The military lessons of the war in Ukraine are rapidly being absorbed in Asia. The message for democracies arming themselves against the threat of authoritarian regimes is to choose simple, available weapons over a small number of expensive and complex ships, planes and vehicles that may not survive the first hours of war. ‘a conflict.
The well-connected Washington news service Politico revealed last week that the US State Department had rejected requests from Taiwan to buy MH-60R Seahawk submarine-hunting helicopters. The view reported by the Biden administration is that “these big-ticket items, while suitable for peacetime operations, would not survive an all-out assault from the [Chinese] continental”.
The United States is urging Taiwan to buy low-cost sea mines capable of blunting an amphibious assault, as well as smaller mobile weapons such as drone swarms, Stinger anti-aircraft missiles and Javelin anti-tank missiles.
The U.S. State Department told Politico, “Strengthening Taiwan’s self-defense is an urgent task, and the most effective approach to accomplishing this is to invest in credible, resilient, mobile, distributed, and cost-effective asymmetric capabilities.”
Ukrainian forces have given the world a masterclass in battlefield asymmetry: you don’t need a tank to destroy a tank if you have well-targeted five-kilogram bombs dropped by commercial drones.
Similarly, two Neptune cruise missiles, designed and developed by kyiv at a reported total cost of US$40 million ($57.7 million), sank the Russian flagship. Moscowestimated by Forbes at $750 million.
One of the most effective weapons used by Ukraine is the Turkish armed drone Bayraktar TB2, with reported costs of between US$1-2 million each.
Contrast that with the six high-altitude unarmed MQ-4C Triton “unmanned aircraft” that Australia is considering buying. The total budget approved so far is $2.5 billion, but that’s only for the first three aircraft and ground control and support systems and facilities. It is acceptable to predict the loss of a $2 million drone in combat, but it is better not to fly a drone in danger if they each cost several hundred million.
State Department’s message to Taipei calls for urgent action. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attack on Ukraine accelerates the timeline for a possible Chinese attack on Taiwan, as Xi Jinping can choose to strike while a distracted America focuses on Russia, attacking before Taiwan is better armed.
The Australian Defense Force is anything but asymmetrical in design. In the words of the State Department, the ADF is not “credible, resilient, mobile, distributed, and profitable.”
Take the P-8 Poseidon aircraft, which then Defense Minister Linda Reynolds said in 2020 that it would provide “one of the world’s most advanced maritime patrol and response capabilities. “.
According to ASPI senior analyst Marcus Hellyer, Australia has acquired 14 P-8 aircraft for a total approved budget of $6.575 billion. That includes facilities, but let’s call it $479 million per plane.
P-8s are at the heart of our maritime patrol and anti-submarine warfare capability. They are by no means the only military platforms that can play this role, but they are a central part of it.
The Ukrainian experience demands that we ask ourselves how vulnerable our ships, planes and military vehicles are to destruction in battle. The answer is that they are significantly exposed to a range of lower cost missiles and weapons as part of Chinese military service.
In February this year, an Australian P-8 was “lased” – targeted by an onboard laser – while following two Chinese warships transiting the Arafura Sea. Prime Minister Scott Morrison called it “unprofessional and dangerous military conduct” by the People’s Liberation Army Navy. P-8s were also used last week to monitor the Chinese intelligence collection vessel Dongdiao off the northwest coast of Australia. The P-8 is a very valuable asset to use for relatively routine surveillance work.
In real combat, the P-8 could never be so close to a Chinese warship. Several kilometers before being within visual range, the plane would risk being shot down.
The only thing more valuable than a fighter jet is its crew. I understand that when the Russians target a Ukrainian plane they fire two missiles, one to bring the plane down and the second to target the ejection seat if the pilot survived the first hit.
Pilots and aircrew are even more difficult to replace than complex combat aircraft. Australian officials are rightly tight-lipped about the number of crews trained and available, but they are hardly overcapacity.
Indeed, the ADF is designed around such expensive rigs and so few operators that we cannot afford to risk deploying them in high-risk areas. It’s as if the Defense buys this expensive equipment without ever expecting to fight with it or suffer any casualties.
The most capable surface ships the navy operates are our three air warfare destroyers, which together cost about $8.5 billion. The starting cost of the third AWD was around $2 billion.
How would Australia use these ships in wartime? The latest defense white paper, published in 2016, said: “We cannot effectively protect Australia unless we have a closer secure region, encompassing maritime Southeast Asia and the South Pacific. ” The policy focused on “increasing the ADF’s ability to make contributions to such operations”.
Having seen how the Moscow was sunk by a land-launched truck-launched cruise missile 100 miles from the target, is our government or the ADF really going to deploy an AWD in the South China Sea?
In a conflict, no ship would deploy without the support of submarines and air cover, but China has turned the South China Sea into one of the most potentially dangerous places on earth with many options at its disposal. provision for air, land and sea. -surface-launched and submarine anti-ship cruise missiles.
China made that point to Australia during its February naval deployment, which included a modern guided-missile destroyer with a large arsenal of long-range weapons and an amphibious landing craft. The flotilla’s destination was the Coral Sea near the Solomon Islands. Point taken?
Against this backdrop of regional rearmament and the bloody realities of war in Ukraine, we desperately need to rethink Australia’s defense planning priorities. The government, the opposition and the Defense itself know that the risk of regional war is increasing rapidly, but our defense decisions do not catch up with this reality.
The budget decision to abandon a plan to purchase the SkyGuardian armed drone is the worst in a series of force structure mistakes. In recent weeks, the Japanese Coast Guard has announced that it will operate the SeaGuardian version of this drone from October, with the possibility that the Maritime Self-Defense Force will follow suit.
Earlier this month, the US Marine Corps confirmed that it would acquire 18 of these drones, known in their system as the MQ-9A, and plans to double that number.
Australia could have chosen to be part of a coalition of countries operating a relatively inexpensive drone that is available now, with the ability to stay airborne for 20 hours and the ability to perform a variety of missions, from surveillance maritime support to ground troops with missiles.
The defense rightly says that difficult priority judgments must always be made, but there was something there that added combat power, supported our closest partners, and could be put at risk without risking aircrew this year – not 2032, not 2042.
The most urgent defense task for the next government is clear: we need a comprehensive, high-priority emergency effort to redesign the ADF and determine how it can be outfitted with available equipment over the next two to next three years.
Governments need to start reading the international signs. Xi’s international belligerence and military buildup, his track record in the South China Sea and Hong Kong, and the strategic deal with the Solomon Islands all point to the direction of the traffic.
To this we can add the State Department’s urgent directive to Taiwan to arm itself more quickly with simple but effective weapons. Australia’s strategic geography is different – we need range, not just home defense – but the timing is no different.
Finally, the tragic experience of Ukraine shows that a small, determined country working with the support of allies can mount a powerful defense against the greatest of tyrants.
Australia can change their fortunes on defense but it will take lateral thinking of the type that doesn’t happen in official circles. Our story is that we ignore the obvious international signs and let ourselves be surprised when conflict calls us.
The first and biggest test of the next Australian government will be whether we can do better than this today.