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On Target: 'Time for New Capability Acquisition Strategies'

Brian Weston 'Time for New Capability Acquisition Strategies' Australian Defence Business Review – July/August 2021 p 62

For more than four decades, Australian Defence capability acquisitions have been conducted in a benign national security environment guided by the concept of Warning Time which premised defence planning proceeds on the basis of no national security threat emerging for the next 10 years.

In this environment, defence capabilities were often acquired undersized, or on a ‘fitted-for-but-not-with’ basis; or with insufficient logistic support; or lacking essential capability upgrades‒all justified on the basis that capability augmentation, if needed, could be undertaken within the 10-year Warning Time period.

That acquisition policy changed in 2016 when Australia’s geo-strategic environment began to deteriorate and, progressively, the concept of Warning Time was replaced with a new prerogative outlined in Australia’s Force Structure Plan 2020.

The 2020 Plan advocated defence planning be guided by the strategic objectives of Shape, Deter and Respond and listed the priority capability acquisitions for each operational domain.

As an example, the 2020 Plan listed an expanded air-to-air refuelling ‘enabling’ capability be acquired to support Australian aerospace operations. The 2020 Plan specifically stated:

An expanded replacement fleet for the KC-30A air-to-air refuelling aircraft including crewed and/or remotely piloted platforms, to enhance the capacity of the Air Force to operate at long range and sustain operations.

The 2020 Plan noted this program will require an investment of between $17.5 to $26.2b, commencing from around 2035.

Implicit in a period when there is no Warning Time, the replacement air-to-air refuelling fleet will need to enter service and effect a seamless transfer of operational capability from the existing KC-30A fleet.

As some might judge an air-to-air capability is a relatively uncomplicated acquisition, the avoidance of an air-to-air refuelling capability gap should be manageable. But history suggests not.

Already the air force has experienced developmental and schedule issues with what appeared to be the straightforward acquisition of the Airbus A330-200 and its conversion to the Multi-Role Tanker Transport (KC-30A). And Boeing, with over seven decades of air-to-air refuelling experience, has struggled to deliver the KC-46A Pegasus tanker capability (developed from the Boeing B767-200) to the USAF.

The fact is defence acquisitions are rarely straightforward, especially defence programs costing between $17.5 to $26.2b. And with the 2020 Plan noting a remotely piloted platform might be in the mix to replace the KC-30A, development risk, capability risk, cost risk and schedule risk are all heightened.

Although the US has developed the unmanned, carrier-launched, Boeing MQ-25A Stingray air-to-air refueller to extend the range of USN Super Hornet strike aircraft, the Stingray falls well short of the payload/range, dual boom/drogue capability required by Australia. Hence, the MQ-25A unmanned, system is unlikely to be an option for Australia’s ‘heavy-weight’ air-to-air refuelling capability. Indeed, some observers argue the USN could achieve a far greater stand-off range for its aircraft carriers by equipping them with unmanned, long-range, stealthy strike platforms rather than Super Hornets supported by the MQ-25A.

But should Australia choose to go along the unmanned ‘heavyweight’ refuelling path; capability, development, certification, schedule, cost and operational risks should all be anticipated which, likely, will lead to a significant gap in Australian air-to-air refuelling capability. This will need to be mitigated by extending the life of the KC-30A or by the procurement of an interim capability.

A more likely acquisition strategy might involve the procurement of an air-to-air refuelling capability solution from the marketplace. But such a strategy is hampered by the small size of the international market for long-range air-to-air refuellers, with few companies/nations prepared to commit the capital investment required. Hence, air-to-air ‘market offerings’ are likely to be few, with these ‘market offerings’ more of an incremental or evolutionary development of earlier air-to-air refuelling programs.

But these incremental or evolutionary development programs are programs that could be expected to involve lesser risks, a consideration of considerable importance when there is no ‘Warning Time’ buffer.

Currently, only two candidate air-to-air capability solutions appear relevant to Australia. They are incremental developments of either the Airbus MRTT or the Boeing KC-46A. Although, the USAF has released a Request for Tender for between 140-160 ‘Bridge Tankers’ to allow retirement of its KC-135 fleet.

The Bridge Tanker program stipulates first delivery in 2029 and concludes with final deliveries around 2043. But, in all likelihood, the program will involve incremental developments of either the Airbus MRTT (with partner Lockheed Martin) or the Boeing KC-46A.

The funding of the Bridge Tanker program will also likely defer any short-term, successor program to the USAF air-to-air refuelling capability.

How this all plays out will, no doubt, be subject to many print and social media centimetres. But for Australia, the overriding consideration is that the replacement of the KC-30A air-to-air refuelling capability be achieved with no air-to-air refuelling capability gap.

Brian Weston is a Board Member of the Williams Foundation and On Target is published as a regular column in the Australian Defence Business Review.

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