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Last Updated: Mon Jan 27 11:18:09 UTC 2014

Musings on the White Paper

Dr Carlo Kopp, MIEEE, MAIAA, PEng
First published in Australian Aviation
October 2000

The region as we know it is undergoing some very important changes, which will see Australia's strategic environment transformed over the next two decades, should current trends persist. None of these changes are likely to benefit Australia's strategic position.

Therefore, the choices and decisions which are mapped out in the upcoming White Paper are likely to be of decisive importance in the longer term.

In this month's analysis we will explore some of the key issues, and identify a number of strategically poor force structuring choices which an injudicious government could make.

Regional Trends and the White Paper

The writers of the new White Paper have a challenging task to perform, if they are to grapple rigorously with the developing regional environment. Previous White Papers could be confined in scope largely to dealing with the immediate region, encompassing Malaysia, Indonesia and PNG. This was for the simple reason that any attack on Australia would have to be staged from Indonesia or PNG. While this remains true today, it is no longer the complete picture.

Last month's analysis discussed the prospect of India and China possessing strategic bombers and submarines, capable of delivering cruise missiles against Australia's economically vital W.A. and N.T. gas and oil production infrastructure. The analysis was focussed largely upon the IN Kilo SSK, Bear F and Backfire C, and the likely Chinese PLA-AF deployment of the Backfire C. This picture is incomplete, insofar as it is focussed upon capabilities being fielded or very likely to be fielded soon.

Since that analysis was written, we have seen the pride of the Russian Northern Fleet, the Project 949A Oscar II class SSGN K-141 Kursk sunken at the bottom of the Barents Sea. Public outrage in Russia over the woeful state of the Vooruzheniye Sily (Armed Forces), and the basketcase Russian economy, incapable of supporting the former Soviet strategic naval and air forces, will have one almost certain outcome. We can expect to see Russia begin to dump much of its inventory of conventional strategic assets on the world arms market.

A report published in Russia this July indicated that not only were refurbished Backfires likely to be on offer to the PRC, but also Project 949A Oscar II class SSGNs and Project 971 Akula class SSNs were proposed for export. Over the last deacde, most of the Russian sales effort involved pushing new equipment to keep factories open and workers employed, with a large part of the Soviet era equipment stocks mothballed or allowed to rot. The newer strategic equipment remained in the inventory, and was not exported so as not to destroy the market for new build equipment. Russia is now facing the bleak reality that it can no longer afford to keep white elephants like the Backfire, Oscar and Akula, all designed for niche Cold War scenarios. As a result these assets are very likely to be sold as is, straight from the inventory.

For the PRC, the Oscar II is likely to be a very attractive asset. This 18,000 tonne class of nuclear boat carries 24 slanted launch tubes for OKB-52 P-700/3M-45 Granit (SS-N-19 Shipwreck) supersonic anti-ship cruise missiles (forerunner to the Yakhont covered in Sept issue). The Granit weighs around 7 tonnes and has a range of about 300 nautical miles. The Oscar II was designed to ambush carrier battle groups or convoys crossing the Atlantic, and deliver a saturation attack with a salvo of up to 24 missiles. In a confrontation with the US over Taiwan, several Oscar II SSGNs would much increase the risk to any 7th Fleet assets deployed to intervene. Moreover, they could usefully intimidate Taiwan, Japan and Korea, simply by loading land attack versions of these cruise missiles (incorporation of Glonass/GPS into the existing Granit missile provides this capability in the basic missile). The Russian fleet has 11 boats in service.

India leased a single Charlie class SSGN at one stage, and would also be a likely target customer in a fire sale of the SSGN fleet.

The current situation where India is upgrading Bears, leasing Backfires, and putting Alfa cruise missiles on Kilo SSKs is a strong incentive for the PRC to take up any offers from the Russians. Since the Russians will be aiming to recover any costs they can, pre-loved Backfires, Oscar IIs and Akulas may be very cheap against new build items. The sizeable inventory of former Soviet S-300PMU (SA-10) SAMs and Su-27P/S Flanker fighters may also find its way on to the market at rock bottom prices, protests from Antey and Sukhoi notwithstanding.

What does this mean for ADF force structure planning ? In the simplest of terms, Australia's north will be, for the first time since 1942, exposed to attack by substantial force, should a dispute with India or China arise. This is the most important strategic development in this part of the world since Konfrontasi, or arguably even WW2.

The central assumption in every White Paper since WW2, that Australia can only be attacked by forces staging from Indonesian territory, is now an artifact of history.

This new reality will present the writers of our White Paper with some interesting challenges. To accept in our defence policy the need to defend against potential threats which bypass the near region, means throwing away many sacred cows in established force structuring policy.

Deterrence measures effective against a possibly belligerent Indonesia are unlikely to be effective against a belligerent India or China. Amphibious and land forces for regional operations become an issue for debate. Anti-Submarine Warfare becomes now a top priority for the RAN. The RAAF will need to be able to engage bombers or cruise missiles over the ocean at distances up to 500 NMI from our coastline, requiring big tankers such as the KC-25/KC-747 and big fighters such as the F-15E or F-22A.

Of course, there will be those who will argue that India and China are a US problem which need not concern us, or alternately that the US can provide these capabilities. While it is true that in a serious conflict the US would almost certainly send out an Air Expeditionary Force and 7th Fleet task force, the Americans are unlikely to particularly appreciate a White Paper in which Australia refuses to take responsibility for the proper defence of its own air space and near coastal waters against known regional capabilities. Indeed, should Australia make such a choice it will become completely politically beholden to the US administration of the day, if a crisis develops.

It is likely that a common argument we will see is why would India or China wish to lob cruise missiles at Australia ?. If Australia via military or political action frustrates a Chinese or Indian sponsored government in the region, getting even is a perfectly respectable reason. Other scenarios may arise. If the US gets itself into a shooting exchange with the PRC over Taiwan, what better way to tie down a USAF Air Expeditionary Force or Carrier Battle Group, than by lobbing a few cruise missiles at Australia ? Those very same US assets won't be available for offensive operations. The same case applies to a major dispute between the US and India. It is the same game plan used by Saddam in 1991, who lobbed Scuds at Israel and successfully tied down up to 25% of USAF fighters with Scud hunts.

The Green Paper, released in late June and written during the preceding months, presents three broad choices in force structuring: Defeating Attacks on Australia (and sea lanes), Regional Security and Peacekeeping. Developments over recent months, some following the Green Paper release, now indicate that the only rational and responsible focus in force structuring must be Defeating Attacks on Australia. Judicious choices in implementing such a force structure will by default provide useful capabilities for deterrence in the nearer and wider region, and for coalition operations in the region.

The decision by the cabinet National Security Committee to defer and review the Wedgetail project is perplexing. It suggests that our cabinet may not fully appreciate the strategic significance of recent developments, or may have arbitrarily chosen to ignore them. Both possible causes raise very serious questions about how much thought the NSC has actually given to the broader strategic situation. That the media response to the decision largely missed the key point is incidental.

The reality is that after the six months which have seen the biggest single change in our strategic circumstances for decades, the NSC votes to defer one of the most important capabilities we need to deal with these changes ! This is unlikely to send a comforting message to Washington or our allies in the nearer region. Sticker shock is hardly a valid excuse.

High Risk vs Low Risk Defence Policy ?

The fundamental issue in the new White Paper will be that of what level of risk is the government prepared to accept, especially over the longer term ? Force structure decisions made now will impact our strategic position a decade or more later. Given that the acquisition model we have is by design tied to the preceding White Paper, any fundamental constraints set down now will become insurmountable barriers in capability growth many years downstream.

Definitions of risk vary, but let us consider a simple example:

  1. Assume the odds of a shootout between the US and PRC over the next two decades to be 50/50. Perhaps pessimistic, but not as pessimistic as Henry Kissinger.

  2. Assume the odds of the PRC fielding Backfires and Oscar II SSGNs over the next decade to be 75/25, i.e. very likely.

  3. Assume the odds of the PRC playing Saddam's strategy to be 50/50 in a shootout with the US. Reasonable since the strategy is simple and known to work well.

This gives us a probability of 0.1875 or odds of about 1 in 5 that the PRC will shoot cruise missiles at the Pilbara and Timor Sea infrastructure.

Let us now estimate the economic loss of such an attack to be AUD 150B. Would you bet AUD 150B on odds of 1 in 5 ? Or 1 in 10 ? Or 1 in 100 ?

Since we can't exactly predict the likelihood of specific outcomes, this is little more than a game with numbers. But it does raise the basic question - how much risk is acceptable ? Most governments would argue that the loss of some aircraft, ships or troops is an acceptable risk in wartime. The loss of a substantial portion of the armed forces, civilian population or economy is not. If we consider the latter criterion to be the driving one, what loss of the national GDP over what period would be a tolerable outcome of a war ?

Another issue worth consideration in the context of the White Paper and force structuring is that of systems the government should be avoiding. The foremost in this category are submarine, ship and air launched cruise missiles, ballistic missiles and aircraft carriers capable of deploying fixed wing aircraft.

Why Not Cruise Missiles ?

The BGM-109C/D Tomahawk Land Attack Missile (TLAM) has been repeatedly proposed as an appropriate deterrent weapon for the ADF, specifically to be deployed by the Collins class submarine force. It has been argued that such a capability would be both superior and cheaper than the F-111 deterrent force.

The arguments for a TLAM/Collins capability are in part a fallacy, and in part a deceptive concealment of actual deterrent capability needs (Refer C. Kopp, Tomahawks, Submarines and the F-111, Australian Aviation, January, 1996.).

The primary requirement for a deterrent capability is credibility. Credibility in part derives from a willingness to use the asset, and in part from the sustainability of that asset in combat operations. Unless the deterrent asset can inflict significant damage, and continue to inflict significant damage over the duration of a conflict, it cannot be a credible deterrent.

The TLAM, delivered by a Collins class submarine or surface warship, is not a credible deterrent for two basic reasons:

  • The size of a strike delivered by multiple submarines or warships cannot exceed several dozen rounds, which is barely enough to close down one decently sized military airfield for several days.

  • The slow transit speed (8-20 knots) of both submarines and surface warships results in an exceptionally poor sustained rate of missile firings. Several days if not weeks may elapse between a submarine or warship delivering a cruise missile attack, reloading and repeating the attack.

  • The cost issue is also frequently misrepresented when cruise missiles are compared to manned aircraft as means of delivering firepower. Two factors must be considered:

  • The problem of targeting a cruise missile is no different than the problem of targeting a precision guided bomb. The same total cost overheads are incurred for pre-strike reconnaissance and post-strike damage assessment. In this respect there is no advantage whatsoever in the use of cruise missiles.

  • The unit cost of a cruise missile is of the order of one million US dollars, whereas the unit cost of a guided bomb of the order of tens of thousands of dollars. In a sustained bombardment 50 cruise missiles expended amount in cost to the value of a modern fighter aircraft.

Indeed, it can be shown that in sustained combat operations, the cost difference between a stealthy fighter aircraft dropping guided bombs and conventional fighter aircraft armed with cruise missiles is amortised in about one week or less of combat operations.

The cost issue also impacts sustainability in combat and thus credibility through the problem of weapon war-stocks. The USAF almost exhausted its war-stocks of B-52 launched AGM-86C cruise missiles, and the USN seriously depleted its stocks of BGM-109C/D TLAMs during the 1991 and 1999 campaigns. In both instances, older stocks of formerly strategic nuclear cruise missiles were remanufactured to make up shortfalls. In both campaigns the cruise missile was used only to supplement manned bombers.

It can be strongly argued that the inability of the US to ever sustain an intense bombardment by cruise missiles has reduced the perceived credibility of the weapon as a means of sustained and thus credible bombardment. The expectation that this perception can be changed is not reasonable. Many nations may simply choose to sit out a cruise missile bombardment.

Another consideration is whether cruise missiles will be survivable in the face of mobile air defence systems fielded by the PRC and India. The S-300PMU-1 and S-300V systems deployed in the region can be supplemented by the mast mounted 76N6 Clam Shell low altitude radar (AA 10/95), which was specifically designed to detect and engage low flying cruise missiles. A simple counter to an ADF cruise missile deployment would be the fielding of a dozen or more 76N6 radars to supplement deployed SAM defences.

Finally there is the issue of flexibility in combat. A cruise missile does a reasonable job of killing a fixed high value point target. It is not useful for a wide range of other roles, all of which a manned fighter can perform. Therefore what resources are committed to cruise missiles are unusable in any situation which does not involve killing fixed point targets.

The delivery of cruise missiles by widebody transport aircraft does not alter the basic limitations of the cruise missile. It is not sustainable in combat, very expensive per aimpoint destroyed, inflexible and is not a credible deterrent weapon.

Why Not Ballistic Missiles ?

The ballistic missile has on occasion been proposed as a viable deterrent weapon for the ADF. The argument for the ballistic missile is based upon the premise that it is cheaper to acquire than a manned aircraft and extremely difficult to defend against.

The latter argument is largely true at this time, but should capable anti-ballistic weapons like the S-300V SAM be deployed, a substantial capability to engage and destroy such weapons will exist.

The main problem experienced by the ballistic missile is the same problem seen with cruise missiles: sustainability in combat. Consider a hypothetical ballistic missile designed to provide the ADF with a deterrent capability. It will need a range of about 2,000 nautical miles, a payload of about 1 tonne and terminal guidance using either satellite navigation or imaging radar. Such a weapon is likely to be of similar complexity to a cruise missile, but much larger. As a result, its unit cost will be of the order of a million or more dollars.

While a high rate of fire can be achieved, unlike the cruise missile, and land mobile launcher vehicles can be easily dispersed, the difficulty which arises is the cost of war-stocks to sustain any duration of bombardment. If we assume even a short conflict of 2 weeks duration, involving 100 launches per day, a number chosen since it corresponds in weight of fire to what a force of about 50-75 fighters can deliver over that period, then we require war-stocks of at least 1,400 ballistic missiles at a cost of the order of 3 billion dollars. Yet it is an asset which is wholly expended in two weeks, and cannot be used for any purpose other than a direct bombardment of fixed targets.

As with the cruise missile, the cost overheads of targeting are still incurred.

The essential conclusion is that ballistic missiles, like cruise missiles, are inflexible and expensive deterrent weapons which will lack credibility since they are not sustainable in combat.

Why Not STOVL/STOBAR Aircraft Carriers ?

The recent RAN proposals for the LSS category of warship, essentially lightweight aircraft carriers, underscore a commonly held belief that naval air power is viable deterrent capability.

This is in most respects a fallacy. Delivering air power by aircraft carrier is always significantly more expensive than delivering it from land bases. Inevitably, an aircraft carrier requires missile armed escort ships and ideally, ASW assets such as fixed wing aircraft, helicopters and submarines. The basic defence of the carrier battle group against missile and submarine threats incurs a very large cost overhead, and no less importantly diverts such supporting assets from other roles.

Of more concern with the LLS proposal is the naive belief by its authors and sponsors that a second tier combat aircraft such as the F/A-18A/C, AV-8B Harrier or proposed JSF can provide such a carrier with a credible organic air defence capability. Unless the opposing threat is a subsonic maritime aircraft carrying short range anti-ship missiles, or a lightweight fighter aircraft, fighters such as the F/A-18A/C or AV-8B derivatives will be unable to defend the vessel.

In a regional environment where the Su-27/30 Flanker has proliferated, and the Tu-22M3 Backfire C is used, a lightweight carrier with lightweight fighters is not survivable. Indeed, even a large deck USN carrier will be ill-equipped to tackle such capabilities once the large F-14 Tomcat fighter is retired. The F/A-18E will at best match an Su-27/30 in radar and missile capabilities, and is uncompetitive in agility and range against the Russian fighter. Should Oscar II SSGNs be deployed, things only get worse.

It follows that there is no case for deploying carrier based fixed wing air power in the ADF force structure. The vulnerability of such an asset to current and developing wider regional capabilities and its high cost raise serious questions about the aims of the parties proposing the LSS vessel.


There is ample evidence in the public domain today to show that Australia has little choice than to force structure around the defence of the continent and sea lanes. Our growing economic vulnerability and the acquisition of conventional strategic weapons such as submarines, strategic bombers and cruise missiles by India and China make this so. In this sense, events following the Green Paper compilation and release now render many of the proposed choices moot.

The big challenge for Australia's defence community at large is to get this message across to our cabinet and parliamentarians. As the Wedgetail decision shows the reality is not sinking in. We need to do better.

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