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RPAs, Autonomous Systems and How to Strengthen the ADF in the Next 3-5 Years - Dr Robbin Laird

Dr Robbin Laird, RPAs, Autonomous Systems and How to Strengthen the ADF in the Next 3-5 Years, 6 May 2024

The Australian government is shifting resources from the Air Force and the Army and from the surface fleet to pay for a new fleet of eight SSNs with the first coming only in several years.

How then to ensure that the ADF is effective in the next five years as money and manpower is moved to what seems to be an SSN-enabled Navy with the other services adapting to this shift?

When working through the various presentations at the Williams Foundation Seminar held on April 11, 2024, there is no clear answer to this very significant challenge.

But one presentation at the seminar did raise the specter of how a pathway could be shaped to carve a way ahead, namely, the one by James Lawless entitled, “Layered Defence: The Role of Autonomy and Autonomous Systems in the Maritime Domain.”

How might the new Triton RPA and the various payloads which maritime and air autonomous systems deliver could accelerate change?

These systems can provide the kind of ISR and data management capabilities which Australia would need for the targeting enterprise envisaged in the “impactful projection” approach of the government which rests on effective targeting,

If one is trying to navigate the complexities of what the current Australian government is really trying to do and find a way to assess the ADF effects which result from such an effort, I would argue that one would focus on the ability to deliver strike across the areas of strategic and tactical interest to Australia and its core allies.

It is about effects and real delivery of an impact, not simply a focus on future platforms which are not going to be here any time soon.

So how to navigate through the blizzard of reports, statements and assertions by the government?

Let me start by simply citing the government’s recent release indeed on their approach to strike.

According to a government press release:

Long-range strike capabilities and advanced targeting systems will receive $28 billion to $35 billion in the coming decade under the 2024 Integrated Investment Program.

The largest portion, $12 billion to $15 billion, will go to bolstering Navy’s sea-based strike capability, including the acquisition of Tomahawk cruise missiles.

These will arm Hobart-class destroyers, Hunter-class frigates and, potentially, Virginia-class submarines, allowing them to hold targets at risk at longer ranges.

The funding covers Evolved Sea Sparrow Block II, SM-2 and SM-6 missiles to intercept airborne threats, along with continued integration of the Naval Strike Missile for use against heavily protected targets.

RAAF’s air-launched strike capability also received investment for the F/A-18F Super Hornet, P-8A Poseidon and F-35A Lightning II to be equipped with more advanced weapons.

Funding for development of hypersonic missiles could give Super Hornets the ability to attack targets at longer ranges.

Army’s acquisition of land-based long-range fires are also covered in the investment program.

This includes accelerated and expanded acquisition of 42 High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems for Army’s first long-range fires regiment.

These will fire the Precision Strike Missile that can engage potential adversaries more than 500km away.

Funding also covers Army’s Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System munitions, along with new radars to extend sensor and command and control networks.1

But how to assess how these various programs will integrate across a kill web to deliver the kind of effects which will be credible to an adversary?

It is a question of how targeting is done, who the data for targeting can be passed to and the range of the weapon carried on a fixed or moving platform and location and with what effects when considered across the allied strike enterprise.

None of this is resolved only by funding considerations, and, for example, their needs to be a realistic public discussion of how new SSNs actually fit into the strike enterprise, for otherwise their is simply cacophony not coherence in the strike enterprise.

And any use of TLAMs by Australia in the context of a Pacific conflict where three adversarial nuclear powers are operating needs to be credibly sorted out if one is framing deterrence by denial as the core focus of Australian defence.

Malcolm Davis of ASPI raised some helpful insights in to how to interpret the government and its framing of the strike enterprise.

In his April 24, 2024 piece on “impactful projection constrained,” he highlighted the following:

Strike capability featured in the 2024 update of Australia’s Integrated Investment Plan (IIP), the equipment spending program that accompanied the National Defence Strategy (NDS) published on 17 April. But the strike capability acquisitions were all re-announcements—or, to take a positive view, confirmations.

They included acquisition by the navy of more than 200 Tomahawk Block IV cruise missiles, to be deployed on Hobart-class destroyers, Virginia-class submarines and maybe Hunter-class frigates. Integration of the Naval Strike Missile on surface combatants was in there, too.

The army’s long-range fires mission, highlighted in the 2023 Defence Strategic Review (DSR), is centered on acquisition of 47 HIMARS launcher vehicles that can fire various long-range guided munitions, including PRsM ballistic missiles, at land and maritime targets. PRsMs have a range of 500km but could eventually reach beyond 1000km.

If forward host nation support is available in a crisis, then the littoral capability for the army will be crucial in supporting deterrence by denial with these land-based long-range fires—but we cannot assume availability of such support.

With that uncertainty in mind, establishing agreements to ensure forward host nation support for the army should be a high priority for defence diplomacy, as noted in the NDS, in coming years.

Air force capabilities include a previously announced acquisition of AGM-158C LRASM anti-ship missiles to be carried on F/A-18Fs, P-8As and eventually F-35As, as well as AGM-158B JASSM-ER air-to-ground missiles.

Another item is integration of the Kongsberg Joint Strike Missile on the F-35A. E/A-18G Growlers will get 63 AGM-88E AARGM-ER missiles for attacking radars.2

What is not really clear is how this fits into a strategic mosaic whereby a kill web enabled force can deliver sustained strike to provide for integrated operations in Australia’s primary area of strategic interest which in my view is out to their first island chain.

This is important not just for the ADF and Australia but to credibly provide any ability to provide a sanctuary for allied forces to be able to leverage Australia’s evolving support structure.

Davis went on in his article to argue for a focus on longer range strike going forward. He argued: “Impactful projection as part of deterrence by denial is the right choice—but we need to reach farther to deter more effectively. A failure to extend our reach could see deterrence by denial fall short in a real crisis.”

But what remains a challenge is to build a force that would be meaningful for longer range strike which can work with allies whose interests both coincide and differ from Australia’s.

What would South Korea, Japan, the United States and Australia agree on in terms of coordinated strike in a confrontation with China with North Korea and Russia almost certainly involved?

I would argue this starts by having an effective ISR integrated force which can deliver reliable data to the ADF throughout the enterprise.

Given that the government has decided to cut the fourth F-35 squadron, the RAAF is left with one significant new platform which will be crucial to shaping such an enterprise, namely the Triton.

And the introduction of Triton will be first deployed as a variety of new autonomous systems could be available to the ADF to build a layered ISR network to provide the targeting needed for both “impactful projection” and the “impactful presence”.

Such capability is necessary for the direct defence of Australia and to play the role of strategic reserve for its core allies.

In fact, a layered ISR/C2 network is a key element of “impactful presence” which can be built in this interim period where the government is re-orienting the ADF in a direction towards an SSN-enabled maritime force.

Let me next turn to the presentation and discussion I had with James Lawless, the former Navy officer now with Northrop Grumman, who discussed the role which such systems can enable for Australia to have the ISR/C2 layered system which in my view is a crucial building block in the next three to five years for the ADF.


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