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On Target: Defending south of Australia’s ‘First Island Chain’ – Part 3

Brian Weston 'On Target - Defending south of Australia’s ‘First Island Chain’ – Part 3' in Australian Defence Business Review, May/June 2020 pp 72-74

The two recent On Target columns in the Jan-Feb and Mar-Apr issues of ADBR noted the strategic importance to Australia’s security of ‘Australia’s First Island Chai’ ‒ the island chain stretching from Sri Lanka to Fiji. The most recent column concluded that, given the geo-political changes taking place in the Indo-Pacific, perhaps it is time for Australia to focus on the preparedness of the ADF to conduct credible operations in this vast theatre.

Without downplaying the importance of the Australia-US alliance, global issues might dictate that anticipated levels of US military and logistic support fall short of Australian expectations ‒ a not unreasonable assumption given the commitments the US has in the Indo-Pacific (Japan, South Korea and Taiwan), in Europe (especially in Eastern Europe and the Baltic), in South Central Europe and the Black Sea, and in the Middle East.

Across the globe the US ‒ facing a militarised China under the rule of an autocratic, nationalistic, aggressive and belligerent Communist Party of China ‒ might be forced to focus its limited Indo-Pacific military resources on matching China’s capabilities, especially air and naval, from established US bases in Japan, South Korea and the Central Pacific. That could lead to the US leadership ‘delegating’ to Australia, the conduct of all military operations south of Australia’s First Island Chain.

The two On Target columns concluded that, although not by desire but necessity, Australia might find itself almost wholly responsible for the defence of its island continent and its approaches, and of the Australian (and US) logistic and enabling bases therein. The columns further concluded Australia should, therefore, pay more attention to the expansive theatre of operations extending outwards from continental Australia to Australia’s First Island Chain.

A useful starting point, especially given the pace with which militarisation is occurring in the Indo-Pacific, would be to assess how well the capabilities outlined in the 2016 Integrated Investment Program (IIP) have prepared the ADF for unilateral military operations in the operational theatre south of Australia’s First Island Chain. Second, given the speed with which technology is advancing military capabilities in the Indo-Pacific, this assessment should be a nearer-term assessment ‒ such as 2025 ‒ rather than a longer-term assessment out to 2035.

Accordingly, this column will make some observations on how well Australia’s 2016 IIP force structure has prepared the ADF to respond to the challenge of an adversary venturing into Australia’s ‘front yard’ to coerce and intimidate, to ensure Australian deference to a superior military power.

Intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities are the foundation of national security. But in the past, Australian defence policies have used ISR in the strategic context of ‘Warning Time’ rather than in an operational or tactical context. In this strategic context, the role of ISR is to warn of the emergence of threats as they emerge so that they are recognised and responded to by a corresponding upgrade in national defence capability.

Today, there seems little doubt Australia is in Warning Time. Indeed, that realisation appears to have come a little late with some 2016 IIP defence capabilities not scheduled to begin to appear until the mid-2030s. Capabilities that will not begin to materialise until the mid-2030s and later, will be of little use in 2025.

Fortunately, many of the ISR capabilities that Australia has prioritised also have immense value in an operational theatre. These include the acquisition of six MQ-4C Triton unmanned surveillance systems and 12 P-8A Poseidon manned aircraft, both recommended in the 2016 IIP.

The IIP also foreshadowed an increase to 15 P-8A, which at a mission availability rate of 75%, translates into 11.25 “mission-available” P-8A. The MQ-4C and P-8A capabilities are complementary, and when combined with the four long-range electronic warfare support aircraft based on the Gulfstream G550, the Jindalee OTH Radar Network (JORN), and coalition Australia-US ISR capabilities, Australia will possess a modest but impressive operational ISR capability.

But is this ISR capability enough to sustain ongoing operations out to Australia’s First Island Chain? And, is it possible for these ISR capabilities to sustain ongoing operations, simultaneously, in two areas of operations such as in the North Coral Sea and off the North West Shelf?

Noting the US Navy allocates five MQ-4C to an operational node from which to sustain 24/7 ISR operations, the Australia MQ-4C capability will support only one node of 24/7 unmanned ISR operations. Whether this is adequate is debatable given long-range ISR operations are asset intensive as illustrated by the heavy AP-3C commitment in the mid-1990s search and rescue operations for round-the-world yacht racers; their heavy tasking in operations against illegal Patagonian Toothfish fishing boats; and in the search for MH370. So, getting the MQ-4C and P-8A operational fleet sizing right and balanced, will be critical to the efficiency and effectiveness of the operational ISR capability.

But one positive from the introduction of the unmanned MQ-4C is that it relieves the manned P-8A of most of the long duration and repetitious surveillance activity, freeing the P-8A armed with mines, torpedoes and anti-ship missiles (ASM) to focus on the anti-submarine and anti-surface roles. Given the changing maritime power balance in the Indo-Pacific, this refocus of P-8A operations is timely and, arguably, provides justification for the early acquisition of the three additional P-8A foreshadowed in the IIP.

The changing maritime power balance in the Indo-Pacific has also stimulated the development of new, technologically advanced, US ASM capabilities (noting recent US reports of a possible Foreign Military Sale of AGM-158C LRASM to Australia for carriage on F/A-18F Super Hornet). And with the AGM-158C likely to be cleared for carriage by the P-8A in the mid-2020s, there is a strong case to arm RAAF P-8As with the AGM-158C.

With both the P-8A and F/A-18F armed with the stealthy, heavyweight, sophisticated and long-range AGM-158C, the ADF will possess a strong deterrent to threatening foreign naval incursions south of Australia’s First Island Chain.

Air dominance is the prime role of the F-35A, although the in-theatre distances will make F-35A operations generally reliant on AAR support. The F-35A with its stealth, AIM-120D AMRAAM, long-range targeting ability and networked operations is a potent air dominance capability. As 2025 approaches, the operational capabilities of the F-35A will be further enhanced by the Block 4 upgrades which, apart from system and weapons upgrades, could include the integration of the Joint Strike Missile (JSM) or another ASM, and the possible integration of the follow-on AIM-260 JATM long-range air-to-air missile.

The air force operates six E-7A Wedgetail, Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW&C) aircraft; a world class, critical enabling capability for both air and naval operations. But a fleet of six aircraft translates into only 4.5 mission-available E-7A. But while the 2016 IIP includes a significant upgrade to the AEW&C systems, it’s failure to increase the AEW&C fleet to eight aircraft (which would provide six mission-available E7-A) leaves the ADF deficient in the key operational and tactical co-ordination and control nodes, critical to mission success.

The E-7A is also reliant on AAR support. A mission of about 10 hours, for a task at 1,500 km distance, involves five hours in transit and five hours on-station. Therefore, to sustain a 24/7 on-station E-7A presence, 4.8 missions must be tasked ‒ not achievable from the current fleet of six aircraft.

But E-7A on-station time can be achieved with AAR support. By increasing mission duration to 15 hours, which also increases E-7A on-station time to 10 hours, AAR realises a 100% increase in E-7A on-station time. With AAR support, only 2.4 missions are needed to sustain a 24/7 on-station E-7A presence. This example also demonstrates that enabling AAR generally flows ‘straight to the bottom line’ of increased on-station presence. AAR support confers similar dramatic increases in on-station presence to the P-8A, EA-18G, F/A-18F and F-35A.

The 2016 IIP expanded the MRTT capability to seven aircraft and foreshadowed a further increase to two aircraft, nominally to support P-8A operations. But even a fleet of nine MRTT aircraft ‒ with 6.75 mission-available MRTT ‒ is insufficient to provide the necessary AAR enabling capability to conduct credible air operations, at task force level, in our region. In short, this deficiency in AAR support puts at risk the operational effectiveness of an otherwise potent Australian air combat and sea denial capability upon which successful Australian air and naval operations must be based.

In conclusion, the 2016 IIP has provided a framework of complimentary air capabilities that, in 2025, and with some augmentation, will pose a formidable challenge to any hostile air and naval incursion south of Australia’s First Island Chain. But the IIP has not recognised the criticality of the E-7A AEW&C capability to successful air and naval operations in the theatre, and of the necessity of increasing enabling AAR capability to support the range of likely concurrent air and naval activities.

Brian Weston is a Board Member of the Sir Richard Williams Foundation. He served tours in Defence’s Force Development Analysis Division and the HQADF Force Structure Development Planning Branch.

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