ASPI senior analyst Dr Malcolm Davis has issued a challenge for Australia’s political and strategic leaders, calling on them to begin the planning and acquisition of a credible Australian long-range air defence capability that will be future-proofed in light of existing and emerging regional threats.
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.
However, as the region continues to evolve it is critical to understand the role the sea-air gap will continue to play in strategic calculations.
Recognising this, Dr Malcolm Davis, senior analyst with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), has called on Australia's political and strategic planners to "build the capability to defend Australia against the long-range, very high-speed threats being developed in our region".
For Dr Davis, this requires a range of different solutions to meet the range of advanced missile, space and aircraft-based challenges emerging throughout the region, driven largely by advances in China's strategic force multipliers.
A role for JSF, but there needs to be a focus on long-range
Dr Davis said Australia's multibillion-dollar super plane the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter will continue to play an important role in the the nation's air defence, however it is designed to serve a specific function within part of a broader, integrated air defence network and encapsulates Australia's existing AIR 6500 plans.
"The RAAF’s F-35A fighters should achieve final operational capability around 2023 and remain in service into the 2040s ... The F-35A is well equipped for air defence beyond the visual, but lacks the range and payload necessary to stay long in a fight. Yet long-range air defence is becoming even more important in the face of emerging standoff missile threats," Dr Davis stated.
However, he believes that the nation needs to begin focusing on the rapid development and proliferation of advanced missile and aircraft platforms, like China's growing fleet of traditional and anti-ship ballistic missiles including the DF-16, DF-21 and China's pursuit of advanced, long-range strategic strike aircraft like the H-6K/N, H-20 stealth bomber and the "rumoured" J/H-XX counterpart.
"China deployed its H-6K bomber onto Woody Island in the South China Sea in 2018. From there it has the range to deliver land-attack and anti-ship cruise missiles against targets across Australia’s north," Dr Davis said.
"China is also developing an air-launched ballistic missile (ALBM). Artwork recently appeared in a government-run Chinese military journal of an H-6N bomber carrying what appeared to be an ALBM based on a DF-15 ballistic missile. Later, communist party mouthpiece Global Times downplayed the story. China’s development of new long-range strike aircraft, including the H-20 stealth bomber and its rumoured ‘J/H-XX’ counterpart, would add to a complex threat environment.
"Along with its development of a standoff strike capability, China is engaging in influence campaigns in south-east Asia and the south Pacific that could provide it with access to airfields which in turn could bring Chinese fighter aircraft closer to Australia. Such a development would fundamentally alter our strategic calculus and compound our air defence challenge."
Each of these capabilities are highlighted by Dr Davis as part of an integrated capability package, designed to overwhelm existing defence arrangements and limit the capacity of both Australia and regional partners, including Japan, South Korea and the US in its role as an offshore balancer to respond to.
Time to restructure AIR 6500 to focus on long-range air defence?
The disparate nature of threats and the overlap between tactical, theatre and strategic challenges each require different levels of response, yet such a response needs to be an integrated one to ensure that the system becomes more than the sum of its parts.
"Australia is enhancing its air defences by networking its F-35s with its Aegis-equipped Hobart Class air warfare destroyers, its yet-to-be-built Hunter Class frigates and its E-7A Wedgetail early warning aircraft," Dr Davis said.
"The goal is to deliver a common operating picture under a ‘cooperative engagement capability’. That will make individual ships and aircraft much more effective than the sum of their parts, an incredibly important step forward for the Australian Defence Force."
Further to this, Dr Davis explains the need for Australia's response to be capable of countering the increasing proliferation of standoff missile threats, stating: "An ability to counter standoff missile threats needs to be a priority, and that means detecting threats sooner and at greater range.
"Extending our sensor capability beyond that provided by the Jindalee Operational Radar Network to include greater use of space systems is one option. The US has already suggested that increased use of space-based sensors could be a way to deal with a growing hypersonic missile threat from China and Russia. Australia should seek to participate in the development of such a capability."
AIR 6500 and Plan Jericho serve as the basis for Australia's pursuit of a complex, integrated air and missile defence system responsible for providing a range of capabilities – ranging from tactical air and missile area defence for forward deployed Army expeditionary units, through to a layered, continental air and missile defence system.
At the core of these programs is a focus on developing a complex 'system of systems' linking the disparate family of platforms and systems, like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, E-7A Wedgetail, P-8A Poseidon, Hobart Class and Hunter Class, which will provide a quantum surge in the way the ADF conducts independent and coalition operations.
AIR 6500 is 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.
Supporting the introduction of the $1 billion AIR 6500 program is the $1.2 billion AIR 2025 Phase 6 upgrade of JORN, which will focus on enhancing the capability of the JORN system to provide 24-hour military surveillance of the northern and western approaches to Australia, maximising the nation's 'defence in depth' capabilities.
Further supporting these continental air and missile defence and the underlying A2/AD capabilities is the growing long-range, distributed lethality capabilities of the ADF's broader network of 'sensors' and 'shooters', including systems like the Hobart Class, F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, E-7A Wedgetail, P-8A Poseidon and the recently announced $2 billion LAND 19 Phase 7B program.
Additionally, Dr Davis believes that Phase 2 of AIR 6500 needs to directly respond to the growing threat of long-range missile capabilities, stating: "The challenge here, though, is that Phase 2 of AIR 6500 doesn’t emphasise long-range missile capabilities and instead focuses on battlefield air defence and medium-range ground-based air defence.
"That seems to reflect a broader strategic mindset that eschews long-range military power projection and is inconsistent with emerging threat environments."
Dr Davis summarised the predicament perfectly when he told Defence Connect: "We need to burden share to a much greater degree than before and accept that we can no longer base our defence planning on the assumption that in a major military crisis or a period leading up to a future war, the US will automatically be there for us.
"In fact, if we want to avoid that major military crisis, we have to do more than adopt a purely defensive/denial posture, and be postured well forward to counterbalance a rising China or to be able to assist the US and other key allies, notably Japan, to respond to challenges. We can’t be free-riders."
Australia’s geographic isolation and size presents a series of operational and strategic challenges for implementing a layered system of continental defence.
Nevertheless, there has been an introduction of increasingly capable ballistic missiles and long-range strike aircraft throughout the region, most recently with announcements of a successful precision-guided long-range ballistic missile by North Korea and the increasing capability of China’s own bomber force and growing ballistic and cruise missile systems.
Australia’s security and prosperity are directly influenced by the stability and prosperity of the Indo-Pacific, meaning Australia must be directly engaged as both a benefactor and leader in all matters related to strategic, economic and political security, serving as either a replacement or complementary force to the role played by the US – should the US commitment or capacity be limited.