Australia: We can’t rely on US military might, and our own is a joke

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Australia: We can’t rely on US military might, and our own is a joke

Australians have little sense of how grave their strategic circumstances potentially are. Our ability to inflict pain and cost on any serious aggressor is almost zero.
By GREG SHERIDAN

The Morrison government is planning to acquire Tomahawk missiles for use on our Collins class submarines, Air Warfare Destroyers and Hunter class future frigates. The long-range Tomahawks will give Australia a strategic strike capability it hasn’t had since the retirement of the F111 fighter bomber. This is some time off, but in a related development the US congress last week authorised the sale of SM6 long-range missiles to Australia. These are destined for the AWDs and the new frigates. These missiles can be used for anti-ship strikes, air defence, land attack and even ballistic missile defence.

Tomahawks are a precision weapon and have a range of at least 1500km. More advanced Tomahawks will extend that range substantially.

These are two signs of a big swing towards increased missile capacity for Australia, which is a direct response to our worsening strategic circumstances, specifically the threat of China.

The US humiliation in Afghanistan makes everything worse.

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s government, unerringly sensing Joe Biden’s weakness, has moved to link climate change to strategic competition, bluntly warning Biden that if Washington persists in countering China, Beijing will make sure Biden fails in his climate ambitions.

This demonstrates the inextricable connection between domestic and foreign politics.

Beijing used the same diplomatic judo on Barack Obama, effectively offering him ultimately meaningless climate commitments in exchange for Washington going soft on the South China Sea.

Biden is in political trouble. He can’t do anything on climate without China, and if he loses on climate, he loses much of whatever enthusiasm remains in the Democratic Party activist base.

In this intensely difficult time, Australia needs to manage the alliance proactively and pursue much greater self-reliance in security. In parliament this week, Defence Minister Peter Dutton repeatedly said the situation in the Indo-Pacific is deteriorating, and is as uncertain as the period leading up to World War II.

Scott Morrison thought he would be going to Washington this month for the first in-person summit of the Quadrilateral Dialogue involving the US, Australia, India and Japan. However, in a further fallout of domestic politics on geo-strategy, this is probably rendered impossible by Japan’s Prime Minister, Yoshihide Suga, deciding to stand down. The Quad summit may now be postponed until late October.

Meanwhile, Dutton and Foreign Minister Marise Payne will mid-month travel to Washington for this year’s AUSMIN.

Australians still have little sense of how grave their strategic circumstances potentially are. The 20th anniversary of the war on terror is a disaster for the US. The encouragement the Taliban victory gives to terrorists – witness the apparently Islamic State-inspired attack in Auckland – is the least of the outcomes. Biden’s decision to convene a Quad summit is one part of the US system trying to project presence, mastery, competence and commitment in the Indo-Pacific.

However, there’s another lesson Australia should draw from the Afghanistan disaster. The Afghans collapsed in part because their leadership never came to grips with the idea that they might have to cope without the Americans.

If the Western alliance fails, it will be because almost all US allies, with the full exception of Israel and the partial exception of Britain, have based everything on the idea that America will solve all their military problems and they therefore do not take responsibility for themselves. The administration of George W Bush was intensely frustrated even with Taiwan that it would not buy US military equipment it made available. Like all US allies, Taiwan was willing to fight to the last American for its freedom. Now, Taiwan is embracing the kind of asymmetric capabilities which could raise the cost of invasion to Beijing, and therefore potentially change its calculations. Its president has said Taiwan must be able and willing to defend itself.

Australia is not pulling its weight in defence. We are making very little attempt to be in a position to defend ourselves, should that ever be necessary. How can this be, with our $200bn naval shipbuilding plan, our $40bn for armour for the army, our more than 2 per cent of GNP spending on defence?

This is a paradox. No modern government has done more than the Morrison government to build Australia’s defence capability. It deserves credit for this. In Dutton we have the best Defence Minister at least since the Howard government. But we don’t spend anywhere near enough to match the gravity of our circumstances. We also build in a huge cost premium by building equipment in Australia, though that is necessary to sustain broad political support as well as sovereign capability. We are also generally a very high-cost country. Our troops are expensive. We get less bang for our buck, and we don’t spend enough bucks.

We also waste a prodigious amount of money on irrelevant capabilities. And the relevant capabilities we are building are not set to arrive until the mid-2030s.


In the next few weeks, the government will announce its decision on Core Work Scope 2 of the French attack class submarines. Canberra will likely go ahead with that contract, which involves a commitment over the next two and a half years.

It will need to re-market the French sub. Any move away from it would add catastrophic new delay.

But at the same time it should begin to announce a whole raft of new capabilities which we can acquire over the next several years. The future frigate is now suffering delays comparable to the subs, and we don’t get even the first of our new frigates until 2033 at the earliest.

The Morrison government is increasingly frustrated at the insanely slow, leisurely, majestic, and untroubled pace at which the Defence Organisation moves. It wants one or two of everything, everything must be massively over-designed, gold-plated and over-capable, and therefore generally impossible to operate for the first half decade of its use. It will almost never buy something that actually exists – such as a working frigate – but prefers elegant, unproved designs that challenge the laws of physics.

As a result, we have, as Coalition senator and former major general Jim Molan outlined in a devastating podcast with John Anderson this week, an ADF that could not last more than a week in a serious fight, which is, in Molan’s words “a one-shot defence force”, which absolutely lacks lethality and sustainability.

Defence equipment can be confusing for the layman. So let’s offer a few clear, stark illustrations. It was way back in the 2009 Defence White Paper that the then government (of Kevin Rudd) identified China’s growing capabilities and assertiveness as a huge problem for Australia and concluded that we needed to double our submarine force and increase our defence effort.

In the 12 years since then, we have added just one, theoretically offensive military capability – the three Air Warfare Destroyers. They had been approved and ordered before the 2009 White Paper but at least we have delivered them. We have also got a couple of dozen F-35 fifth-generation Joint Strike Fighters, which were also approved before 2009 and which replace retiring Hornets.

In other words, we have effectively done nothing. We have updated and modernised some of our kit as we go along, but we have not expanded. Our forces are bizarrely designed to provide niche capabilities to slot into US expeditionary ventures in the Middle East. They are not designed to project any power in our region. Our big platforms such as the AWDs and the Anzac frigates, are essentially defensive. The Anzacs have very short-range air defence capabilities. The AWDs have 48 missile vertical launch cells each. Yet missiles are everything in modern warfare.

Comparable Chinese and US ships have more than twice that many vertical launch cells. And they have hundreds of such ships. Our new frigates will have a pathetic 32 missile launch cells. Most of these missiles will have to be reserved for air defence of the ships themselves. Our ability to inflict pain and cost on any serious aggressor is almost zero.

Australia is failing in doctrine and in practice. In simple terms, we need asymmetric capabilities which can inflict damage, cost and pain on a much bigger aggressor. But because our military thinks of itself as part of the US military, it sits on the wrong side of asymmetry. It thinks of itself as a big power trying to defend against asymmetric attack, whereas it is a little power which should be trying to master asymmetric attack.

Asymmetry is the way the weak defeat the strong by imposing impossible costs on them. The Taliban learnt to use fertiliser to make roadside bombs. This cost Australian lives and hundreds of millions of dollars as we had to redesign our armoured vehicles and engage in the most elaborate countermeasures.

A couple of years ago, Yemeni Houthis, using drones supplied by Iran, were able to penetrate Saudi Arabia’s expensive American air defence systems and wreak crippling damage on Saudi oil facilities. So you might think armed drones would be pretty important to a military like Australia, with a lot of money. We do not yet possess one single armed drone. Not one!

The armed drone we have finally decided to acquire, the Certifiable Predator (great name by the way) is the most expensive in the business and is optimised for counter-terrorism operations in a country like Afghanistan. It has no real maritime application.

Instead, we buy or build a tiny number of hugely expensive warships. The new frigates will cost in the order of $3bn each and are huge and slow. Because we have so few ships, all our ships must do everything. Therefore the new frigates are wildly over-designed, and in attempting to do everything, will not do anything particularly well.

Missiles are the dominant currency of modern warfare yet we are going to spend $3bn on a ship with only 32 missiles to launch for all purposes.

The ship is too expensive, and the large crew too precious, for us ever to contemplate losing it, so we will almost certainly never use it in battle.

Instead, we should be developing large numbers of mobile weapons, any one of which we can afford to lose. If we were serious about building up our capacity for genuine strategic effect and self-reliance in a meaningful time frame, there are a whole lot of things we could do. We could build a fourth and even fifth AWD. They are smaller, cheaper and faster than the new frigates and have 48 instead of 32 missile cells.

We could put medium and long range anti-ship missiles on our offshore patrol vessels. These ships are small and don’t have any air defence. But an AWD has eight anti-ship missiles. Put the same number on an OPV, send them out together and you’ve got double the maritime strike capability. You could build more OPVs quickly.

When we get Tomahawks we should urgently investigate the land-launched Tomahawks the US army is developing. We should acquire hundreds or even thousands of smart sea mines and keep them in many locations around Australia. Smart sea mines can choose which ships they hit and make any passage of water unpredictably dangerous for an enemy. We should purchase and develop a wide array of armed drones, some of which could be carried by the OPVs. We should urgently develop and acquire unmanned underwater vessels to augment and compliment our subs.

The government gets this to some extent but the Defence Organisation doesn’t. Everything the government is doing on missiles is good but it’s monstrously slow.

The Defence Organisation hates the idea of increasingly relying on unmanned weapons systems.

Having long ago graduated from the Royal Navy, the Australian Defence Organisation now still really wants to be part of the US Navy. But even the US Navy is coming to realise a force structure dominated by impossibly expensive, huge platforms may not be able to withstand the swarming attacks of modern, hi-tech asymmetry, including missiles.

The Afghanistan debacle is another wake-up call for us. So far, we seem to be sleeping through the alarm.

 

RogerRanger

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This is the most obvious thing ever. Australia is a weak power, with a weak military. It should work on defensive operations around and in Australia. Stop wasting its resources on stuff to support the American Empire.
 

RogerRanger

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Okay. So I read the article. I agreed with much of it.

However this constant desire to sink enemy ships to 'hurt them' and project power is very insidious. Drones are basically useless in a state on state war, because they can be tracked and shot down very easy or use EMP to take them out the sky. Iran did this to a US drone. The reason why the Yemen drone worked is because 1 the Saudi's are rubbish, and two because they didn't expect it. The lesson here is always do the unexpected.

If you want to take on Indian/China/Japan/Indonesia, you need to be able to defend Australia first and foremost. You need a air defence network, you need lots of artillery, you need air defence fighters, small coastal submarines, fast attack boats, ground attack aircraft, maneuver infantry brigades and light-tanks to move rapidly around Australia. The Australia road and rail network is bad. So Australia has totally the wrong kind of military.
 

Gary

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Comparable Chinese and US ships have more than twice that many vertical launch cells. And they have hundreds of such ships. Our new frigates will have a pathetic 32 missile launch cells. Most of these missiles will have to be reserved for air defence of the ships themselves. Our ability to inflict pain and cost on any serious aggressor is almost zero.

an 8 cell Mk-41 on an Anzac class could carry as much anti aircraft missile used in the type 054A 32 cell VLS when loaded with quad packed ESSM.

Might want to remember that the ESSM offers similar range, more advanced seeker and probably better kinematics than its closest Chinese rival, the HQ-16, the principal medium range anti air missile found on Chinese surface warships. which is not only twice as heavy, almost twice as long and certainly not quad packed able.

now imagine how much anti aircraft missile could a 32 cell VLS type 26 frigate will carry??

one possible loadout could 16 VLS loaded with LRASM/Tomahawk while the remaining half could be loaded with up to 64 ESSM. add that to a possible addition of 8 canister launched SSM for a total loadout of 88 missile.

That's more firepower than a Type 052D which don't have quad pack carrying ability for it's VLS
 

RogerRanger

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an 8 cell Mk-41 on an Anzac class could carry as much anti aircraft missile used in the type 054A 32 cell VLS when loaded with quad packed ESSM.

Might want to remember that the ESSM offers similar range, more advanced seeker and probably better kinematics than its closest Chinese rival, the HQ-16, the principal medium range anti air missile found on Chinese surface warships. which is not only twice as heavy, almost twice as long and certainly not quad packed able.

now imagine how much anti aircraft missile could a 32 cell VLS type 26 frigate will carry??

one possible loadout could 16 VLS loaded with LRASM/Tomahawk while the remaining half could be loaded with up to 64 ESSM. add that to a possible addition of 8 canister launched SSM for a total loadout of 88 missile.

That's more firepower than a Type 052D which don't have quad pack carrying ability for it's VLS
Excellent points and comment. I often forget this about the upgraded British ships.
 

Ryder

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Australia and New Zealand need to bolster their relations we need to be more like Turkey and Azerbaijan and take our love further with economic, military and political cooperation.

Australia might be allied with the USA but Australia will always see Britain as the original ally and protector.
 

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