|Last Updated: Fri Mar 29 10:48:39 UTC 2013|
THE AIR-SEA GAP
Acquisition, Strategic Policy and Defence Budgets
Defence acquisition is without doubt one of the most difficult tasks any government has to perform, and the track record internationally in this area is anything but spectacular. Australia's performance, with a few exceptions, has been as lacklustre as any other nation in the Western Alliance, and in some instances exceptionally poor by broader standards.
Those who have followed the defence debate for any period of time will easily recall any number of botched up projects, aside from the highly publicised JORN and Collins submarine disasters.
Self-flagellation, despite its popularity as a national pastime, is unlikely to usefully contribute to resolving the issues at hand. The crux of the problem is the fact that we have a conjunction of three major circumstances which stress the extant budgetary structure:
A dysfunctional acquisition apparatus and cumbersome force structure development process would, under any other circumstances, amount to a sustainable and arguably tolerable drain on the taxpayer's purse. However, in circumstances where the ADF will have to play a much more active role, either in deterrence operations or actual combat operations, the force structuring process and acquisition machinery must perform at peak efficiency. Anything less can and will compromise the national interest, to the detriment of every Australian. There should be no misunderstanding of this - the force structuring and resulting acquisition decisions to be made over the coming 5 years will determine our strategic posture in 2015-2025, arguably the period of maximum strategic risk in the wider region.
Acquisition and Force Development Issues
I will refrain from arguing in great detail as to what needs to be done inside the force development and acquisition apparatus to fix it, the problem is sufficiently complex that no individual can produce a complete answer.
However, experience shows that well run projects are characterised by a high quality effort on the side of the government, but also the defence contractors involved.
On the government's side of the equation, it is fair to say that the existing model of transiently posting line ADF officers into project management slots is by design, a recipe for the haemorrhage of corporate knowledge, such knowledge being precisely what makes an acquisition system run efficiently. Industry best practice for managing large tenders is to use very experienced engineering managers for leadership positions, and support them generously with senior engineers and support personnel. In a three year posting, an ADF line officer spends much of his time climbing the learning curve, especially if he lacks a prior engineering degree or equivalent training (this problem of "transience" is also a root cause of many of the difficulties we see in the force structure development system, one tier up from acquisition, and staffed in the same manner). For comparison, it takes 3-4 years to train a university graduate to a minimal standard of competence, and 1-2 decades to train a proficient engineering project manager.
In a DoD acquisition context, this means recruiting experienced engineering project managers from industry, and placing generalists and operational experts into supporting or advisory roles, where they can contribute much more effectively, without the heartache of having to frequently deal with technological decisions which they are not trained to make.
Micro-management of programs by high level committees of generalists is also a practice which contributes neither to efficiency nor to clever lateral thinking. The difficulties with Echidna alone are a case study, and there is enough anecdotal evidence of similar past events to make a convincing case for also changing this model.
Generalists by definition are not equipped to accurately judge risks in technological decision making. We task our officer corps with leading military campaigns since they are expert specialists, and no sane individual would propose putting a generalist into their post. The same golden rule must by default apply in the acquisition and project management task, it is a highly specialised activity with a heavy technological and engineering content, which should be performed by experienced engineers.
In this writer's opinion, based upon two decades of industry experience in engineering slots including chief engineer, senior design engineer, programmer, production manager and engineering consultant, these are the root causes of many of the woes we see in the current acquisition machinery. A procedural rule-book has yet to be invented which allows a generalist to do a specialist's job, and no committee of generalists can ever match a specialist for expert knowledge. That is a basic truth.
It is worth noting that the post Cold War contraction of the defence industry worldwide means that there is a robust pool of experienced senior engineers and engineering managers to recruit from. However, to recruit them into such high pressure slots will require salary offers genuinely competitive with industry. In the longer term there is a case for developing a pool of ADF/DoD acquisition career professionals, however such a strategy requires time to mature, and is infeasible as a means of dealing with the current crisis.
We could envisage a career path for an ADF force development or acquisition professional starting with an undergraduate degree in engineering or science, operational training, several years in an ADF operational slot, followed by a Masters or PhD in engineering or hard sciences, and an "apprenticeship" as a staffer on one or more major force development or acquisition projects.
Such measures will not completely solve the extant problems in acquisition, but they would go a long way in the desired direction. Corporate knowledge is what produces efficiency, and the key to such knowledge is having a cadre of highly experienced permanent expert professional staff.
Force Structures and the Defence Debate
Force structure, the number and type of assets and combat personnel, is the primary determinant of the capability of a defence force. It also has a pervasive effect upon the culture and values of a defence force, since officers rising through the ranks will have learned their professional art within the specialist warfighting culture of their service, which by default is tied to its force structure. Therefore the historically well documented reluctance of many services to change their roles and force structure to evolving circumstances is a fundamental consequence of how our military-technological defence forces function.
Force structure cannot be built up rapidly, without prohibitive costs in technology and an expensive, in dollars and frequently lives, learning curve. Poor force structure decisions can lead to large scale military defeats, a decade or longer after such a decision is made. The collapse of the Luftwaffe in WW2 is a classical case study of defeat in combat resulting from force structure decisions made during the early 1930s. Getting a force structure decision wrong for reasons of short term expediency, or short term readings of extant military trends, almost guarantees a long term disaster. New Zealand is not an appropriate model to aim for.
By the same token, it is not difficult to devolve a force structure and dismantle a capability, or package of capabilities, very quickly. Platforms can be retired, support facilities dismantled, and personnel transferred in a matter of months.
Force structures thus have dichotomous qualities, they are expensive and difficult to build up, yet very easy to demolish.
The ADF's longer term force structure will be the primary defence issue in the coming few years, since the decisions which are made now will determine the capabilities of the ADF over the coming 2-3 decades. Under tight budgetary pressures, any gains in specific areas of the force structure will take a long time to deploy, regardless of the inherent delays in fielding modern military platforms and systems.
The central argument in the coming defence debate will be deciding upon what force structure will be most appropriate for the ADF in coming decades. Needless to say there will be no shortage of opinion on this, and since the issue will be argued publicly, we can expect every lobby group in this country to loudly promote its own agenda.
The argument will be complicated by two major issues. The first is the ascendancy of the PRC as a regional military superpower, and competitive military growth in India, while South East Asia is in political and economic turmoil. The second will be the increasingly rapid evolution of military capabilities, resulting from the commodification of high performance computing tools, and the proliferation of high technology weapons.
The public debate in the media will almost certainly polarise along a single fissure. The defence community, and a minority of media commentators, will argue for a significant growth in recurring defence budgets to replace aging ADF capabilities, and increase capabilities in many areas. The welfare lobby, many of our politicians, and many media commentators will argue that no more funds can be spared for defence, and that a "New Zealand" model is most appropriate. They will find unusual bedfellows in the economic rationalists advocating small government and low taxes. There will also be many fence sitters.
Within the defence community there is likely to be a major split along lines of tactical surface-centric forces, against strategic deterrence-centric forces.
Zealous advocates of land and naval warfare will argue that the needs of peacekeeping, peace enforcement, and regional intervention as required will demand that the ADF pour its resources into land warfare assets, sealift assets, naval escort assets, and that the RAAF's role be focussed upon airlift and tactical air support.
Uncompromising proponents of strategic deterrence will argue that long range striking power cannot be compromised, and that the ADF should focus its resources into air power, submarines and guided missiles, capable of defeating high level threats, and that it should allow other capabilities to atrophy.
Both of these positions are parodies of what arguments we can expect to see, in the sense that no realistic participant in the debate will wholly embrace either extremity. However, there is a genuine danger that such a split could create opportunities for the whole position of the defence community in the debate to be compromised, in favour of those who would happily sacrifice the long term national interest for a fistful of tax-cut and welfare dollars to buy votes with. We should have no illusions in this respect, given the historical record in Western democracies dating back to the Roman Empire. Until the barbarians are banging on the gates, the temptation to spend on popular agendas always comes ahead of national defence.
Therefore the case for growth in the ADF's capabilities must be argued vigorously, substantively, and no compromises accepted. The stakes are simply too great.
Current defence-speak for our strategic context is that we are "entering a period of considerable strategic uncertainty". These are well chosen words, insofar as they articulate the central problem very well - we cannot exactly predict what the most likely strategic situation will be over the coming 1-2 decades.
What we can see with certainty is that South East Asia will continue to be unstable. Indonesia may or may not survive the coming decade as a monolithic entity. Outcomes for Indonesia could vary from a loose federation, in the best case, with turbulent internal politics continuing, up to a total breakup accompanied by a Balkans style ethnic cleansing war against Javanese "transmigrants" by their local provincial neighbours, who differ in ethnicity and frequently religion.
Indonesia or its remnants are very likely to cause ongoing problems with illegal immigrants and a flux of refugees, and it is unlikely that any future entities on its territory will have the military wherewithal to directly threaten Australia's vital interests.
A worst case scenario is that the ADF may have to deal with one or more Timor-lie situations elsewhere in the Archipelago, with UN support, and either with or without the acquiescence of the local governments.
Malaysia is likely to experience further political and economic instability, which may or may not settle down over the coming decade. We can hope that the eventual retirement of Dr Mahatir will see some stability return to the country.
The other major certainty is that both the PRC and India will continue their respective military capability growth programs and develop by 2010 the capability to project power into South East Asia. This does not mean the capability to invade our continent, rather the capability to do damage and coerce, throughout the nearer region.
The PRC is now committed to more than 300 Su-27SK/Su-30MKK long range multirole fighters, and the A-50I AWACS based on the Israeli Phalcon system bid for Wedgetail (even should US efforts to frustrate the A-50I sale succeed, the Russian baseline A-50 would most likely be substituted). It continues with the development and deployment of mobile theatre range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) with nuclear and conventional warheads. It has deployed the Russian S-300PMU (SA-10) mobile strategic SAM system, and is developing a range of indigenous cruise missiles, anti-ship missiles and tactical aircraft.
India recently announced a 25-30% increase in the size of its defence budget, and confirmed the lease of several Tu-22MZ Backfire strategic maritime strike aircraft, concurrently with an upgrade for the Tu-142 Bear and Il-38 May LRMP fleet. It is likely that the extant orders for the Su-30MKI will be extended, while negotiations for a former Soviet carrier Gorshkov and associated MiG-29K fighter wing continue. The mobile S-300V (SA-12) SAM/ABM system has been ordered [Editor's Note 2005: this sale remains suspended, pending re-evaluation of the bid], and Russian A-50 SuAWACS leased with firm orders being discussed. Submarine launched anti-ship cruise missiles have been reported, and like the PRC, India is actively developing indigenous ballistic missile capabilities.
There can be no doubt now that by 2010-2020 both the PRC and India will have the capability to deploy some kind of air expeditionary force, and in the case of India, employ a credible long range maritime strike capability.
We cannot state at this time that either the PRC or India will become direct threats to Australia's interests in the region, since we cannot predict their respective intent in 2010-2020 with absolute certainty. However, if we assume that both will be driven by Clausewitzian behaviour, and their extant mutual hostility and strategic competition persists, the odds that they will choose to meddle in South East Asia are very high indeed.
Such meddling could take many forms, from taking sides in disputes between nations or possible fragments of nations, pumping weapons and military aid into volatile situations, up to forming of direct military alliances in the region. The ability to control the shipping lanes to the Far East is an enticement of some strategic value to both the PRC and India, in an escalated dispute.
From Australia's perspective it is not desirable that any South East Asian nation become a client state, or even a base for operations, for either of these nascent regional superpowers. Ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and bombers flying from territory in South East Asia would have the capability to reach targets in Australia.
Clearly the range of possible worst case outcomes in the nearer region should be of serious concern to Australia.
ADF Force Structure and the Region
Given what we can expect from the broader regional environment over the coming two decades, it would be imprudent at the least and plainly stupid at the worst, if the ADF did not develop its force structure in response to the evolving circumstances.
Given the competitive pressures between the major two players, and the instability of the smaller players, major changes in the region could arise very rapidly, indeed so rapidly that there is no hope of reactively growing the ADF's capabilities to counter such changes in a feasible timescale. Therefore the longer term force structure will have to reflect the likely outcome of any such changes in regional alignments. If the ADF is called upon, it will have to go to war with what it has at the time.
This places a major premium upon deterrent capabilities to discourage if not pre-empt any meddling by the PRC or India in the nearer region. However, if the ADF invests in strategic deterrence, can it do so in a manner which does not seriously compromise its capabilities in lower order contingencies, such as peace-enforcement and peace-keeping ?
Consider the scenario where the ADF is deployed in another Timor-like contingency, upon which the opposing side turns to the PRC or India and acquires an immediate airlift or sealift of military aid and supplies, in order to drive out the peace-enforcement force. How should the ADF react, and what options would it have with a given force structure ?
The notion that a robust strategic strike capability is an poor investment since it is unlikely to be used outside "high intensity conflict" scenarios does not hold up to scrutiny, if we explore the possible ramifications of future Timor-like contingencies.
Force structuring a strategic land and maritime strike capability solely as a deterrent to direct attack on Australia is to artificially constrain its utility. The ability to apply such a capability throughout the region yields a broader deterrent effect, and provides a protective umbrella for any forward deployed land and maritime assets tasked with stabilising a low level regional contingency.
Nobody in the region, with or without outside support, would challenge an ADF/UN peace enforcement force if they faced the prospect of being annihilated by a force of RAAF precision bombers.
The case for extending the reach of the ADF's strategic land and maritime strike capability to a radius of 2,000 NMI from the Australian continent is very strong, if we accept the likely need for dealing with future Timor-like contingencies.
Such a capability also deters the use of ballistic and cruise missiles against Australia, or the threat of their use, as well as presenting serious risks to any air or surface capabilities sent into the nearer region. It strengthens the extant capability to defend the air sea gap, and provides greater operational flexibility in doing so.
There is no doubt that a large tanker/transport fleet (see RAAF APSC WP82, March 2000, and AA Dec 1999-April 2000) supporting a robust force of multirole fighters and Wedgetail AWACS would provide the basic capability needed for such an "enhanced strategic land and maritime strike and interdiction capability".
What are the other implications of this model ? The first is that whatever fighters are chosen to replace the F/A-18 and F-111 will need to be suitable for longer ranging missions. Considering the diversion range and crew endurance limits of such sorties, this favours the supercruising F-22 over the slower and shorter ranging Eurocanards and evolved F-16/F-18 variants.
The next interesting question which arises from this proposed model is that of what level of counter-air capability is appropriate ? On the one hand, the primary need will revolve about the ability to drop bombs accurately and deter the airlift and sealift of weapons and supplies into a contested area. That alone places modest demands on counter-air capability. However, such a limited capability would encourage the use of long range fighter escorts for an air- and sea-lift bridge, and this is easily within the range capabilities of the Sukhoi Su-27/30 Flanker, which is used by both the PLA-AF and the IAF.
Again, this favours types such as the F-22 (and possibly JSF), since their stealth performance would allow them to interdict air and sea lift with impunity, regardless of how many Su-27/30 escorts are despatched. The supercruise and long range phased array radar capabilities of the F-22 would be exceptionally useful in this respect.
The operational deployment of the required fighter and tanker capabilities to support this model would not impose unrealistic costs, providing that similar numbers to the extant RAAF fighter force structure be retained, and commensurate adjustments be made elsewhere in the ADF force structure.
The RAN's likely role in the scenarios under discussion is interesting. Clearly the submarine force, when it eventually becomes fully operational, would provide a useful capability to deter sealift into the region, deploy and recover Special Forces, and provide Combat SAR and reconnaissance support for maritime air strikes.
What is less clear is the utility of the surface fleet. As fire support assets they are uncompetitive against armed helos and fighters. As maritime interdiction assets they are vulnerable to attack by air, sea and coastal launched anti-ship missiles. While they could provide some useful capabilities in supporting land forces, such as command and control, and point defence against air attack, and if so equipped, ballistic missile attack, the return on investment is not spectacular against RAAF fighters and (hypothetical) Army operated SAM/ABM systems. The question must be asked therefore, as to how many frigates and destroyers do we really need to support operations in the evolving regional environment ? It would appear that sealift assets, such as amphibious landing vessels and helicopter ships, would be much more useful assets.
The Army will need to structure around capabilities which can be lifted by a C-130 sized transport, and structure its direct fire support around armed helicopters with guided weapons and direct fire weapons carried on the LAV-25. Reliance upon heavier fire support assets ties the Army down to slow sealift, and reliance upon unguided weapons pushes up the volume of munitions to be moved. Mobility and deployability must become the primary imperative for the Army. The extant dependency upon sealift and heavy military airlifters shown in Timor would make any repeat operations, at a greater range, much more difficult.
Recent comments in the media suggesting that attack helicopters are a specialised "anti-tank" asset which flags an intent to fight armour in Northern Asian campaigns are patently nonsense. Attack helicopters are multi-role assets, and the latest generation are more akin to "rotary wing tactical fighters" in capabilities (see AA April/May 99). Rather, rotary wing attack assets replace the tank and artillery as highly mobile weapons platforms, and provide a level of mobility and flexibility without precedent in land warfare.
The Army and Navy will need to develop the capability to datalink precision target coordinates to helicopters and RAAF fighters, day or night. With evolving trends in technology, this will be neither expensive nor difficult to do in the coming decade. Indeed a number of existing devices can do so.
Clearly more airlift will be needed, but how to best implement it is a very good question. RORO military airlifters are single purpose assets, and tend to be expensive. The only production choices are the C-130J, C-17A and an Il-76 with Western powerplants and avionics retrofitted. Commercial freighters such as the 747 family double up as tankers, are cheap, but limited in runway capabilities. A balanced compromise will need to be found.
The ADF will need to develop the capability to provide targeting information across the region, strengthening the case for using satellite recce, UAVs such as the Global Hawk, and AP-3C aircraft fitted with high resolution SAR and LOROP TV/IR cameras.
The force structure model discussed is in many respects minimalist, and exploits the flexibility and reach of air power to substitute for large surface forces otherwise required to produce the same military effect. The idiosyncrasies of the nearer region and its distance from sources of potential interference in the region allow this - there is no need to have force structure numbers sized around the full might of the nascent Asian superpowers, nor is there a need to build force structures around defeating a large armoured land force or very large and sophisticated IADS. There is however a need to be able to apply concentrated fire power at a distance, against small or modestly sized opposing forces, which may be equipped with very modern high technology weapons.
Deterrence is always preferable to fighting a war. However, for deterrence to be effective, it has to be credible. Force structuring around the use of extended range air power using tanker supported first tier combat aircraft provides that credibility, but it also provides a measure of flexibility not achievable in any other way. It can be swung into use against a very wide range of opposing capabilities, in contingencies ranging from low level conflict to a modern high intensity war, with high effectiveness throughout.
Indeed, of all the possible force structure models the ADF could adopt, this one provides the best overall "bang for buck", and is not limited in how it can be used, unlike forces structured around highly specialised surface warfare assets.
Air power is also responsive, in that it can be retasked with a single call over a satellite link. This is not something which can be easily done with a force structure centred on slow moving surface warfare assets.
Air power is very importantly, sustainable, since guided bombs are inexpensive in comparison with ballistic missiles and cruise missiles. With the reliability of current combat aircraft, the main issues boil down to aircrew, stocks of bombs and kerosene. The force structure model discussed is inherently sustainable in an extended duration, escalated conflict, unlike any other means of projecting firepower at a distance.
From the perspective of doctrine, the model discussed amounts to little more than extending the "defence of the air sea gap" model used for decades, to encompass any regional landmass which could be used to base strike aircraft, intermediate range ballistic missiles or naval assets. The extant "air sea gap" strategy is based on the premise that Australia could be attacked directly only by sea, or by air from the nearest landmass. Technological evolution and proliferation means that this basic premise is no longer entirely true - the Australian continent could be hit with cheap ballistic missiles or ground launched cruise missiles from anywhere in the region. The argument that these weapons have yet to be deployed in the region is spurious, insofar as it only takes a week of airlift by Il-76 or An-124 for such a capability to be deployed and operationally ready for use against us.
In terms of the overall force structure balance between the three services, it is clear that air power is the only credible and affordable means of projecting a deterrent force over such a vast geographical area. The notion that we can continue to divide the acquisition pie in the current manner is no longer supportable. The existing balance in capabilities between the three services is a relic of the Cold War, and no longer reflects current technological trends or wider regional developments. If we take a perspective view, the ADF must maintain a state-of-the-art fleet of combat aircraft, acquire enough big tankers and airlifters to credibly support regional operations, and more sealift assets. The Army will need to be more deployable, and equipped with attack helicopters to substitute for heavy armour and artillery. The RAN's surface fleet is the least useful asset in the developing circumstances and will have to be sized down, in favour of sealift, airlift, tankers and reconnaissance assets.
The issue of affordability is driven by implementation costs,
and the incremental extensions and contractions to existing
capabilities proposed here are not prohibitive in comparison with the
alternatives. Our political leadership on both sides of the floor
should consider this very seriously indeed - we will need to ramp up
defence expenditure by several billion dollars a year for the
forseeable future, that is an inevitable consequence of the evolving
The funding and force structure decisions which will be made in the coming few years will determine Australia's strategic position in the nearer and wider region in 1-2 decade's time. We cannot afford to get it wrong, and our parliamentarians should consider this above all else.
The Sukhoi Su-27SK/Su-30MKI/MKK will outrange an F-15E, and is highly competititve against teen series fighters and Eurocanards. It is operated by the PLA-AF and IAF, and could be used very effectively to project power into South East Asia, as well as escort air and sea lift into the region. The PLA-AF has a commitment to well over 300 aircraft, and Indian AF orders could reach 200.
Pic.2 (Il-78/A-50 SuAWACS)
The PLA-AF is currently in the process of acquiring the A-50I AWACS built around the A-50/Il-78 airframe and the Elta Phalcon phased array, previously bid for the Wedgetail project. India has recently leased the basic Russian A-50 SuAWACS aircraft, and may commit to a purchase. The A-50 will provide both nations with the nucleus of a genuine air expeditionary force.
Pic.3 (Tu-22M3 Backfire)
India's latest acquisition is the supersonic Tu-22MZ Backfire maritime strike aircraft, several of which have been leased with options to buy [Editor's Note 2005: The lease plan was suspended as a result of problems with the Bear F upgrade.]. The Backfire was the mainstay of the Soviet AV-MF maritime strike force, and according to its designer, Boris Levanovich, can deliver up to three AS-6 supersonic cruise missiles to a radius of 2,200 NMI. The 5 tonne AS-6 can be used against shipping or coastal targets, using nuclear or conventional warheads.
Pic.4/5 (DF-21 & Agni II)
Both the PRC and India are actively developing and manufacturing Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles. Such weapons could be very rapidly deployed into the region and once dispersed, can be very difficult to find and destroy. Equipped with GPS midcourse guidance they are becoming more accurate, and are very difficult to stop using terminal defences. The PRC's DF-21 and India's Agni II are both mobile two stage weapons with the range to hit northern Australia if deployed in South East Asia. Both are available with conventional warheads (FAS).
Pic.7/8 (747F & C-17)
The ADF's principal
in the developing regional environment is a lack of strategic tanking
and heavy airlift capabilities. Variants of the 747/KC-25 are superb
freighters and potentially excellent heavy tankers, but require good
quality runways and ground loaders. The C-17 has unsurpassed short
field performance and RORO capability for oversize cargo, but is a
single purpose asset which is not competitive as a tanker conversion
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