Australia needs to stop buying vulnerable, expensive and obsolete military assets designed to fight wars elsewhere. Smaller, smarter and more effective “off the shelf” assets need be selected to defend Australia.


In short, here’s how:

Long-range stealth aircraftinstead of vulnerable & expensive frigates and destroyers
Off-the-shelf diesel-electric submarinesthat can stay submerged for weeks instead of big bespoke long-range submarines
Anti-ship missilesinstead of more tanks

The defence policies of the major parties use vulnerable surface ships, overpriced submarines and expeditionary forces to fight wars far from our shores. 

This plan aggregates advice from various defence experts into an affordable, coherent and practical new defence plan to counter the only real threats Australia now faces.


The threat landscape

Proliferation of precision guided weapons and sensors

The lethality and affordability of precision guided weapons continue to increase rapidly with multiple nations now fielding hypersonic and ballistic missiles. Surface ships will not survive for long in any serious conflict. Land-based targets are exposed to ‘surprise’ attacks from submarine-launched as well as ballistic missiles.

Networked sensor systems spread through space, the atmosphere and the sea mean large naval assets can be tracked and targeted from launch till destruction.

The ALP and LNP have failed to adapt to this and continue to purchase hugely expensive platforms such as the Hunter Class frigate and the diesel Attack Class submarine.

Many ADF assets remain highly concentrated at a few bases such as RAAF Base Tindal and HMAS Stirling that would be destroyed at the outset of a major war.

Equipment for the wrong wars

Most ADF assets are still purchased to assist the USA with wars in the middle east and would be of little value defending Australia. For example the F35A is too short range and is unable to effectively carry anti-ship missiles.

Our many armoured vehicles will be of little value in preventing an adversary reaching the shore.

The ALP and LNP continue in this mode. Purchase decisions seem to be more about jobs in marginal seats than defence.

Relative decline of traditional allies

The numerical and technical superiority that the United States, Japan and our other allies once enjoyed has been in steady decline for 20 years. Due to internal divisions the traditional allies are less able to defend Australia than they once were.

Terrorism and other threats

Some serious crime and terrorism is to be expected from time-to-time but mostly this will be dealt with by police forces. The ADF need only assist where military weapons are used by offenders.

Defence assets Australia should not buy

No more surface combatants

Air Defence Destroyer HMS Coventry sinks after being hit by two dumb bombs in 1982 (UK MoD).
Air Defence Destroyer HMS Coventry sinks after being hit by two dumb bombs in 1982 (UK MoD).

With the sky full of satellites and the sea full of sensors, large slow-moving surface combatants and their crews would be quickly killed in any serious conflict.

Warships have small arsenals that would quickly be exhausted by salvos of incoming missiles.

The Hobart class only has subsonic missiles with a range of about 120 km, far less than the competition. Assuming defensive weapons are 80% effective and incoming missiles arrive one-at-a-time, the cumulative chances of survival for a warship are as per the below ASPI analysis:

Incoming weapons12345678910
Probability of survival80%64%51%41%33%26%21%17%13%11%

The above is highly optimistic as it is unclear how any hypersonic missile could be defeated. 

As warships have to concentrate more on trying to defend themselves they are limited in what offensive roles they can take, making them an expensive liability in a major conflict. Fundamentally the Australian Democrats do not want Australia to try and project power – so warships are not required even if they could stay afloat.

Australia should not proceed with the nine planned Hunter Class Frigates or any other crewed surface combatants. Existing surface combatants should be used for maritime policing, humanitarian operations or be sold. 

None of Australia’s existing surface combatants should be deployed to any significant conflicts, in particular they should not be deployed anywhere near Taiwan or in the Persian Gulf.

Cancel the Attack Class submarine program

Current estimates are that each of the 12 Attack Class submarines will cost $7.5 billion each leading to a total program cost of over $80 billion for a diesel electric submarine. 

These submarines would still need to come to the surface each day to recharge their batteries as they have no Air Independent Propulsion (AIP) such as fuel cells. Given advanced nuclear submarines like Astute cost about $US 2.5 billion and off the shelf diesel electric boats such as Scorpene cost about $A1 billion this cost cannot be justified.

The major problem is the government is trying to build a long-range diesel electric submarine to try and “project power” – but diesel submarines cannot do that anyway.

No more tanks

The proposed “Lynx” infantry vehicle (left) and the existing “Boxer” armoured vehicle (centre). Planned Howitzers at right.

Australia has 200+“Boxer” armoured fighting vehicles on order already but is poised now to buy 450 Lynx or Redback Infantry Fighting Vehicles to replace the Vietnam-war era M113 armoured personnel carriers. The Lynx/Redback will cost $18 to $27 billion . 47 tonne Self Propelled Howitzers with a range of ~50 km are also planned which will have little strategic value compared to 1,000 km range missiles. 

Given that Australia is unlikely to be invaded by land and the Lynx and Howitzers can probably not be usefully deployed in our region they should not be purchased. The primary value of tank-like vehicles is for fighting wars with the USA in places such as Iraq and Iran which should not be a priority.

Note that the ADF already has 1,000+ Bushmaster Protected Mobility Vehicles and has 1,100 Hawkei Protected Mobility Vehicles on order with 100+ delivered. All these will struggle to survive combat against cheap drones as seen in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

Australia is also spending $2.5 billion replacing its 75 M1A1 Abrams tanks with the newer M1A2. At 70 tonne these vehicles are extremely hard to deploy and will break most roads and bridges in our region.

No more F-35 “Lightning”

Australia’s F-35 lacks the range, speed and payload to be either an air-superiority fighter or an effective maritime strike aircraft. Tanker aircraft can expand the combat radius somewhat but the tankers themselves are highly vulnerable. The F-35 can carry the new Long Range Anti Ship Missiles (LRASM), but only externally and not very far as weapons carried externally increase drag and destroy the stealthiness of the aircraft. No more F-35 should be purchased.

No more F/A-18 Super Hornets

These 24 planes can carry the new LRASM but are not stealthy or competitive with modern Chinese or Russian  fighter planes.  (The older ‘Classic’ F/A-18 Hornets are even more obsolete, some have already been sold to Canada.)

Prohibited Weapons

Australia should continue to abide by international agreements on indiscriminate weapons such as landmines, cluster munitions and chemical agents. Australia should not acquire nuclear weapons.


Our self-defence plan

The ADF should focus on defending Australia with weapons platforms that have a good chance of survival in a serious conflict. 

Spending many billions on large vulnerable assets should be avoided.

Nine B-21 Raiders instead of nine frigates – saving $36 Billion

Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit bomber
Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit bomber.

The B-21 Raider is the new version of the B-2 Spirit bomber (above). The B-21’s are projected to cost about $1A billion each compared to $A5 billion for each Hunter Class frigate

B-21 can range over 5,000 km to deliver 10+ long range anti-ship missiles per mission with much lower risk to the platform than if a warship was used. Unlike a warship the B-21 can run repeated sorties day after day to provide extensive sea denial. Stealth and survivability is the big advantage over our existing Boeing P-8A Poseidon.

The B-21 can launch maritime strikes from distributed bases in central Australia to beyond Indonesia, PNG and New Zealand. Basing them in central Australia keeps them well away from “surprise” submarine-launched attacks which you would expect on any bases near the coast.

In July 2019, the USAF Vice Chief of Staff indicated that the new B-21 will make its maiden flight sometime in December 2021. Production of Hunter class frigates is scheduled to start in 2022.

The US Secretary of Commerce has said the US would “look favourably” on an Australian request to participate in the B-21 Raider program. Allied involvement would cut costs for the USAF.

Neighbouring ASEAN countries should be invited to be closely involved with Australian B-21 operations and could provide co-pilots. This will help these countries see the B-21’s as more of a free asset that enhances their security rather than a threat. The main role for the B-21’s and its ordnance stockpile should be seen to be for maritime strike and air-to-air defence, not attacking land targets.

If the B-21 was not suitable other options could include drones such as Boeing Loyal Wingman (or similar) or land based missiles. Other medium-range stealth aircraft capable of carrying anti-ship missiles internally should also be examined.

An off-the-shelf design for the 12 new submarines saving $78 billion

12 Scorpène submarines with AIP would provide excellent defence for Australia

With B-21’s providing area denial via maritime strike, there is no need to build long-range diesel submarines to attempt suicidal attacks on heavily fortified and nuclear armed superpowers.

Given Naval Group produces the Scorpène and the Attack classes switching between the two should not be insurmountable. If not other off-the-shelf designs are available from Europe and Japan in the $A 1 billion price range. There is also an increasing number of underwater drones which could be used.

Given nine Scorpène have already been completed elsewhere the risks associated with building these in South Australia is far lower than with the bespoke Attack class. 

Only 32 crew are needed, about half the number needed for the Attack class.

With a 12,000 km range and 70 day endurance (with one FC2G module) the Scorpène can reinforce sea denial in our region if they are distributed to ports around Australia. The Scorpène’s ability to operate fully submerged for over two weeks makes it more capable than the Attack class near Australia.

Naval Group’s “Fuel Cell 2nd Generation” (FC2G) is a major game-changer for their conventional submarines. The stated underwater range of 18 days with one FC2G module would enable the Scorpène to travel from Australia to New Zealand without surfacing. 

The fuel cell modules generate hydrogen as needed from standard diesel fuel to use in the fuel cell with oxygen so is safe and easy to maintain.

(The Type 214 submarine would be another good option – see this post.)

Land-Based Anti-Ship Missiles instead of tanks

The Russian “Club-K” shipping-container based missile system as an example of what’s possible. YouTube

Locally produced land-based anti-ship missiles with a range of 500 to 1,500 km would be a cost-effective way to provide further sea denial around Australia. 

An example of an existing land-based anti-ship missile is the Russian “Kalibr” or “Club” missile range which can be mounted in a standard 40-foot shipping container. Variants of this missile have ranges up to 2,500 km – more than Sydney to Auckland. The People’s Republic of China also has a large number of land-based anti-ship missiles such as the DF-17 which pose an existential threat to any surface ships within 2,000 km of China.

Something like this but manufactured locally has the great advantage of being very hard for an enemy to target and preemptively destroy even with agents on the ground looking for them. Having a hundred hidden land-based anti-ship missiles is far more likely to deter an adversary from coming near Australia than similar spending on tanks, armoured vehicles or a few short range helicopters.

Overseas engagements approved by Parliament

All deployments of the ADF overseas should be approved by Parliament or in the event of an emergency (hostage rescue for example) by both the government and opposition leadership. Monthly reviews of the deployment should be held by Parliament.

Consideration should be given to dividing countries in the case of protracted civil war between divided communities. If the parties or the international community is unwilling to accept such division then continued participation of the ADF may be futile.

Oversight

Like any organisation the ADF needs independent oversight and auditing of operations. With the ADF this is needed to prevent human rights violations or other problematic behaviours from arising – especially on long and arduous overseas deployments. Media oversight of operations should also be permitted.

Inevitably some information must be redacted for security reasons but this should be kept to the bare minimum.

ANZUS

The AD recognises the non-binding ANZUS treaty and would continue to respect that text as it stands. Full text the treaty is here (AustralianPolitics.com).

Allowing the USA to operate bases such as at Pine Gap on Australian territory should be the major part of our contribution to that treaty. Assisting the USA with other conflicts needs to be considered on a case-by-case basis and probably is not required by the text of this treaty.

It is noted that while the text of the treaty may encourage the USA to come to Australia’s aid in some way in a conflict it does not guarantee Australia’s safety.

Economic resilience

Australia is highly vulnerable to being blockaded especially with regard to fuel supplies with only a few weeks reserves held locally. In the short term fuel reserves should be quickly increased. Incentives to improve the uptake of electric vehicles and encourage moving freight by rail need to be stepped up.

While military platforms may be better purchased overseas, ordinance and consumables should be manufactured here or held in large quantities.

Careful consideration needs to be given to other imports that if blocked would quickly lead to serious consequences. This includes semiconductors which are mostly made in Taiwan and many medical supplies.

Cyber security is another huge issue with multiple criminal and state actors exploiting any weakness. The government needs to mandate strong levels of encryption and other counter measures across the country.

A pathway to world peace

Defensive military systems such as anti-ship missiles, anti-tank missiles, short-range submarines are much cheaper and more effective than offensive defence assets such as a blue-water navy, aircraft carriers, amphibious landing craft, tanks, long-range aircraft and the like. 

For this reason a “Defensive Assets Only” treaty that limits offensive military assets while allowing defensive systems is conceivable and would advantage signatory nations economically and militarily. In the long term spending on defensive systems would become pointless if all countries signed-on to the treaty, although that’s a very long way away from where we are now.

References

Warship Vulnerability Carlo Kopp (AirPower Australia), also Just buying votes by Hugh White (The Age)

Australia’s navy is undergunned for denying long-range attackers Malcolm Davis (ASPI)

Surface warships: it’s not all plain sailing  Andrew Davies and Mark Thomson (ASPI)

Latest costs for the Attack Submarines and Hunter Class Frigates The Age, 14th Oct 2020)

What’s the strategy for the Australian Army’s new vehicles? Marcus Hellyer (ASPI)

LAND 400: Is a knight in shining armour really what we need? Marcus Hellyer (ASPI)

How to defend Australia: control and denial Hugh White (ASPI)

Cheap drones versus expensive tanks: a battlefield game-changer? Malcolm Davis (ASPI)

Land 400 combat vehicles: another disastrously wasteful defence purchase? Nicholas Stuart (SMH)

Australia’s F-35s: Lessons from a problematic purchase Peter Layton (Lowy Institute)

Projecting power with the F-35 (part 2): going further Marcus Hellyer (ASPI)

Is the B-21 bomber a viable option for Australia? Marcus Hellyer (ASPI)

US seemingly confirms potential for Aussie B-21 participation  Stephen Kuper (Defence Connect)

Loyal wingman leads the way Malcolm Davis (ASPI)

Australia should do more than just wait for the Attack-class submarines to arrive (ASPI)

Sea Control with “off the shelf” AIP-equipped submarines near Australia. Stephen Kuper (Defence Connect)

Naval Group Achieves Breakthrough With Its FC2G AIP System Xavier Vavasseur (Naval News)

Time to start thinking about land-based anti-ship missiles Jan K. Gleiman and Harry White (ASPI)

Shore-based anti-ship missiles: when the land commands the sea Alex Calvo (ASPI)

Running on empty – Australia has three weeks of liquid fuel. NZ has 3 months. David Samuel (The Spectator)

Hypersonic weapons are coming—whether we’re ready or not Andrew Davies (ASPI)

Hypersonic anti-ship missiles – incoming? Andrew Davies (ASPI)

Australia to build its own missiles with $1bn guided weapons facility David Crowe (The Age, Mar 2021)

Today’s F-35As Not Worth Including In High-End War Games Joseph Trevithick (The War Zone, April 2021)

Defence’s acquisition plan risks leaving ADF with stranded assets (Marcus Hellyer, ASPI, May 2021)

Why large, expensive crewed platforms like frigates and armoured vehicles will become stranded assets (Marcus Hellyer, ASPI, May 2021)

B-21 bomber could be Australia’s best long-range strike option (Marcus Hellyer, ASPI, May 2021)

Australia wasting $2.1 billion on unsurvivable propeller-driven drones (Bradley Perrett, ASPI, May 2021)

Australia considers German Type 214 submarine option (ABC News, May 2021. See also this post. )

Australia’s new tanks are overkill and overweight (Declan Sullivan, ASPI, June 2021)

Why is Australia still investing in a “balanced” defence force? (Hans J. Ohff and Jon Stanford, ASPI, July 2021)