Review of the Defence Strategic Review

Review of the Defence Strategic Review

by David Archibald

8 May 2023


The recently released Defence Strategic Review is a high level document — a jumble of buzz words with little detail on what actually to do, and why. It was put together by people with little personal interest in defence and thus not much knowledge or understanding.

The likely reason the review was commissioned is because defence is a can that has been kicked down the road for decades and the new Labor government would have started getting briefings on what China is doing. Using WW2 as the analogy, Ukraine is the Spanish Civil War, Taiwan is the new Czechoslovakia, and Vietnam is our generation’s Poland. We are in 1937 with a big, painful, grinding, destructive war coming.

None of our politicians have an understanding of defence. Even the ones who had senior rank in the Australian Defence Force, such has Senator Molan, had no interest in the relative merit of weapons systems such as the F-35. He was as silent as the grave on all choices of weapons systems. And because our politicians have taken no interest, the people running the department have had no adult supervision. They don’t think in terms of cost-effectiveness. They just want bright and shiny stuff with features that no other country has bothered to add to similar systems. That tendency is noted in this sentence from page 69 of the review:

The program is not structured to deliver a minimum viable capability in the shortest period of time but is pursuing a long-term near perfect solution at an unaffordable cost.

That could be said of most things that the Department of Defence touches.

It seems that the authors of the review were told that it is time to panic and were tasked to advise on what we could do to prepare without spending any more money.

These are the recommendations the review got right:

1. The emphasis on antiship cruise missiles. We will use a lot of these in a war with China. The more we have in stock, the safer we will be. In theory, if we have enough, we can defeat China at sea and they won’t be able to invade anyone. The two types mentioned in the report — the Long Range Antiship Missile produced by Lockheed and the Joint Strike Missile produced by Kongsberg — are exquisite weapons. As well as those we need more general purpose cruise missiles against land targets and less well-defended ships, such as tankers and ships already disabled by high-end missiles.

Both Taiwan and Japan produce cruise missiles and we should produce a variety of those under license. Cruise missiles are the bread and butter of modern maritime warfare, and we need to produce our own in Australia.

We also need the aircraft to deliver them. The F-35s and the Super Hornets are too short range. Our best option is to convert Boeing 737s to dropping cruise missiles. We can buy used ones of these for as little as $4 million a pop. In peacetime they would only have to fly once or twice a year.


Kongsberg’s Joint Strike Missile, weighing 416 kg


2. Cancelling the second tranche of self-propelled howitzers. What the war in Ukraine has shown is that self-propelled howitzers are better than towed artillery in avoiding counter-battery fire, but break down too much. Wheeled howitzers on a truck body are the best solution. But the review didn’t mention wheeled howitzers.

3. The review says we should get more HIMARS missiles. The concept is good but we should shop around. The Korean Chunmoo system may be better value for money, in terms of the cost effectiveness of delivering high explosive on the battlefield. There are also Israeli systems. Also, most HIMARS have the wrong type of warhead. We should go back to a cluster munition warhead which is four times as effective as the alternate warhead the US currently uses.

The review says that we should be making missiles in Australia. Artillery is the basis of war. With a mix of missiles we can outrange the enemy’s tube artillery and save a lot of Australian lives.

4. The review recommends expanding the reserves and upgrading ports and bases in the north. This is obvious stuff that was going to happen for years now, but nothing has ever happened.

5. The review also recommends reducing the average size of the ships of our surface fleet. It didn’t mention tonnage but there is no point these days in anything larger than a frigate. If enemy ships are going to be so easy to sink, that also holds true for our own.

And this is what the review got wrong:

1. The review mentioned global warming as a threat, which is laughable and sad. And because of their belief in global warming they didn’t mention the elephant in the room, which is Australia’s fuel security. Twenty years ago Australia had seven oil refineries, but we are now down to two. Even if we had our own oil supply we couldn’t refine it. Most of the petrol and diesel we use comes from the future war zone.

We should make all of our liquid fuel needs in Australia. But to do so would mean increasing our carbon emissions. It could be that Australia ends up being defeated in war and invaded because of that idiotic belief in global warming. The review recommends setting up a Fuel Council. But the only thing a Fuel Council could do is recommend is building stocks of petrol, diesel and jet fuel in Australia, and someone would have to pay for that. There is not much point in stockpiling oil because we wouldn’t be able to refine it. NSW, our biggest state, doesn’t have a refinery now.  There is no oil refinery west of Geelong.

2. The next big mistake is cutting the buy of infantry fighting vehicles from 450 to 129. The war in Ukraine shows that the era of armoured warfare isn’t over. You just need to spend about $1 million per vehicle for an Active Protection System such as the Israeli Trophy system to reduce the threat from antitank guided missiles (ATGM).

Instead we should be tripling the order to at least 1,400. It seems the authors of the review were told to improve our defence without spending any more money. It would be better if we spent more money.

3. The next big mistake is to cut the number of combined arms brigades from three to one. This is another idiotic mistake. The era of armoured warfare isn’t over. To get anywhere on the modern battlefield you need tanks and infantry fighting vehicles supported by plenty of artillery. Trying to advance without armour results in three times the number of casualties.

In terms of actual combat effectiveness this decision will make Australia one of the smallest armies on the planet. The bigger the land army we have, the bigger the invading force has to be. If we have only one combined arms brigade, they only have to land three to defeat us. If we have 10 combined arms brigades, they have to land 30 to defeat us. We should go the other way and have at least ten combined arms brigades.

There is a lot that the review omitted.

One example is that we have no way of plucking survivors from the open ocean.  We need flying boats for that. We have thousands of kilometres of coastline but no way of getting there unless we send a ship off on a trip that will last weeks. In the meantime, anyone needing rescuing will have died.

The biggest problem in defence wasn’t touched. And that is that the people running the Department of Defence don’t like the profession of arms. Defending Australia involves killing the people who want to kill us, and they would rather not. The people running our Department of Defence would rather be running drag queen story hour at a petting zoo.

If you think that is a bit over the top, consider that a former chief of the army, now retired, has been seen wearing women’s shoes in public. The current Chief of Army is considered to be an intellectual because he converted a Bushmaster to electric batteries, making it useless. They are considering towing a generator behind that Bushmaster so it can get anywhere. And if you would like to see the intellectual in action, here he is an Army video:

It is not an inspiring performance for the troops under his command; rather it is unnerving. Humans blink on average every five seconds. He doesn’t blink until 65 seconds in. Seemingly reading text from a screen took so much brainpower that parts of his autonomic system shut down to cope.

The first public sign of the rot in the Department of Defence was when they started persecuting our most decorated soldier, Ben Roberts-Smith, in about 2010. The senior staff may have been jealous of his medals but they would have also been offended by his sheer bravery.

Also remember that the infamous Brereton Report contained a passage in which it said that Australian special forces in Afghanistan had a habit of surrounding a village, shooting anyone who tried to escape, rounding up the men and boys, torturing them for three days and then slitting their throats. Here’s the section from page 120:

The implication was that there are a lot of villages in Afghanistan with only women and girls because Australian soldiers killed all the males. But no such village was named in the report. And none have been found since. The fact that the Department’s senior management believed that means that they have no understanding of the troops they are commanding, and precious little grip on reality otherwise. And most likely loathe the troops under their command.

The ethos of the Brereton report was that officers are saintly creatures who can do no wrong and not even think a bad thought, that ordinary soldiers were dumb meat, simple creatures who are easily led astray, and that NCOs are evil, conniving, nasty men who enforce a code of silence on their criminal acts. Brereton couldn’t get the stories on atrocities that he wanted until he started paying Afghans to tell them. None of the senior leaders of the Australian Defence Force thought this was strange.

And people so dangerously deluded are very easy to scare. There is a parallel with WW2. Australia’s management of the war was going badly until a Hudson bomber carrying our high command crash on approach to Canberra airport in August 1940. New people were appointed and Australia’s conduct of the war improved dramatically. We need a modern day version of that crash, but before the war starts. It might take a couple of planeloads of 737s to do it. Morale in our troops would improve out of sight.

What should have the Review said?

Well the first thing to do is to name your enemy and state the best way of defeating them. The Review talked about the threat from global warming before it mentioned the existence of China. China wants to rule the world and make all our lives miserable, even more than the Albanese Government does. In this, it will be a rerun of WW2 in that the Japanese had a plan to defeat the United States and rule the world.


A great chunk of the Chinese economy is building empty apartments and another big chunk is planting rice by hand.


China’s plan is to attack either Taiwan or Vietnam first. While they have said that they will attack Taiwan first, deception is a big part of Chicom military thinking. Looking at the coastline of China opposite Taiwan, the Chicoms have hardly laid a cubic metre of concrete to make their attack on Taiwan any easier — not even concrete pads to aid the helicopter assault across the strait. They have laid plenty of concrete for an attack on Vietnam, including a four lane highway sweeping up the border, a giant base just 10 km north of the border, and SAM sites and artillery pads right on the border.


Base built for attacking Vietnam 10 km north of the border.


China has been attacking Vietnam since 116 BC. Their last attack was in 1979, and shelling of Vietnamese territory continued up to 1991. Vietnam has another attraction for China in being the first country to attack. Vietnam has 30 bases on islands and shoals in the South China Sea, which makes a mockery of China’s claim to the whole area. China would invade on the same routes that it used in 1979, and then not withdraw until Vietnam gave up its bases in the South China Sea. Another attraction is that Vietnam doesn’t have treaties with any other countries, because its constitution forbids that. So China could get practice in running a war without the rest of the world ganging up on it.


Structural poverty in the Chinese economy – if they didn’t plant rice by hand, their domestic grain production would fall 26%.


Whether it’s Taiwan or Vietnam first, our response has to be the same. China has to be defeated or otherwise its aggression will crank up and it will attack Japan, India and otherwise take chunks out of every other country it has a border with. In his recent meeting with Putin in Moscow, Xi asked Russia to hand Vladivostok back to China. China winning its first war will also mean that the US has reneged on its treaties in the Pacific region and that the US nuclear umbrella is down. China has threatened Japan that if Japan joins in the defence of Taiwan, China will nuke one Japanese city per day until Japan unconditionally surrenders, after which China and Russia would jointly rule Japan. Japan and South Korea are now talking about acquiring their own nuclear weapons. Which is wise because the Obama faction of the Democratic Party is still trying to wreck the United States as fast as they can. Stabbing Japan and South Korea in the back would speed up that process.


The drumbeat of war in Asia: Chinese incursions of Japanese territorial waters in the Senkaku Islands. The big jump up in 2012 was due to Xi Jinping’s ascension to the throne in that year.


We have named the enemy — so how do we defeat it? The first thing to do is to not over-estimate China. The country has a lot of frailties. Firstly their population of 1.4 billion doesn’t mean they have a lot of cannon fodder. They plant about half their agricultural production by hand which means they are structurally poor. Their terraced rice paddies can’t be mechanised, so they have the choice of keeping those peasants poor in perpetuity or having their food production plummet by a third. On top of that they import 40% of the plant protein input to their food production system, mostly as soybeans and corn from the United States and Brazil. Once that supply stops China becomes a nation of 1.4 billion involuntary vegetarians.

So we won’t be fighting the full 1.4 billion of them. We will only be fighting the three hundred million in a few coastal provinces that make stuff for the export market. Back in the 1960s, three million Israelis held off three hundred million Arabs who wanted to kill them all — so it is possible to prevail against seemingly overwhelming odds. And the evolution of electronics since the 1960s has aided the defence.

China has a geography problem. Attacking Taiwan means that their ships are exposed for the entirety of the 100 km crossing. The Taiwanese could start plinking them even before they have left port. Northern Vietnam is rugged country that is perfect for ATGM teams to ambush armoured columns. A rational actor wouldn’t bother under the circumstances, but Xi will start his war because of personal factors. He is turning 70 this year and if he is to write history in other people’s blood and assume the mantle of a great Chinese emperor, he can’t wait too long.


The South China Sea kill box. The first thing to do in any war with China is to attack and seize these island bases because China will waste a lot of effort in trying to defend them and this will diver resources from attacking Taiwan.


Another big problem for China is its seven bases in the Spratly Islands. They are 1,000 km from Hainan and stuck between Vietnam 450 km to the west and the Philippines 300 km to the east. Their bases are in a natural kill box. When they are attacked, China will put inordinate effort into trying to defend them. Ships and aircraft trying to get to those bases will be easily detected and shot down/sunk. So in defending against China, the first thing to do is to attack and seize those seven bases.

If you wanted to help deter China from attacking anyone, the division of those bases among the Allies in the peace settlement should be published so that China is aware that when it starts a war, it will lose its South China Sea bases. This is a suggestion for the allocation of bases:

Vietnam:                   Fiery Cross Reef, Cuateron Reef

Japan:                        Subi Reef, Gaven Reef

United States:          Mischief Reef, Hughes Reef, Johnson South Reef

The other thing that Allied forces need to do upon the outbreak of the war is to attack every Chinese base from Djibouti in the west to Tulagi in the Solomon Islands, and south to their bases in the Antarctic. And sink or disable every Chinese commercial vessel and fishing boat.

Our war with China will largely be a maritime war fought with aircraft. What we need most for that role is bombers carrying cruise missiles to their launch points. The most cost-effective way of achieving that capability is to convert second hand Boeing 737s. Our P-8 Poseidon anti-submarine aircraft are based on the 737 and can drop torpedoes, similar in weight and dimensions to cruise missiles.  The 737 bombers would have a return range of 3,000 km with a payload of 30 cruise missiles. Those cruise missiles in turn would have ranges from 500 km to 2,000 km. So bombers from Tindal in the Northern Territory could hit targets as far away as Hong Kong without coming in range of Chinese fighters. Once the surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems in the Spratlys are eliminated, the bombers could fly closer to drop glide bombs with a range of 70 km.


Alice Springs aircraft storage – our bomber fleet in being?


These 737 bombers would be supplemented by drones based on the Ghost Bat. The Ghost Bat is designed around supporting fighter aircraft. To that end it carries two AIM-120 radar-guided missiles internally to maintain stealth. This is a low weapons load for the size and cost of the aircraft. The RAAF should split off a separate program from the Ghost Bat to develop a drone optimized for attacking surface targets. This new design will have a low wing (below the fuselage) instead of a high wing (above the fuselage). This will allow the main landing gear to be pushed out into the wings, in turn increasing the amount of ordnance that can be carried under the fuselage. It will also allow the conformal carriage of missiles in a recess along the centreline of the aircraft.

The experience in the Ukraine War is that most Russian Kalibr cruise missiles are being shot down by Ukrainian SAM systems and 35 mm radar-guided cannon. This suggests that missiles that are supersonic in their terminal phase would have a better chance of defeating air defence, which in turn means a large, single missile up to the carrying capacity of the aircraft. Being conformably carried would mean that it would not increase drag and would have a radar signature no worse than a clean aircraft.

Australia doesn’t have any proper fighter aircraft; the F-35s and Super Hornets we have are merely light bombers. The F-35 is near effectively unarmed in its non-bomber loadout, with only four radar-guided missiles. It is also too expensive to operate, at US$42,000 per hour of flight. The Super Hornet was built as a replacement for the A-6 Intruder for the US Navy. As a fighter aircraft it is even worse than the F-35. Its best use would be to deliver cruise missiles at sea.

Real fighter aircraft are needed to keep enemy aircraft away from our positions. In the Ukraine War, Russian Mig-31s are firing air-to-air R-37 missiles with a range of 300 km. This is keeping Ukrainian fighter aircraft back from the front line which in turn allows the Russians to use glide bombs to attack Ukrainian positions.


The Mig-31 armed with the 600kg R-37 missile has been effective in keeping Ukrainian aircraft away from the front line.


The solution is to make the Gripen E fighter in Australia under licence from Saab in Sweden. The Gripen E has one fifth the operating cost of the F-35 and half the capital cost, while being a more effective fighter.

The next thing for the RAAF to do is to have another set of Jindalee Over the Horizon Radar (JORN) systems on our northern coastline. The current set of JORN radar systems are set 1,000 km back from the coastline, so that their coverage begins at the coast and extends a further 2,000 km out. Having another line of radar systems on the coast would push our coverage another 1,000 km out to the southern end of the South China Sea. The United States is currently installing an over-the-horizon radar system on Palau which will provide coverage starting in the Philippines and extending to the coast of Vietnam.

With respect to making our own cruise missiles and other things to fling at the Chinese, Australia used to have a big effort in drone and missile development based at Salisbury in South Australia. This was best known for the Jindivik target drone, which had its first flight over 70 years ago in 1952. One product from that era, the Nulka radar decoy for ships, is still in use today. That research effort was closed down in the 1970s as an economy measure.

Our Department of Defence is in the position of knowing it needs to have missiles made in Australia, as all battlefield consumables should be, but only buys the offerings of Lockheed Martin and Raytheon. It regards the making of missiles as akin to magic and has no knowledge of what is involved. So when the then Liberal government decided to get into making missiles, Lockheed Martin and Raytheon were selected to run the enterprise. This is putting the fox in charge of the hen house. Those companies will be rapacious, and of course progress in putting up the buildings etc. will be glacially slow. In fact there has been no progress.

There is a whole world beyond Lockheed Martin in making cruise missiles, surface-to-surface missiles, and similar things. Mitsubishi Heavy Industries in Japan makes the Type 12 truck-mounted, antiship missile with ranges up to 1,500 km. South Korea makes the Hyunmoo-3 series of land-attack cruise missiles with ranges of up to 1,500 km. That country also makes the Chunmoo surface-to-surface missiles, which are much like the HIMARS system produced by Lockheed, but already with a 150 km range. Taiwan has the Hsiung Feng family of anti-ship cruise missiles, including supersonic variants, and the Yun Feng land attack cruise missile with a range of 2,000 km.

In Singapore, ST Engineering has developed the Blue Spear anti-ship cruise missile with a range of 290 km. India, with an economy only twice the size of Australia’s, has developed a number of families of missiles, including subsonic cruise missiles, the supersonic, ramjet-powered Brahmos antiship missiles, and the solid-fuelled Agni-V ballistic missile with a range of 5,000 km. With that range it could reach Shanghai from Darwin.

Israel, with a population of only eight million, produces just about everything needed on the battlefield. Licencing terms are likely to be stiffer than those of the Asian missile producers. That is also likely to be true of the European missile companies, with the exception of Saab in Sweden.

This brings up another point. If you wanted to integrate a new missile to the F-35, that would have to be done by Lockheed Martin because Australia doesn’t have access to the computer code the F-35 runs on. The only country that has access to the code for the F-35 is Israel, which insisted on it. Integration testing on the F-35 is an exhaustive process because the flight software is mixed in with the weapons systems software. And only Lockheed Martin can do it, and at inordinate expense, when they get around to it. In the Gripen E the flight software and the weapons system software are separate and open architecture. We will need to get new aircraft to be able to use our own missiles, so we might as well start that process as soon as possible.

Lockheed Martin and Raytheon are now very busy rebuilding US stocks of weapons, and aren’t likely to speed up progress to Australia’s domestic production of missiles.

This is how we should proceed. A team should visit the missile makers from Japan to Israel and select the optimum offering in each of the following categories:

  1. Air-launched, subsonic anti-ship cruise missiles
  2. Air-launched, supersonic anti-ship cruise missiles
  3. Truck-mounted surface-to-surface missiles
  4. Subsonic land attack cruise missiles
  5. Solid-fuel ballistic missiles

Then call for tenders for supply. The tenderers will be encouraged to bid on the basis that they will largely be assembling sub-components made by others rather than making every component themselves. For example, solid-fuel rocket motors will be much the same in terms of what they are made from and the fuel they will burn. So we don’t need more than a few manufacturers of them — as long as there is some competitive tension.

With respect to the Navy, much needs to be done and undone. Let’s start with the submarines. In the competition for what became the Collins class, the Swedish design was chosen over the German one due to the admiral running the acquisition favouring the Swedish offering in the way the merits of each were tallied. The Collins class turned out to be a junky design which took a lot of effort to clean up. It still has the world’s worst marine diesel engine. Our Collins class submarines are now worn out and need replacing as soon as possible. We should have a submarine force in case they might be useful in the coming war with China.

The Abbott government proposed replacing the Collins class with the Japanese Soryu class submarines. The US Navy considered the Soryu class to be the world’s best conventional submarines. A conventional submarine normally has two refits in its life, ten years apart, for a total life in service of 30 years.  Japanese practice is to have only one refit for a total service life on 20 years on the basis that evolution in submarine design is faster than a 30 year cycle, thus maintaining a better technological edge over Chinese submarines.

But Abbott’s government didn’t complete a contract for Soryus before he was replaced as prime minister by a more overt socialist, Malcolm Turnbull. Turnbull did his best to dismantle any positive legacy from the Abbott period, and that included no longer taking Japanese submarines. The French inveigled their way into the submarine acquisition with a proposal to convert a nuclear submarine into a conventional one. When this was announced it was immediately denounced by all and sundry as idiotic, but this project took years to die — and not before billions had been spent on it. The French made sure a contract was signed before the next election.

The idiotic French proposal was replaced with another idiotic scheme. The detail released is hazy but it seems to involve buying second-hand Virginia class submarines from the United States and then at a later stage building a new class of nuclear submarine based on a British design. And all this is to be accomplished at inordinate expense. The Virginia class cost about US$3.5 billion per boat. The operating cost is US$140 million per annum for a total cost over a 20 year life of US$6.3 billion, which we can round up to $10 billion per boat. So if we spend $100 billion then we should get 10 nuclear submarines. The Australian Government proposes to spend more than three times that. Something does not compute.

It doesn’t matter too much because aspects of the proposal are so far out in time that we know that they will be overtaken by events such as war with China in perhaps 2027. What we want to do with the submarines is sink Chinese ships. A more cost-effective way to do that is with 737s converted to bombers delivering anti-ship cruise missiles. Even a nuclear-powered submarine doing 30 knots is going to take days to get on station. Then if it is lucky it will take a week or more to find targets for all its torpedoes and then begin its journey back to Australia. In comparison, our bomber can deliver 20 tonnes of ordnance to the battlefield each day. Now it is said that torpedoes make a hole in the bottom of a ship and let the water in while a missile makes a hole in the top of the ship and lets the air in, which isn’t as effective in sinking it. Nevertheless, the targeting cycle and cost-efficiency make bombers the far better option.


Concept for a Boeing 747 converted to carrying cruise missiles. At one stage in the early 1980s the US Air Force was interested in saving money, then the feeling passed.


The past is past; what should Australia do from here after the decades of submarine idiocy we have suffered? First of all we should go back to Japan and ask them to build some Taigai class submarines for us. The Taigai class is the next generation on from the Soryu class. This will be about $1 billion per boat. And this should be done with minimal changes to the design — perhaps just another eight metres in the hull length for extra diesel to increase the range. If we really wanted to have a cheap solution to increasing the range of our submarines then we would build a refuelling base in Exmouth Gulf. In WW2, submarines heading off on patrol from the base in Fremantle would call into Exmouth Gulf to top up their tanks before heading further north. Seemingly that concept is too difficult to grasp for the current leadership of the Royal Australian Navy.

Secondly we could pay for a second refit for the Soryu class submarines after their first 20 years of service and take them for a further 10 years. These would be a cheap and fast way of replacing the Collins class. We should give up building submarines in Australia. Any Australian who can weld or do pipe-fitting will be flat out building our fuel supply system.

With respect to the surface fleet, the Defence Strategic Review stated that it would be better to shrink the average size of the vessels in our fleet to frigate size or smaller. If one of the arguments against conventional submarines is that modern radars can detect them snorkelling, then a ten thousand tonne ship is going to find survival far more difficult. The world’s oceans are now like the Mediterranean Sea during WW2 – every ship traversing it could be attacked by land-based aircraft at a moment’s notice. If you have a big ship with a big missile magazine, that just makes it a bigger target. Once a ship’s stock of surface-to-air missiles is depleted, it is defenseless and has to return to a port to reload even if it hasn’t fired off any of its offensive weapons.


The Army may be getting new infantry fighting vehicles. They will be more heavily armed than the latest addition to our surface fleet weighing 40 times as much. The Royal Australian Navy is embarrassed that their profession involves killing people so they would rather have ships that are unarmed.


And once any of our ships are sunk, or aircraft shot down over the ocean, we have no way of rescuing survivors other than to send another ship to the site of the sinking. This might take weeks. As a matter of urgency we need to acquire flying boats which will assume the role that the Catalina had in WW2. Luckily a company called Amphibian Aerospace Industries has set up in Darwin to make an updated version of the Grumman Albatross. The Albatross, slightly larger than the Catalina, first flew in 1947. Australia operated 168 Catalinas during WW2. We need at least 50 Albatross from the Darwin production line.


Grumman Albatross


Next up for consideration is the Army. In this branch of the services we are going down a number of false paths that will lead to death and suffering, needless death and needless suffering. Ideas about modern land combat can be tested against what is happening in Ukraine. That war shows that combat continues to be based on the exchange of high explosives on the battlefield — in other words, artillery. The side that can do this cost-effectively, while outranging the other side, will have the advantage.

Traditionally artillery has been towed tube systems firing shells now up to 155 mm in diameter. The Russians track the incoming shells with radar and in Ukraine have been returning counter-battery fire within a minute. That counter-battery fire led to the development of self-propelled howitzer, in which the tube was put on a tracked chassis and with the crew compartment protected by armour thick enough to stop shell fragments. A further development was putting the artillery tube on a wheeled vehicle. France, Sweden and Israel have all produced versions of this concept. What the Ukraine War has shown is that wheeled is better than tracked which in turn is better than towed.


French Caesar 155 mm wheeled howitzer


A wheeled howitzer can fire off a few shells and then leave its firing position rapidly. The Ukraine War has shown that the tracked howitzers are slow on the ground and have a lot of mechanical downtime. The Defence Strategic Review reduced our buy of self-propelled howitzers, but didn’t make the case for more wheeled howitzers. As a result we will have less artillery, which is a bad thing.

The second path to death and suffering is in our choice of surface-to-surface missiles. To put that into context, let’s go back to the evolution of these systems in modern warfare. The Russians were big users of unguided rockets, the Grad system, during WW2. But the Germans weren’t afraid of them. The next big development was as a result of the Yom Kippur War of 1973. US military personnel inspecting the battlefields after the war were shocked at the rate of advance and the rate of consumption of ordnance. To stop breakthroughs that might over-run the line of artillery, the United States developed an assault-breaker weapon, a tracked vehicle that could fire off 12 unguided missiles with cluster munition warheads. The warhead consisted of 640 Dual Purpose Improved Cluster Munition (DPICM) which had a shaped charge within a fragmentation casing. If the DPICM hit a tank, the shaped charge could penetrate 100 mm of armour. Whether or not it did that, the fragments from the casing would perforate enemy personnel within a five metre radius. So with a cluster munition warhead, a single type of missile could break an assault by tanks and/or infantry, three hectares at a time.


M77 Dual Purpose Improved Cluster Munition


From that start the United States developed a wheeled version called the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, or HIMARS, with a pod of six missiles. The range of the missiles was about 30 km. Then there was a step forward and a step backward. The step forward was to incorporate GPS guidance so the missiles became far more accurate. Single missiles could reliably be used to target one particular thing, rather than relying upon firing off the whole pod of six to achieve an area effect.

The step backwards was as a result of the public campaign against cluster munitions, using their dud rate as an excuse. The United States stopped making cluster munitions and switched to Alternate Warhead, which is 160,000 tungsten pellets weighing a fraction of a gram each. But these have an effective radius of only 50 metres, instead of 100 metres for the original cluster munition variant. It is only one quarter as effective. So for ideological reasons, the United States is fighting with one hand tied behind its back. So are all its allies using the system, including Australia.

There is also a unitary warhead version, made up like an artillery shell, for attacking concrete structures. The range of HIMARS has been extended to 80 km reliably and a 150 km range variant is coming. Now that HIMARS has proved its utility on the battlefield, there is the temptation to extend its application to things far removed from the original intent. So recently during the joint US – Philippines exercise called Balikatan, six HIMARS rockets were fired at a ship 20 km away and all missed.

The Ukrainian military continually ask the United States to supply cluster munitions and the United States continually declines to supply them. The Russian army is bashing itself to death in Ukraine and the United States may be selectively denying the supply of more effective weapons that would end the war sooner. The longer the war goes on, the more potentially unstable Russia becomes and the longer it will take them to recover.

Cluster munitions are used by serious militaries who want to win and do that cost-effectively. Turkey and Israel both make their own cluster munitions. Australia should make its own cluster munitions and the missiles to deliver them. Cluster munitions are ideal for counter-battery fire because they don’t have to be accurate to kill the crew of a towed howitzer or hit the amour of a self-propelled howitzer. Being a missile, they can be ranged beyond the reach of enemy tube artillery. In turn this means that the system can be carried on commercial trucks, which don’t have to be armoured.

The Ukraine War has shown again that tanks and their supporting infantry fighting vehicles are necessary to be able to advance over open ground. In the former category, the handful of tanks that Australia has are the M1A2 Abrams weighing 72 tonnes. The Achilles heel of the Abrams is its fuel consumption, because it is powered by a gas turbine engine with twice the fuel consumption of diesel-engined tanks. This means that the logistics tail to support an Abrams in the field is twice as large and therefore twice as vulnerable. Australia’s handful of tanks, 75, isn’t worth worrying about. We might as well park them up and get a tank better suited to Australia’s conditions. That tank would likely be the South Korean K2 Black Panther of 55 tonnes.

Australia has three combined arms brigades, in which tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, artillery, and infantry train and fight as one unit. As a result of the Defence Strategic Review this will be cut down to one combined arms brigade, making the Army one of the least effective fighting forces on the planet. We should have gone the other way and form 10 combined arms brigades. Each such brigade would have 90 tanks and twice as many infantry fighting vehicles. So that is 900 tanks and 1,800 infantry fighting vehicles.

The saga of Australia’s infantry fighting vehicles is another farce. In the 1960s, Australia with a then population of 12 million acquired 800 M113 armoured personnel carriers. In 2004 a project was started to replace them with 1,100 infantry fighting vehicles that would have thicker armour and heavier armament. Nearly 20 years after the project started, the number to be acquired has shrunk to 129, not even enough for one combined arms brigade. There are two contenders for the contract — the German Lynx and the South Korean Red Back, with the Red Back considered to be the better of the two. The threat of Antitank Guided Missiles is reduced by fitting each armoured vehicle with an active protection system, such as the Israeli Trophy or Iron Fist systems, at a cost of about $1 million per vehicle.

There is no sign yet that the Australian Defence Force is taking the threat from drones seriously. Dealing with that threat will mean another layer of sensors, radar and optical, to tie to the counter-battery radars with the system deciding the most cost-effective way of eliminating each drone – laser, microwave beam, 25 mm cannon, or missile. On the subject of lasers, it is apparent that handheld lasers with the purpose of blinding have been widely distributed in the People’s Liberation Army. All our personnel need to be issued with laser-resistant sunglasses.

All of the above is just useless conjecture if we don’t have the diesel and jet fuel to keep the domestic economy going as well as fight the war. Even better if we were able to help our allies and friends – for example, all the countries in the South Pacific that will grind to a halt when China’s war starts and are cut off from fuel supply. The oil companies run their operations on a just-in-time basis so we have two weeks’ worth of refined product in stock. A lot of blame for our predicament could be put on John Howard because, as prime minister, he said that it didn’t matter if Australia didn’t have its own liquid fuel supply as long as we were net energy exporters. But without liquid fuels we won’t be exporting anything, and all our tanks and ships and planes become static targets.

Fortunately the solution to that problem is well within our reach when we adopt the right frame of mind. We have an enormous amount of low grade coal in Australia, which is too low grade to be worth exporting. Using the Bergius process, this coal will yield up to 1,000 litres of fuel per tonne. A plant producing 5,000 barrels per day would consume 33 tonnes of coal per hour. With residence time of one hour in the process, the conversion would be achieved in a high pressure vessel with a volume of 26 cubic metres. To fit that pressure vessel on the back of a semi-trailer, it would only be seven metres long. That indicates that synthetic fuel plants don’t need to be fabricated on site. They can be made modular in a central facility and trucked out with assembly on site using a crane.

The current oil price of US$71.34 per barrel is well short of the US$120 per barrel necessary to develop a synthetic fuels industry. We can use the fuel excise levy of $0.47 per litre to bridge the gap. That translates to US$49.32 per barrel and gets us to the needed US$120 per barrel level. To get around the notion that becoming self-sufficient in diesel and jet fuel would add to Australia’s carbon emissions, we simply have a legal and regulatory carve-out for any defence-related facility. Because we wouldn’t be doing it if we weren’t under threat from China.

Finally, how are we going to pay for the military we need?

WW2 was traumatic for Australia. At its peak we had one million people in uniform out of a population of seven million and 50% of GDP was spent on defence. So when that war over there was a consensus that we should spend a minimum of 3% of GDP on defence.

We are currently at $48.6 billion per annum equating to 2.1% of GDP. Expenditure on the NDIS has blown out from the $6 billion per annum that Gillard proposed with the original legislation to $36 billion. We should simply shrink the NDIS back to the original figure of $6 billion and free up $30 billion for defence.

Similarly, the Aboriginal industry in Australia takes more than $30 billion per annum but it hasn’t made our Aboriginals any happier. So there’s another $30 billion available. News is just in that in the last year of the Morrison government $20 billion was spent on consultants. This takes the total available to $130 billion per annum. It’s all doable.


David Archibald is the author of American Gripen: The Solution to the F-35 Nightmare