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Australia Defence White Paper – Taking Regional Defence and Security Very Seriously By Howard Wheeldon, FRAeS, Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd.

AUSFLAGAs foreshadowed by the previous administration of Tony Abbot new Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has confirmed that defence spending will increase by $26bn over the next ten years amid increasing concerns terrorism and the breakdown of rules based order in parts of the world and of the increasing level of tensions in the South China Sea.

In response to what it sees as increasing global threats the Australian Government defence white paper published overnight outlines a commitment to raise defence spending to 2% of gross domestic product and also to acquire 12 new submarines to replace existing Collins Class subs and that will have a planned total design and construction cost of $50bn.

Overall Australian military spending will increase by A$29.9 bn (US$21.4 bn, £15.4 bn) over the next ten years and by 2012 the country will be spending 2% of its GDP on defence. This will push the total amount spent on defence by the Australian Government to AS$42.4 bn by 2021.

In addition the Government plans to acquire nine anti-submarine warfare frigates, 12 Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPV’s), in addition to the 8 that the country already has on order, a further seven Boeing P-8A Poseidon Maritime Surveillance Aircraft (MPA) all to be in service by the late 2020’s, 72 Lockheed Martin Lightning II ‘A’ variant Joint Strike Fighters plus an additional 12 Boeing E/A-18G Growler electronic attack aircraft adding to the 24 F/A-18 E/F Super Hornets already operated.

In addition to the above the Canberra Government is considering possible further acquisition of two further Airbus Defence & Space A330 multi-role tanker transport aircraft (MRTT) in addition to the two that it has recently ordered and the MRTTS under the KC-30A designation operated by the Royal Australian Air Force. The Government is also seeking to further increase strategic airlift capability. Currently the RAAF operates eight C-17 heavylift aircraft and would clearly have liked to acquire more had the C-17 production line in Long Beach, California still been open. With that door closed it is perhaps possible that the Australian Government could well consider acquiring the Airbus A400M at some future point. The RAAF currently operates 12 Lockheed Martin C-130J’s and further purchases of this aircraft could not be ruled out.

Perhaps the most striking part of the Australian Government plan is its emphasis on ISTAR. The plan as stated is to acquire a further batch of Boeing P-8 Poseidon together with an envisaged purchase of five Gulfstream G550 aircraft from the early 2020s and that will be modified for the electronic warfare mission together with the acquisition of seven Northrop Grumman MQ-4C Triton unmanned air vehicles (these being  intended to operate alongside the P-8As). There is clearly a very large ISTAR (Intelligence Surveillance Target Acquisition) combined with   electronic intelligence (ELINT) and signals intelligence (SIGINT) emphasis to be found in the defence white paper and this will be very much welcomed Australia’s regional and defence allies.

The intended acquisition of five Gulfstream G550 aircraft are in addition to the two that have already been acquired. It is anticipated that these first two aircraft will begin a modified Texas based L-3 to have full ELINT/SIGINT capability packages. Short-range UAVs will also be obtained to operate from Australian warships while the medium-altitude and potentially armed Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) capability is intended to provide a combination of both ISTAR related support in regard of counter-terrorism effort and also to provide capability that could if required enhance firepower effect.

The Australian Government believes the “envisaged capability additions will substantially enhance its electronic warfare support to naval, air and land forces for operations in electromagnetic environments manipulated by hostile forces, with the operating cost, range and endurance benefits of a commercial airframe”. My understanding is that both the Gulfstream and P-8 aircraft are to be acquired in two separate tranches and that capability will be incrementally upgraded so as to ensure and maintain commonality with US developed systems and to ensure long-term supportability and interoperability with US capability.

The Australian Defence White Paper makes very interesting reading and while the underlying strategy behind it remains based on the premise that “there is no more than a remote chance of a military attack on Australian territory by another country” it delivers an equally strong message that Australia cannot be complacent and that it must be prepared to respond quickly and effectively when its interests are threatened whether by state or non-state actors, terrorist action or cyber-attack. The report emphasises that terrorist attacks in Paris and elsewhere show that ‘groups’ continue to have both the willingness and ability to launch attacks with relative ease and also to do so with potentially increasing large scale effect.

In suggesting that “we can expect greater uncertainty in Australia’s strategic environment over the next two decades as a consequence of the changes in the distribution of power in the Indo-Pacific and globally; the continuing threat of terrorism from groups like Daesh and from foreign terrorist fighters; the modernisation of regional military capabilities; the introduction of new military technologies such as cyber systems; and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile technology” the Australian government is sending a strong warning that it has no intention of being seen to be complacent in matters of defence.

It is perfectly understandable that Australia should continue to take the view that the relationship between the US and China is and will likely remain as the single most important strategic factor in the related security requirement and also in terms of economic development. China will undoubtedly play the leading role in determining Indo-Pacific regional stability or otherwise over the coming decades.

In drawing its threat assessment the Australian Government will have noted the increased level of threat now being felt by Japan from both China and Russia in relation not only to territorial claims and disputes by those countries but also of the build-up of defence spending by China and Russia.

The suggests “we can anticipate greater uncertainty in Australia’s strategic environment over the next two decades as a consequence of: the changes in the distribution of power in the Indo-Pacific and globally” We believe that “ the continuing threat of terrorism from groups like Daesh and from foreign terrorist fighters; the modernisation of regional military capabilities; the introduction of new military technologies such as cyber systems; and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile technology”. It goes on to suggest that “as China grows, it will continue to seek greater influence within the region. As a major power, it will be important for regional stability that China provides reassurance to its neighbours by being more transparent about its defence policies,”

Noting that within two decades, half of the world’s submarines will be operating in the Indo-Pacific and at least half of the world’s advanced combat aircraft will be operated by countries in the region the white paper reminds that China’s navy is already the largest in the region by far and that by 2020 the country will have no fewer than 70 submarines.

The views expressed in the defence white paper ate those that America and its Pacific based allies all share and I suspect also that they are views that could easily be shared by NATO allies even if they are not directly involved in maintaining peace and stability in the region. Arguably whilst we in the UK and our NATO allies fear instability in the Baltic and Middle East region as being our primary responsibility and indeed, priority we have a vested interest in wishing to see peace, stability and harmony in the South China Sea and Pacific region as well. Australia is by this excellent defence plan committing to play a very significant part in ensuring regional stability and we must be very grateful for that.

There can be little doubt that regional instability in the South China Seas and further north has taken a serious turn for the worse. Australia has a very strong defence pact with the US and in laying out its forward plan it is telling its ally that it is prepared to share a bigger burden of responsibility and that to do so means that it will strengthen and modernise its defence capabilities. It is also auto suggesting that it will do all that it believes necessary to strengthen the various defence pacts that it has with the US (a 25 year pact was signed with the US in 2014 that includes US troops being based on its northern coast for training purposes and that together with the long standing ANZUS treaty and the subsequent bilateral cooperation treaties on defence and security that include those with New Zealand) and its other regional allies.

(Note that defence cooperation between the US and New Zealand had broken down in the 1980’s due to the reluctance of the then New Zealand government to allow US nuclear vessels to berth. However in 2013 as part of its strategy to rebalance toward Asia the Obama Administration chose to re-establish defence and security cooperation and restore the hitherto close ties with New Zealand on order to better coordinate joint efforts in the South Pacific region.)     

CHW (London – 25th February 2016)

Howard Wheeldon FRAeS


Tel: 07710-779785           

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