Australia: Beast Mode On

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Australia is building multiple Navies and doubling up on Air Forces. Meet the western power that just kicked itself into full beast mode as it pursues the most ambitious, fastest, most expensive military expansion of a middle power, in history. 

Sea1000 (Future Submarine, some $50+ billion) and Sea5000(Future Frigates, some $40 billion) are really the two projects that reflect the changes in the region. The AWD’s, the LHD’s, and pretty much all the other acquisitions from Land400 and F-35 were really spun out of the issues of East Timor and modernizing Australia’s capability and would have happened regardless of the sudden development of any nations in the Asia-Pacific region.

The Future subs and the Future frigates are different. While Sea1000, steel won’t be cut for years as the design process needs to happen, Sea5000 will happen almost instantly, with Sea1180 OPV as an immediate warm up for the South Australian ASC work force and to buy time for the new Civmec Western Australian yard to be constructed.

But the 2020 cutting steel date for the Future Frigates is very aggressive. So aggressive, some tendering companies had difficulty believing it. (Future Frigates Fleet will begin construction in 2020, says Christopher Pyne).

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Meet the new Frigate that is bigger and more heavily armed than the Destroyers. Think mini-Burke Flight III. 

While they are called frigates, they are likely to be bigger than the Aegis Destroyers of the Hobart Class, and just as capable. With Aegis, Cooperative Engagement Capability, 9lv consoles, the very latest and largest CEA electronic solid state multi-band Radars. Capable of ballistic missile interception with SM-6 or SM-3, regular Air threats with SM-2, able to embark two ASW helicopters,  land attack, anti-shipping missiles, torpedoes and a big old 5″ up front and a suite of decoys, ESSM, CIWS and other safety features.

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The Anzacs.. A nice little frigate for an apocalypse.

That date isn’t driven by the need by the existing Anzac class frigates, which are currently undergoing further modification ($148 million radar upgrade) which have barely just finished being upgraded (Eighth ASMD ship completed ending $2 billion upgrade), in fact these frigates will arguably be the most capable and most upgraded small frigates in the world. But with only 8 VLS cells, carrying quad packed ESSM short range missiles, they are not well matched to what is required for the South China Sea area. Their radar’s however, are excellent so as a sensor platform there is minimal concern. They are more suited patrolling the larger blue expanses or the middle east, where they are unlikely to encounter movements like the recent 48 ship Chinese armada, which recently unsuccessfully challenged the passage of an Australian Navy taskforce.

But with steel being cut in 2020, and ships coming off the line approximately every 2 years, Australia will quickly find itself awash with modern ships it will struggle to man in peace time. A spare Navy. There is talk about gifting or leasing these to allies, who might be able to manage and operate them, perhaps New Zealand, Singapore and even Indonesia.

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The Lurrsen 80OPV. Australia will take 12, construction will start immediately.

On top of this Australia is also even more furiously building 12 x 1,700t OPV’s. Steel is going to be cut this year on those, quite a quick turnaround on the announcement. It is also expected that this class will be joined by another 6-8 ships of possibly a more capable type sometime in the future.

Australia is also frantically building the small nations of the Pacific, more patrol boats, over 20 in fact, going to 12 nations across the region.

But Australia doesn’t just have a spare Navy. It also has a spare Air Force.

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 Australia is all Block 3F (combat ready), and will take delivery of 10 F-35’s in 2018.

Australia is still in negotiations with Canada regarding selling its older F-18’s (much to Canada’s airforce disbelief) to Canada as an interim measure. Australia’s hornets are also recently upgraded, and have more flight hours than expected, partly as a result of trying to lengthen and manage their life span to ensure F-35 IOC. Australia is also rapidly receiving F-35’s in fighting ready block 3F configuration. By 2020 Australia will have its first operational F-35 squadron. By 2023 Australia will have received all of its ordered 75 F-35A’s. At that point there is also the option of buying another 30 odd F-35’s (A’s or B’s?) to get to the 100 Australia had as its target. The 70 odd F-18’s will be a spare air force.

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 F-18 Superhornet with the new fuel tanks.

Australia will also have its (24+12) Super Hornets (in regular and electronic Growler configuration), which are highly likely to receive upgrades including con-formal fuel tanks and weapons pods as we are locked into the USN program.

Sounds pretty exciting for the pilots. It makes the mind wonder if Australia is selling Hornets to Canada, or relocating pilots off Canada. It wouldn’t be the first Air Force that would be consumed by the RAAF, having picked up the New Zealand Air Force fast jet arm, and basically absorbing all of Rhodesia’s pilots before it re-branded itself.

Would Australia be interested in operating an Air Force with approximately 200 front lime fighters? Normally, no. But if things were to deteriorate, cultivating options would be possible, after all it will already own the 200 fighters. Too many planes, not enough pilots would seem to be an easy fix. Of course, if everyone is civil, and polite, the RAAF won’t want some dirty old 1980’s F-18 cramping their high tech budget and Canada will have something to fly for the next few years.

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Spain’s JC1 with harriers.

While Australia has two large amphibious ships that can operate Harriers (which Spain does love to do) and F-35’s, those ships are really focused on Australia’s amphibious capability. Which really is a global show piece, with Australia able to form a full Amphibious Ready Group (ARG) comparable by the US own standards to the USMC ARG, of which only 3 are operational world wide at anytime.  On top of that there will be US Marines deployed within that on Australian ships, (US Marines join Australian Ships as Anxiety grows in the South China Sea).

The obvious solution is to swap HMAS Choules for another LHD. This would ensure greater and more reliable amphibious capability and space and time to operate other items such as ASW helicopters and F-35B’s. The crew number differences are not insurmountable, training, logistics and operational costs would be reduced and made more flexible.

While that is going on, it would also be time to wonder, if you were a Canadian Submariner, if you might be better off joining Australia’s growing submarine service, with the first 5,500t behemoth entering service in 2030, and then the submarine sausage factory will double the size of Australia’s submarine fleet. With the Collins submarines fleet also getting a half billion dollar upgrade to allow it to be very competitive into the future. With a transit speed that is within a few knots of the original French Nuclear Submarine, lithium ion batteries, US combat systems, the best mixture of US and UK SSN sensors and systems, full photonics mast, Mk48 ADCAP, VLS, land and naval strike (LRASM?) on offer these will quickly become a very potent force. Leveraging the technologies off three different SSN programs, its a bubble heads wet dream. No doubt the continued drain from the Royal Navy will continue.

But why stop there. Australia has been spending up big on enablers, like the 6 x E-7 Wedgetails AEW, 15 x P8 Poseidons ASW, MQ-4C Tritons drones, 6 x KC-30 refuellers (growing to 9), 8 x C-17, 12 x C-130J’s, 10 x C27J.

The F-18 Superhornets, E7’s and KC-30’s are fresh from combat operations over Syria. A P8 has been deployed to Japan while the older P3’s have just come back from the Philippines helping fight ISIS version 2.0.

Australia has also been stocking up on munitions.

  • 3,900 Small diameter Bombs. Will go great with those F-35’s.
  • 175 SM-2 IIIA and 80 SM-2 IIIB missiles. These will go into the 3 x DDG’s  and the future frigates.
  • Australia also already has it’s hand up and is approved for SM-6. SM-3 is openly talked about, the question seems to be when not if.
  • Australia also developed parts of the NSM/JSM missile. It is expected to purchase a significant number of the missile (hundreds?). Which can be carried internally on the F-35.
  • LRASM (we already are involved in JASSM and JASSM-ER)

Unfortunately Australia doesn’t also have a spare Army. However, it will have excellent mobility with the new Land400, the bushmasters, the Hawkie, the G wagons, the M1A1’s, and all the other gear. Each solider will be very well kitted out, with an almost unbelievable optics, rifle combo. But Australia isn’t preparing to fight a massive continental land war, it needs a modern, mobile and expeditionary Army, and arguably it has the second most of that on the planet, only beaten by the US Marines, because they are massive in size…

Australia seems to be curiously busy cultivating options and winning friends.

While its often China that gets the blame, it isn’t that simple. Australia has seen the limits of US power, and it knows very well the limitations of US global interests. China isn’t the only rising power (and is probably the rising power we have the best relationship with), and rising powers aren’t the only problem. There are problems within states. Malaysia and the Philippines have very different but very significant issues, issues that make other issues like US and China seem like minor sideline or footnote issues.

Australia seemingly has no fear. Not just of China. Look how casually some parts of Australia decided it could solve South Africa’s issues in one fell swoop by absorbing the Farmers. (Farmers won’t get special treatment).  Even a dressing down by the PM and the foreign minister wasn’t enough to pour water on it. Even the Afrikaans were a bit confused.

India boots Australia out of the Quad, while blaming China, it didn’t seem to have the same objections when it visited Australia for exercises last year. It isn’t the first time Australia and India’s relationship has soured, as the two big Indian Ocean powers, it is quite possible we won’t always get along smoothly, something others seem to struggle to understand.

There will be energy, population, political, social, water, resource and environmental pressures. Australia intends to keep its region steady, with a fist ready to squash whatever comes its way.


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