with an expansion to cover most of the south Pacific, but should this expansion also include a linked defensive and offensive capacity?
The strategic buttress of congested waterways and densely populated archipelagos of the 'sea-air gap' has formed the backbone of Australia’s defence and national security policy since the late-1980s.
Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam conflict at the behest of the US signalled a major shift in the direction of the nation’s strategic policy that continues to influence Australia’s doctrine to this day.
Domestic political backlash and a changing geo-strategic environment would see Australia adopt an arguably more isolationist policy, focusing almost entirely on the 'Defence of Australia'.
This shifting domestic and regional environment saw the formalisation of the Defence of Australia (DoA) policy in the 1986 Dibb report and the subsequent 1987 and 1994 Defence White Papers, which established the sea-air gap as a strategic buffer zone for Australia, enabling the reorientation of Australia's strategic and broader defence industry posture and shifting away from what Dibb identifies:
"Until the late 1960s, Australian defence planning and policy assumed that our forces would normally operate in conjunction with allies, and well forward of the continent. We saw our security inextricably linked with the security of others."
Dibb's report leveraged the 1973 Strategic Basis paper's focus on the nation's isolation to reinforce the concept of the 'tyranny of distance' as justification for reducing Australia's interventionist role and capabilities in the region:
"Australia is remote from the principal centres of strategic interest of the major powers, namely western Europe and east Asia, and even those of secondary interest, the Mediterranean, the Middle East and the north-west Pacific."
The 'sea-air gap' encompasses what has long been defined as Australia's 'sphere of primary strategic interests' – the narrow maritime sea lines of communication and air approaches to the north of the Australian landmass throughout south-east Asia that served as the nation's strategic, economic and political links to the broader region, through what would eventually become known as the Indo-Pacific.
With roots dating back to the Second World War, JORN is not only one of the longest standing defence projects in Australian history, it is also one of the nation's key tactical and strategic force multipliers.
Responsible for providing a state-of-the-art defence system and wide area surveillance across the nation's northern approaches, JORN plays a vital role in supporting the Australian Defence Force’s air and maritime operations, border protection, disaster relief and search and rescue operations.
Recognising the pivotal role JORN plays in the nation's strategic posture and capabilities, the government's 2020 Defence Strategic Update an associated $270 billion of funding has committed to the expansion of the JORN network, expanding the system's focus to the eastern seaboard.
The 2020 Defence Strategic Update clearly articulates this capability: "We [the Commonwealth government] will also increase investment in capabilities that support the ADF’s awareness of our immediate region.
"This includes expanding the Jindalee Operational Radar Network to provide wide area surveillance of Australia’s eastern approaches. The Jindalee Operational Radar Network, based on world-leading Australian technology, currently provides comprehensive surveillance of Australia’s northern and western approaches and is a vital component of Australia’s strategic surveillance network."
While this investment provides an important expansion of an existing capability, the increasing proliferation of advanced missiles, combined with the increasing numbers of advanced power projection-oriented surface warships limits the effectiveness of the JORN network.
Again, the government seems to have recognised this capability gap in the 2020 Defence Strategic Update, with the Prime Minister himself articulating a growing focus on both long-range strike weapons and area denial systems:
"These must be able to hold potential adversaries, forces, and infrastructure at risk from greater distance and therefore influence their calculus of costs involved in threatening Australia's interests.
"This includes developing capabilities in areas such as longer-range strike weapons, cyber-capabilities, area denial systems, and at the same time our actions must be true to who we are as a nation, a people, what we value, for ourselves, our friends, for our neighbours."
Recognising this, is it time to directly link the JORN network with a suite of offensive and defensive capabilities to form a true Australian strategic umbrella?
Combining JORN and Aegis ashore?
JORN has long served as a key force multiplier for the ADF, providing unprecedented over-the-horizon surveillance capabilities to monitor contingencies and co-ordinate responses to the north of the continent.
Combining this capability with the growing power of integrated air and missile defence systems, in unison with advanced, multi-domain ‘shooters’, provides traditional ‘defence in depth’.
Aegis ashore meanwhile provides a highly capable missile defence system – building on the successful integration to the Aegis combat system on US, Australian, Japanese and South Korean warships while incorporating 'shoot down' capabilities and interoperability with a range of 'sensor' and 'shooter' platforms, including the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, E-7A Wedgetail, P-8A Poseidon, Hobart Class and Hunter Class, and the recently announced $2 billion LAND 19 Phase 7B program.
While Japan has, at least at this stage, withdrawn from the Aegis ashore program, the nation's continued commitment to the broader Aegis combat system and suite of capabilities, combined with the growing number of Aegis capable warships both in Australia and key allies, serves as a strong vote of confidence for the platform.
Aegis ashore serves as a potent tactical and strategic force multiplier and 'goal keeper' enabling freedom of movement for air, land and sea-based assets throughout the theatre despite increasingly advanced and prolific ballistic and cruise missile systems fielded by adversaries like Russia, China and North Korea.
Combining the over-the-horizon surveillance capabilities of JORN – estimated to be capable of providing wide area surveillance at ranges of 1,000 to 3,000 kilometres – with the capabilities of Aegis can be used to form a key strategic integrated air and missile defence (IAMD) system for the long-range defence of the Australian mainland.
Further supporting the broader integration of these systems is the introduction of the $1 billion AIR 6500 program, which is designed as a joint battle management system that will interconnect the many disparate platforms, systems and sensors across the air, land, space, electromagnetic and cyber domains into a collaborative environment that provides shared situational awareness of the battlespace and the ability to rapidly plan responses to threats.
JORN, Aegis ashore and area denial?
The intrinsic link between Aegis and platforms like the Mk 41 vertical launch systems (VLS) based onboard Aegis equipped destroyers and frigates in Australian and allied navies provides incredible opportunity for the nation to establish its own A2/AD network that penetrates well into the Indo-Pacific – while also drawing on the incredible interoperability, sensor fusion and strike capabilities of existing and developing platforms.
The commonality of the Mk 41 system, combined with the development of increasingly potent long-range anti-ship missile systems, including the Kongsberg/Raytheon Naval Strike Missile/Joint Strike Missile family, the Lockheed Martin AGM-158C Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM) and upgraded variants of the Raytheon Tomahawk cruise missile, all provide viable, cost effective A2/AD capabilities.
Furthermore, the commonality of air and missile defence systems like Evolved SeaSparrow Missile (ESSM), SM-3 and SM-6 systems, and interoperability of said platforms with both Aegis and the Mk 41 VLS, further enhance both the A2/AD and IAMD capabilities of the broader network, but Aegis ashore in particular.
This 'knitting' together of individual capabilities, combined with the government's commitment to developing long-range strike and hypersonic strike weapon capabilities will serve to provide a quantum leap in the ADF's capabilities and the strategic deterrence options available to the nation and its allies.
In light of this, can it be reasonably and legitimately argued that the 2020 Defence Strategic Update and the Force Structure Plan represent a "new defence paradigm", or is it a case of more of the same?
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.