Why Australia is racing to get its hands on more weapons – The Australian Financial Review

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The Albanese government is promising to muscle up as the strategic outlook deteriorates. Whatever it chooses will carry a supersize price tag.
If Ukraine ultimately prevails over Russia, a factory in rural Arkansas will have played an instrumental part in victory.
The plant, owned by US defence giant Lockheed Martin, churns out the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, better known as HIMARS, a truck-like vehicle with a rocket and missile launcher on the back.
Known for its ability to “shoot and scoot”, HIMARS can fire GPS-guided missiles 80 kilometres, double the range of howitzer guns, allowing Ukrainian soldiers to accurately hit hundreds of targets well beyond the enemy frontline such as ammunition dumps and bridges used to resupply troops.
The High Mobility Artillery Rocket System system in action. AP
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky credited the system for helping recapture the city of Kherson last month.
HIMARS was recently named the “coolest thing made in Arkansas” in a competition run by the state chamber of commerce, beating snack food Cheetos among its rivals.
“We’ve had a lot of high-level visits thanking the workforce for what we do to contribute not only to our national defence but the defence of our allies and partners as well,” the site manager for the factory, Aaron Huckaby, told visiting Australian journalists recently.
The lessons of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will be pored over by strategists for decades, but the HIMARS success has exposed one gap for Western militaries, including Australia. They are now questioning how they can ensure that munitions do not run out.
Rates of production for rockets, missiles and shells have forced Kyiv to use weapons judiciously. But the amount of military aid provided by Western allies has raised concerns they have been depleting their supplies by helping the plucky Ukrainians.
With Australia among the major contributors to the war effort, the upcoming Defence Strategic Review (DSR) is expected to recommend to the Albanese government that it build up its stockpiles and strive for greater self-sufficiency.
“The Ukraine war has demonstrated how rapidly you go through munitions, and it’s been a wake-up call in that regard,” says Australian Strategic Policy Institute senior analyst Malcolm Davis.
“How are we going to sustain high-intensity warfare if we run out in the first week or so?” he asked. “We have a pre-war outlook but our defence policy, production output and economy is a peacetime one. We need to shift to a wartime economy, and we’re not.”
The Defence Strategic Review, to be led by former minister Stephen Smith (left) and former defence chief Angus Houston (second from right), will reshape the Defence Force. Alex Ellinghausen
The review, which is being overseen by former defence and foreign minister Stephen Smith and former defence force chief Sir Angus Houston, will be handed to Defence Minister Richard Marles in February.
It is being prepared against a backdrop of what Marles and other ministers describe as the most complex strategic circumstances since the end of World War II.
One of the driving factors behind it is the Morrison government’s 2020 defence strategic update’s finding that the longstanding 10-year warning period military planners had assumed before an attack against the Australian mainland could be carried out has shrunk dramatically, off the back of China’s military build up and growing assertiveness.
The review will cover force posture (the location of bases and troops), force structure and the $270 billion pipeline of spending on new weapons, equipment and systems.
It’s easy to be distracted by the sexy, shiny toys – such as nuclear-powered submarines and fighter jets – on the wishlist, or esoteric debates about whether armoured vehicles and tanks are redundant in modern warfare.
But the head of the Australian National University’s National Security College, Rory Medcalf, says the review will answer fundamental questions about the future of the Defence Force – and some service chiefs may not like what they hear.
Medcalf says the review will have to determine how much “strategic weight” Australia as a middle power realistically should have in coming years, given the nation has the 12th-largest military budget in the world. Thus, it will need to resolve “how much capability do we need as a nation to inflict and sustain harm in a conventional conflict”.
Medcalf says the review will examine rebalancing the Australian Defence Force towards maritime threats. That is likely to result in the navy being given greater prominence. But it could also mean the army is reimagined, Medcalf says, to also respond to those maritime threats.
Professor Rory Medcalf believes the review will look at Australia’s “strategic weight”. Rohan Thomson
That may mean the army becomes more geared towards amphibious warfare – such as landing on islands and beaches – more akin to the US Marines.
Certainly, the signs from the government are that the army’s conventional land forces roles are poised to be downgraded in the review. Anthony Albanese has said in two recent reviews that Australia doesn’t need to be prepared to fight a land war in regional Queensland.
That has fuelled speculation the government will significantly scale back the number of armoured troop carriers to be ordered for the army, a view compounded when it was announced last month that the tender decision would be delayed.
The review is expected to recommend the government stock up significantly on missiles, including long-range ones. It may also call for a new fleet of corvettes, smaller warships that carry missiles. They would replace the offshore patrol boats now under construction.
Marles has tried to frame the new doctrine he wants to pursue as “impactful projection”.
“It is clear that a more complex environment will require a more sober and focused approach to defending ourselves and our region,” he told the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry Business Leaders Summit last month.
“We must invest in capabilities that enable us to hold potential adversaries’ forces at risk at greater distance, and increase the cost of aggression against Australia and its interests,” he said. “And this must be done across the full spectrum of proportionate response. Accordingly, we need capabilities that provide our nation with impactful projection.”
Top of Marles’ list for those capabilities is nuclear-powered submarines, which are the second part of the defence puzzle. The AUKUS taskforce is due to report in March on the optimum pathway for Australia to acquire nuclear submarines with help from the US and the UK.
Minister for Foreign Affairs Penny Wong and Defence Minister Richard Marles. AP
Officials are tight-lipped about what will happen. But with Australia unlikely to get a boat of its own until some time in the 2030s or 2040s, it seems US and UK submarines will operate out of Perth more frequently as an interim measure, which at least will allow a cadre of Australians to get on-the-job training. Longer term, the AUKUS submarine may be the basis of a design operated by all three navies.
The taskforce will also reveal the pricetag for the submarines, which is heading north of $100 billion. And that’s the other big unknown. Submarines are expensive by their nature, establishing a nuclear regime to support them even more so, but they will not be the only burden to be added to defence costs.
Other weapons and platforms the government embraces post-review, including the missiles, will also affect the budget bottom line. Furthermore, Labor has committed to the former Morrison government’s plan to increase the size of the Defence workforce to 100,000 servicemen and women and public servants, which will cost $38 billion between now and 2040.
With the government promising to increase defence spending in real terms while clinging to stage three tax cuts, it will need to find funding elsewhere – either by raising taxes or cutting welfare and infrastructure spending.
“If we are going to need an expanded defence budget, in addition to the cost of AUKUS, how does the government prepare the nation for that?” Medcalf asks. “The message of stabilisation of China relations is somewhat at odds with the message we are in for risky strategic times and we need to muscle up. The government needs to find a way of explaining to the public those messages can be consistent at the same time.”
ASPI’s Davis adds “We’re going into adverse economic times, where inflation is driving up the cost of producing this stuff, so it’s getting more expensive just to tread water. That is something that is going to confront us when we get the DSR.”
While new technology may deliver superiority on the battlefield, its complexity means weapons and equipment take longer to be built and cost more, Davis says. In contrast, China has the advantage of “sheer manpower”.
“They can employ thousands of people in shipyards and on production lines,” he says. “In a major protracted war with the Chinese, are they going to out-produce us? That is the key question.”
Davis says Australian defence spending needs to be closer to 3.5 per cent of GDP, instead of the current 2 per cent benchmark.
“That is going to require leadership from the top to challenge defence bureaucracies which are reluctant to shift gears,” he says.
The reporter travelled to the US courtesy of Lockheed Martin.
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