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Undersea warfare capability should surface in DSR

Opinion: Economic coercion, cyber attacks, aggressive behaviour in international waters, incursions into national air spaces, and other assertive actions have revealed China as a clear and present threat, writes defence industry consultant Air Vice-Marshal (Ret’d) Peter Nicholson.

Opinion: Economic coercion, cyber attacks, aggressive behaviour in international waters, incursions into national air spaces, and other assertive actions have revealed China as a clear and present threat, writes defence industry consultant Air Vice-Marshal (Ret’d) Peter Nicholson.

The government has recognised this and commissioned the Defence Strategic Review (DSR) to identify issues that must be addressed to deal with a significantly changed strategic environment. The DSR report has been delivered to government and is expected to be released in the next week or so. However, some of the recommendations have already been revealed, key among them the need for a manifest offensive capability, called “impactful projection” by the Minister for Defence. This changes Australia’s previous defensive and reactive strategic posture to one that supports the deterrence of threats and an ability to deal with them should deterrence fail. A credible offensive strike capability will extend across all domains of warfare of air, land, sea (both surface and underwater), cyber, and possibly even space.

The second area that will likely be addressed in the DSR is air and missile defence. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) does not have the power projection capability to threaten Australia from the Chinese mainland, and this is why the bases and deployed PLA forces in the South China Sea and the South Pacific are important. However, China does have the capability to threaten Australia from the mainland using ballistic missiles and is developing the capability to launch ballistic missiles from submerged submarines. So, in addition to traditional air defence, Australia needs a ballistic missile defence capability.


Undersea warfare is a third area that has received insufficient attention in the past and should be addressed in the DSR. The deterrent effect of submarines has long been understood by Australian governments and defence planners, and this capability will be substantially enhanced by the planned acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines to replace the present Collins Class boats. Like most complex weapons systems, submarines have both an offensive and a defensive role but the deterrent effect comes from the offensive and counterforce aspects of the capability.

The defensive component of undersea warfare is critically important for Australia as a trading nation to protect our sea lines of communication (SLOC). Australian trade is particularly vulnerable to disruption by an aggressor state because of our extensive coastline and the wide dispersion of our ports. However, our underwater defensive capability has been neglected and, in particular, our Mine Counter Measures (MCM) capability needs a substantial upgrading.  

The recent announcement of a $1 billion smart sea mines acquisition highlights the importance the government places on the Navy’s mine warfare capability. 

Mine Counter Measures and the associated underwater Military Survey have benefited by the application of several advanced technologies that support unmanned and autonomous operations to detect, locate, identify, and neutralise modern mines that could be deployed by an adversary to restrict access to our ports. This third generation MCM allows a mother ship to stand-off and deploy a variety of unmanned and autonomous surface and underwater vehicles to clear the minefield and establish a safe path for manned vessels.  

The selection of who will supply the next generation MCM capability for the Royal Australian Navy under Project SEA 1905 draws together several very topical issues. 

First, autonomous systems generate an asymmetric military power proposition, demonstrated at present by the innovative employment of remotely operated and autonomous drones by Ukrainian forces facing a large and powerful aggressor. Small, relatively cheap, off-the-shelf drones are defeating large, expensive enemy assets. A similar approach using unmanned and autonomous systems by Australia would compensate for our small population and large area of interest. As the Chief of Air Force recently observed, autonomous system can create the force mass that otherwise Australia lacks. Australia is not alone in this trend, with the US Navy planning to create a world-first fleet of 100 drones. The recent US Navy Exercise Digital Horizon held in the Persian Gulf trialled unmanned and autonomous vehicles and is a clear demonstration that the world’s military is moving towards these systems. 

Second, the history of defence acquisitions has been primarily limited to a relatively small handful of overseas-originated defence primes. This reflects a lack of appetite for risk and a preference for familiarity that ignores that the best solution may not always be offered by the same defence primes every time. However, it is important to note that often Australia does not have the sovereign capability to acquire and sustain our nation’s rapidly evolving operational requirements. Local companies can accelerate their development of expertise through appropriate IP sharing from experienced international defence partners. 

Third, Defence must buy the best systems available. Both the Minister for Defence and his Minister for Defence Industry colleague have observed that a “counterproductive obsession” with local content quotas for acquisitions must not prevent Defence purchasing the best equipment for the ADF. The French company Exail, short-listed for SEA 1905, has over 90 years of defence pedigree and offers a world-leading, operationally proven third generation MCM system capability that Australia currently lacks. Exail has a proven record of sharing its intellectual property and is focused on working closely with Australian companies like UGL, Acacia Systems, Mission Systems, Australian research institutions and universities, and others, to develop a genuine sovereign capability. Most importantly, the third-generation solution offered by Exail is off-the-shelf and can be rapidly put into service.

Fourth, SEA 1905 provides an additional opportunity for a reset of Australian-French relations. After the recent visit by the Minister for Defence and the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade for the two-plus-two meetings with their French counterparts, they announced a joint 155mm ammunition production program. This was a diplomatically strategic announcement to highlight the positive reset in bilateral relations following cancellation of the French submarine contract.  Another substantial French contract announcement won on merits would go a great way towards cementing the improved reset relations.

As the government deliberates on the Defence Strategic Review, the acquisition of unmanned and autonomous undersea robots is a key area. With the acquisition of smart sea mines, the government is making strides in the right direction, and with the SEA 1905 tender, the outdated Mine Counter Measures game is being taken into the 21st century. Exail is well-positioned to help Australia achieve its goal of having an autonomous robot capability in the defence sector, while also ensuring a balance between local content and IP transfer from world-leading companies that provide real capability needed for the Royal Australian Navy and Australia.

Peter Nicholson is a retired Air Vice-Marshal who has served as the Air Commander Australia and as the Head of Strategic Plans and Policy in the Department of Defence in a 32-year career in the RAAF.  He is a director of the strategic consulting company AadiDefence Pty Ltd and is assisting Exail to transfer advanced undersea warfare capability to the RAN.

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