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28 responses to “Defence: big decisions to be made”

  1. Peter Murphy

    Rather than buying the F-35 (or Sukhoi, or other n-th generation fighters), it might be time to consider military drones. They’re far cheaper, and they can hit accelerations that no human pilot could do.

    Drones have a bad rep for killing civilians in Afghanistan – so let’s not use them there; domestic duties only.

  2. wilful

    I suspect the most sensible sub purchase would be US off the shelf nuclear subs. But they have a large complement and we’ve never run anything like that system before so is risky. Also, conniptions! As for the F35, it really is true that piloted planes seem to be on their last generation.

    curiously, the LHD s kept their ski ramps. Fleet Air Arm anyone?

  3. indigo

    Drones have a bad rep for killing civilians in Afghanistan – so let’s not use them there; domestic duties only.

    You mean killing Australians? … But seriously, as the US Navy develops drone stealth fighters, it’s hard not imagine that any fifth generation fighter jet any country produces or buys will end up fighting robots.

  4. Jacques Chester

    Looks like Macross Plus was too optimistic about space colonisation and too conservative on humans-vs-drones.

  5. Fran Barlow

    Wilful:

    I suspect the most sensible sub purchase would be US off the shelf nuclear subs.

    That wouldn’t be politically feasible here, but more broadly

    a) of what possible legitimate use to Australia could submarines be?
    b) given that the Collins Class are lucky to have two in circulation at any one time — due largely to the inability to find submariners, who, for some reason, find life on such vessels tedious and not as well-rewarded as land-based jobs, wouldn’t there be enormous redundancy?

    Betting that subs that can be deployed perhaps by 2030 will still be useful in 2045 is an enormous gamble — far bigger than other gambles people on the right in Australia say they are unwilling to make — on climate change and energy/urban infrastructure, the NBN etc …

    It all sounds mad to me.

    Australia doesn’t need fighter jets and it doesn’t need subs. There’s simply no legitimate use for them. There is no enemy which Australia could do more than annoy with such equipment. What Australia needs is good civil defence — for floods, fire that sort of thing. A coast guard capable of restraining poaching and fishing people out of the ocean is useful — along with some ships to transport and relieve Australians caught up in some drama in the Pacific, or perhaps to supply relief and aid in a natural disaster, or in extremis to deliver troops/police to support a legitimate government as in Timor L’Este or perhaps the Solomons.

    Beyond that, buying big defence toys is expensive bluster.

  6. faustusnotes

    I’m surprised there isn’t more talk of maritime drone warfare. It seems like the combat aspect of it is easier to handle than for airborne craft – for starters, surface craft would be much slower and therefore have more room for human error – and for smaller countries the large crew complements required for ships would surely make small, mobile remote-piloted systems competitive? At the very least, the defense role played by submarines seems like it could be done by some kind of drone system. Is it the engine size that makes it impossible?

  7. wilful

    Fran, while I agree with your last two paragraphs, if you stay within the mindset of Australia requiring conventional forces, then subs are pretty much at the tippy-top top of the list of the sort of thing that Australia should buy if we want any indigenous defence capability.

    There’s no serious speculation that they will be obsolete by 2045, no one says that – a small gamble indeed. As to what they can do, they can perform extremely valuable monitoring of sea lanes and communications, they can insert special forces, they can launch cruise missiles, they can sink ships. A lot of bang (for a lot of bucks).

    Also, while crewing is definitely a problem, it’s not the Collins Class’ main issue, it’s not a major limiting factor. Twelve Los Angeles class subs would definitely be an issue.

    The two LHDs we’re getting will be excellent for humanitarian missions, they will make a massive difference for another Bandar Aceh, another Solomons islands type scenario. I thouroughly approve of them. The three AWDs, well they’re just crazy expensive crap.

  8. Fran Barlow

    Wilful:

    As to what they can do, they can perform extremely valuable monitoring of sea lanes and communications

    ,

    And bearing in mind that this can be done with conventional vessels, many of them not even crewed by us, that is valuable to Australia because?

    they can insert special forces</blockquote.

    Where are we inserting special forces between 2030 and 2050?

    , they can launch cruise missiles

    ,

    again, against whom?

    they can sink ships.

    Whose ships might Australia contemplate sinking?

    There’s no serious speculation that they will be obsolete by 2045,

    Hardly anyone in 1930 thought atomic warfare would change war by 1945. Hardly anyone in 1948 thought the American Century would end in 1971. There was no serious speculation in 1970 that the internet might make the regular post redundant or make newspapers unviable in 2010 either. Who thought drones would be a key means of projecting power in 1980? Who thought in 1980 that passenger planes could be turned into weapons?

    When I see a submarine I imagine a large expensive floating target after which you could send a very cheap marine drone that was much faster and more agile and equipped with ordinance that could send it to the bottom of the sea.

    But basically, I don’t see any role for Australia in doing conventional warfare. At most, there’s armed peacekeeping, in our region.

  9. faustusnotes

    Fran, if when you see a submarine you see a floating target, my guess is that the Captain of that target has done something wrong. I think you should, strictly speaking, be not seeing a submerged target. Your analysis of their usefulness should proceed from the assumption that they are doing what they are designed to do.

    I can’t make a judgment as to whether the Collins submarines do that.

  10. Fran Barlow

    faustusnotes:

    if when you see a submarine you see a floating target, my guess is that the Captain of that target has done something wrong

    Well I didn’t mean ‘see’ literally. I might have said ‘envisage’ or ‘imagine’ or ‘picture’. It would be a fairly simple matter to build uncrewed marine drones equipped to track submarines from their engine sounds, digital signal, heat trail etc. They’d be small, highly agile and fast and capable of taking out a sub with what they could carry in ordinance.

    Trying to salvage a sub sunk in deep water would be a complex exercise and it’s hard to imagine what in practice Australia could do about it, even allowing there was high certainty as to the culprit.

    Really apart from military keynesianism, there’s no argument for subs. If we are keen on sinking $35 billion into engineering and manufacturing in SA (and why not?) I’d say there are any number of better options that would produce a better return — (easy since subs will produce no return at all).

  11. Peter Murphy

    faustusnotes: communications may be a big problem. It’s easy to communicate between a desk jockey and an airborne drone, because the medium is air. A submersible drone would be in salt water, which is a conductor of electricity, and thus a terrible medium for radio signals. I found this pdf about amateur radio underwater. It states:

    As discussed earlier, attenuation of radio signals in sea water is so great that communication further than just below the surface is not possible unless very low frequencies (10 to 30 kHz) are used.

    Low frequencies reduce the amount of information transmitted between desk jockey and drone. There would be no real time camera, although that would probably be redundant underwater. Maybe there’d be enough bandwidth to transmit sonar to the operator, but that sounds dicey.

  12. Peter Murphy

    It would be a fairly simple matter to build uncrewed marine drones equipped to track submarines from their engine sounds, digital signal, heat trail etc. They’d be small, highly agile and fast and capable of taking out a sub with what they could carry in ordinance.

    There are drones that are fully automated, but as far as I know, all combat drones have a human operator in control at all times. There’s a reason for that. You don’t want the electronic equivalent of the anti-tank dog.

  13. Fran Barlow

    Low frequencies reduce the amount of information transmitted between desk jockey and drone. There would be no real time camera, although that would probably be redundant underwater. Maybe there’d be enough bandwidth to transmit sonar to the operator, but that sounds dicey.

    Maybe you program the drone to behave like an electronic pointer dog. It tracks the sub and follows it, giving location data. Maybe it simply fires a missile on command when it gets the operator authority.

  14. Fran Barlow

    Pushing things through water at speed uses a lot of energy, which means a lot of fuel, which means a big fuel tank, which uses a lot of energy to push through the water….

    Doubtless that’s so, but if it’s uncrewed, as you say, you don’t need either the space for humans of biosupport. You can save an enormous amount of bulk and weight and power and therefore fuel. A lot of the time (out of wartime) they’d be purely for surveillance, so you’d not carry ordinance and they’d perform a fairly narrow programmed circuit at low speed merely gathering data.

    That information on sea lane use that Wilful was considering could be gathered by craft such as this. In the meantime, you get working on real time comms to improve their tactical utility.

  15. David Irving (no relation)

    The beaut thing about submarines is that they’re great for denying the enemy access to your sea lanes, and pretty good for insertion of small teams into hostile territory. Not so good at force projection (so you need LHDs and maybe AWDs to move the big stuff). Still, if you can crew them (a big if: I’ve met a few submariners and they’re … unusual) you get a lot of bang for your buck.

  16. Jacques de Molay

    Fighter jets? Submarines? Are we about to be invaded?

    It’s borderline criminal how much money we shovel into the Defence Forces and they keep saying it isn’t enough and the government of the day will write another cheque and on it goes.

  17. Dave McRae

    I resemble that remark DI(NR) :)

    Collins was before my day. I understand they’re pretty good from colleagues who stayed on, unlike the rot you hear in the press. And very much the better than the Canadian experience (and we had briefly considered the Upholder class as replacement).

    I was amazed to hear Rudd consider a squadron of 12 a few years back. We can’t crew the 6 we have .. besides what additional capability does the extra 6 will give you?

    I was watching a top video on WA marine research from WAMSI and they have a couple of marine drones, UMVs if you wish. Top bit of kit – goes for upto a month at a time doing data runs on temps, salinity etc. surface, transmit, dive, collect, repeat. They have to be autonomous below the water, and they are. As mentioned before, essentially no comms underwater – very low freq .. we had given that up even in my day, think dial-up modem baudrates and then divide by 100, and then needed to drag a wire antenna 100meters behind.

    I agree with Fran too on that marine drones will play a huge part in the future, as will UAVs. I can’t see them pushing a warhead about, payload need to be big. But detector sensors, control and comms can be tiny allowing for small fuel and propulsion needs – cheap as chips.

    And agree with wilful – LHD’s was the sanest defence decision in a long time.

  18. Mk50 of Brisbane

    Welcome back.

    This is a deeply entertaining thread, thanks Robert for putting it up.

    [snip]

    [please read the comments policy - 3 paragraph rule (not 11+ paragraphs). Please write this on your own blog and provide a link. Thanks ~ Mods]

  19. Mk50 of Brisbane

    So you don’t want substantive comment from someone who actually know what they are talking about on this subject?

    OK. No skin off my nose, and your loss.

  20. mindy

    Can you say it in three paragraphs?

  21. FDB

    To be fair to MarkL, he’s no doubt been commenting mostly at Catallaxy for some time, and forgotten even the most basic tenets of civility – let alone harsh leftist strictures like the 3-para rule.

    Just so long as he gives credit where due for other people’s work, I say give him a chance.

  22. mindy

    Maybe a guest post?

  23. David Irving (no relation)

    I didn’t know you’d been a submariner, Dave. Kudos. I couldn’t do it.

    I met a PO submariner at HMAS Kuttabul about 15 years ago, when I was over there for a couple of weeks. (The Navy really does have the best views – the senior sailors’ mess looked out over the harbour, a lovely sight over your cornflakes.) Nice bloke, but from the point of view of a military cartographer-turned-loggy, a bit weird.

  24. David Irving (no relation)

    mindy, a guest post for MarkL would be a good idea. I’ve often disagreed with him, but he knows what he’s talking about.

  25. Tyro Rex

    Fran @ 6

    “a) of what possible legitimate use to Australia could submarines be?”

    - intelligence and covert operations (as they are hard to detect)

    - sea denial (especially conventional boats in the littoral)

    - force protection

    - strike

    Why does Australia need these things? We are surround by water. The “we have no enemies” line is false. What do you think China could be? An advanced liberal democracy that is in no way arming itself up nor threatening its neighbors over its territorial claims. And China, is very defendable against, especially should it chose to bring its conflicts anywhere near us. Admittedly, we are not invading China. But we must be able to make them at least think twice in consideration of the associated risk should they chose to seize or threaten (for example) N.W. gas and steel production areas.

    “b) given that the Collins Class are lucky to have two in circulation”

    Right. To me this just shows how little you have considered this subject. With a fleet of six, two is exactly what you expect to have “in circulation”. That’s the reason ships are nearly always bought in lots of three. One in refit, one in working up trials, one on operations.

    If we want to buy twelve, the planners see scenarios where they need four at a time.

    The problem with the boats – and the big American attack boats especially – is the crewing. The silent service is volunteer only.

  26. Tyro Rex

    “An advanced liberal democracy that is in no way arming itself up nor threatening its neighbors over its territorial claims.” Obviously a sarcastically phrased rhetorical question missing the ?