Dr Robbin Laird, What has Happened Since the DSR has been Published: The Perspective of Marcus Hellyer, 5 October 2023
During my current visit to Australia to support the Williams Foundation Seminar held on 27 September 2023, I had a chance to talk with the well-known Australian strategist, Marcus Hellyer. Formerly of ASPI, he is now is head of research at Strategic Analysis, Australia.
I asked Marcus a simple question as the basis of our conversation: What has been the progress and developments since the DSR was released earlier this year?
Hellyer argued that the DSR was presented as a sharp break from the past but he sees it as in many ways a throwback to the famous Paul Dibb strategic defence review in the 1980s.
Namely, it has updated the concept of the defence of Australian territory to “the latest industry standard. Instead of defending Australian territory with a 100 km range missile, we are now focused on procuring missiles of a 1000 km range. But the operating concept remains focused on controlling our air and sea approaches, although there is no consensus on what this means.”
He went on to note that the decision to continue the effort to procure nuclear submarines did raise a fundamental issue: “Are we meeting the threat in the South China Sea or in areas closer to Australia? Are we focused on China’s first island chain or our own?”
The problem for the ADF is posed by having a new DSR but not accompanied by a budget to pay for a force design reset. It is supposed to be paid for by the cannibalization of the current force structure and restructuring the inherited approach to joint force design, a process of force transformation already underway which we have documented in detail in Williams Foundation Seminars since 2014.
The government did not establish a separate fund to pay for the costly transition from conventional to a nuclear submarine enterprise.
The funding issue correlated with force re-design is crucial. As Hellyer noted: “The Department of Defense’s acquisition plan is completely broken. We knew going into the DSR that it was massively over programmed. There wasn’t enough money to acquire all the things in the plan, particularly after nuclear submarines were injected into it with no additional funding.
“The DSR itself injected more things into that investment plan. And so there simply isn’t enough money. But the bottom line is you’re trying to stuff more things in there with no more money. It just doesn’t work. And so that’s why a lot of acquisition decisions are simply on hold, because at the moment, the department doesn’t have a viable acquisition program.”
This has led to significant uncertainty within the ADF, local defense industry and the Australian public about the winners and losers in shaping the new force structure outlined in the DSR, and outlined is the right word, for there is much uncertainty surrounding what is the strategic direction really of the force design for deterrence by denial and impactful projection and the relationship between this effort and the extant force.
Hellyer already sees signs of cancelling programs to provide for money for a new way ahead, but the problem is cancellation is not correlated with ensuring the cancelled capability is replaced. An example is cancelling the only Royal Australian Navy UAV with no replacement in sight.
Hellyer noted that this will have a capability impact by limiting the utility of the Royal Australian Navy’s new Arafura-class Offshore Patrol Vessels. He noted, “We’ve both written about the OPV and one obvious path is to leverage this program and to adapt it to the new warfighting approaches highlighted in the DSR. It is not terribly difficult to make these motherships for automated systems or to up gun the ship.
“This is clearly the kind of approach which will be critical in shaping an operational force that is more capable in the 2020s rather than one that is being designed and planned for in 2030, 2035, 2040 or beyond. But the cancellation of the Navy UAV means the OPV won’t achieve its potential.”
That said, there have been some important announcement since the DSR, such as the acquisition of a new, larger fleet of C-130J airlifters that will play an important role in archipelagic operations.
Other key decisions have been deferred such as the location of an east coast SSN base. Hellyer noted that all analysis indicates an east coast base with access to Australia’s population centres will be vital to supporting a larger submarine force. But the government has put that decision off into the future as well.
Because of the issue of un-affordability of new capabilities, it’s inevitable that the ADF will need to make the most of what they already have. SLD’s rule of thumb is that 80% of the force you will have in 20 years you already have—a metric that Hellyer agrees with.
So how do you leverage what you have in reshaping the force to get what is envisaged by the new force design?
Dr. Hellyer then focused on the key question of capability transitions: how to manage them and how to pay for them.
Getting them right is essential to maintaining and increasing ADF capability without creating key operational gaps. Within recent ADF history there are some examples of transition management. The most successful one which he cited was the transition from third and fourth to fifth generation aircraft. Hellyer argues that the key piece in that transition that mitigated the risks of an ageing Hornet fleet and delayed development and delivery of the F-35A was the prescient acquisition of the Super Hornets.
In contrast, there is a current example of an unsuccessful capability transition in the Australian Army’s utility helicopters. The decision has been made to replace the MRH-90s with Blackhawks, potentially allowing an orderly capability transition.
But the government has decided simply to ground the MRH-90 fleet in the wake of a catastrophic fatal accident. Since there are currently only a handful of Blackhawks in country, the Australian Army will have no capability. Full stop.
As the government faces the transition for conventional to nuclear submarines, how will they ensure that Australia will continue to have operational submarines in the transition? Is this following the Super Hornet transition model or that of the Army utility helicopter?
In short, the DSR has introduced disruptive change. But without the money necessary to enable transition to a new force structure design. And at a time when the DSR and the government that produced it have clearly indicated that the strategic situation is worsening much more rapidly than our capabilities to deal with that environment.
Featured Photo: The MRH-90 Taipan helicopters will be withdrawn from service in December 2024. Photo: Lance Corporal Riley Blennerhassett
Taipans Withdrawn from Service
Published 29 September 2023 by the Australian Department of Defence.
The Australian Defence Force’s MRH-90 Taipan helicopters will not return to flying operations before their planned withdrawal date of December 2024.
Defence Minister Richard Marles said the Government was focused on the introduction into service of the new fleet of UH‑60M Black Hawks.
The first three Black Hawks have arrived in Australia and commenced flying in September, with remaining Black Hawks continuing to be delivered.
Mr Marles said the MRH-90 had been an important capability for the ADF.
“I recognise the hard work of the hundreds of people who dedicated themselves to acquiring, operating and sustaining the aircraft,” he said.
“The first of the 40 Black Hawks that will replace the MRH-90 have arrived and are already flying in Australia. We are focused on seeing their introduction to service as quickly as possible.
“The Government’s highest priority is the safety and wellbeing of our people.
“We continue to support the families of the four soldiers who lost their lives earlier this year, and the broader Defence community.”
The ADF will continue to operate its CH-47F Chinooks, Tigers and MH‑60R Seahawks to provide a ready aviation capability.
From 2025, the new AH-64E Apache helicopters will also be introduced into service for the Army.
Mr Marles said to help mitigate further impacts on Army’s operations and training, the Government was exploring options to accelerate the delivery of the Black Hawks and aircrew training.
He said today’s announcement did not suggest the outcome of the investigations into the tragic incident on July 28, when an MRH-90 Taipan crashed near Lindeman Island, Queensland, during Exercise Talisman Sabre, killing the four aircrew on board.
Mr Marles said the Government made clear at the time Defence would not fly the platform until investigations into the incident were complete.