Learning defence lessons from Ukraine

| May 17, 2022

Military lessons from the Ukraine war are being absorbed quickly in Asia. The message for democracies arming against the threat from authoritarian regimes is to select weapons that are simple and available rather than small numbers of expensive and complex ships, aircraft and vehicles that may not survive the first hours of conflict.

The Politico news service, well connected in Washington, revealed last week that the US State Department had rebuffed Taiwan’s requests to buy submarine-hunting MH-60R Seahawk helicopters. The Biden administration’s reported view is that ‘these expensive items, while fine for peacetime operations, would not survive an all-out assault from the [Chinese] mainland’.

The US is urging Taiwan to buy low-cost sea mines able to blunt an amphibious assault, along with smaller mobile weapons such as drone swarms, Stinger anti-aircraft missiles and Javelin anti-tank missiles.

The US State Department told Politico, ‘Bolstering Taiwan’s self-defenses is an urgent task and the most effective approach to doing so is through investing in asymmetric capabilities that are credible, resilient, mobile, distributed, and cost-effective.’

Ukrainian forces have given the world a masterclass in battlefield asymmetry: you do not need a tank to destroy a tank if you have well-targeted five-kilogram bombs dropped from commercial drones.

Likewise, two Neptune cruise missiles, which Kyiv designed and developed for a reported total cost of US$40 million ($57.7 million), sunk the Russian flagship Moskva, estimated by Forbes to cost US$750 million.

One of the most successful weapons used by Ukraine is the Turkish Bayraktar TB2 armed drone, with costs reported at between US$1 million and US$2 million each.

Contrast that with the six high-altitude MQ-4C Triton unarmed ‘unmanned aircraft’ Australia plans to buy. The total approved budget so far is for $2.5 billion, but that’s only for the first three aircraft and the ground control and support systems and facilities. It’s acceptable to plan for the loss of a $2-million drone in combat, but it’s best not to fly a drone into harm’s way if they each cost several hundred million.

The State Department’s message to Taipei calls for urgent action. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attack on Ukraine accelerates the timeframe for a possible Chinese attack on Taiwan because Xi Jinping may choose to strike while a distracted America focuses on Russia, attacking before Taiwan is better armed.

The Australian Defence Force is anything but asymmetric in design. To use the State Department’s words, the ADF is not ‘credible, resilient, mobile, distributed, and cost-effective’.

Take the example of the P-8 Poseidon aircraft, which then defence minister Linda Reynolds in 2020 said would provide ‘one of the most advanced maritime patrol and response capabilities in the world’.

According to ASPI senior analyst Marcus Hellyer, Australia has acquired 14 P-8 aircraft for a total approved budget of $6.575 billion. That includes facilities, but let’s call that $479 million per aircraft.

The P-8s are the core of our maritime patrol and anti-submarine warfare capability. They are by no means the only military platforms that can play that role, but they are a central element.

The Ukrainian experience demands that we ask how vulnerable our ships, aircraft and military vehicles are to being destroyed in combat. The answer is that they are significantly at risk to a range of lower-cost missiles and weapons in Chinese military service.

In February this year, an Australian P-8 was ‘lased’—targeted by an on-board laser—when shadowing two Chinese warships transiting the Arafura Sea. Prime Minister Scott Morrison described this as ‘unprofessional and unsafe military conduct’ on the part of the People’s Liberation Army Navy. P-8s were also used last week to monitor the Chinese intelligence-gathering vessel Dongdiao off Australia’s northwest coast. The P-8 is a very high-value asset to use for relatively routine surveillance work.

In real combat, the P-8 could never be that close to a Chinese warship. Many kilometres before being in visual range, the aircraft would be at risk of being shot down.

The only thing more valuable than a combat aircraft is its crew. I understand that when the Russians target a Ukrainian aircraft, they fire two missiles, one to bring down the plane and the second to target the ejector seat if the pilot survived the first hit.

Pilots and aircrew are even harder to replace than complex combat aircraft. Australian officials are appropriately tight-lipped about the numbers of trained and available aircrew, but they are hardly in oversupply.

In effect, the ADF is designed around such expensive platforms and so few operators that we can’t afford to risk deploying them into high-threat areas. It’s as though Defence buys this expensive gear never expecting to fight with it or take losses.

The most capable surface vessels the navy operates are our three air warfare destroyers, which in total cost about $8.5 billion. The sail-away cost of the third AWD was about $2 billion.

How would Australia use these vessels in wartime? The last defence white paper, produced in 2016, said: ‘We cannot effectively protect Australia if we do not have a secure nearer region, encompassing maritime Southeast Asia and South Pacific.’ The policy focused on ‘increasing the capability of the ADF to make contributions to any such operations’.

Having seen how the Moskva was sunk by a truck-launched cruise missile launched from land 160 kilometres away from the target, will our government or the ADF really deploy an AWD into the South China Sea?

In a conflict, no ship would deploy without the backing of submarines and air cover, but China has turned the South China Sea into one of the most potentially dangerous places on the planet with many options available to it for air-, land-, sea-surface- and underwater-launched anti-ship cruise missiles.

China was making that point to Australia in its February naval deployment, comprising a modern guided missile destroyer with a substantial armoury of long-range weapons and an amphibious landing ship. The destination of the flotilla was the Coral Sea near Solomon Islands. Point taken?

Against this backdrop of regional rearmament and the bloody realities of war in Ukraine, we desperately need to rethink Australia’s defence planning priorities. The government, the opposition and Defence itself know the risk of regional war is rapidly rising, but our defence decisions are not catching up with this reality.

The budget decision abandoning a plan to buy the SkyGuardian armed drone is the worst in a series of force-structure blunders. In the past few weeks, the Japanese Coast Guard announced it would operate the SeaGuardian version of this drone from October, with the possibility that the Maritime Self-Defence Force would follow suit.

At the beginning of this month, the US Marine Corps confirmed that it would acquire 18 of these drones, known in their system as the MQ-9A, and has plans to double that number.

Australia could have chosen to be part of a coalition of countries operating a relatively low-cost drone that is available now, with a capacity to remain airborne for 20 hours and the ability to perform a variety of missions, from maritime surveillance to supporting ground troops with missiles.

Defence correctly says that difficult priority judgements always must be made, but here was something that added combat power, supported our closest partners and could be put into harm’s way without risking aircrew this year—not 2032, and not 2042.

The most urgent defence task for the next government is clear: we need a high-priority, full-on emergency effort to redesign the ADF and to work out how it can be equipped with available equipment over the next two to three years.

Governments need to start reading the international signs. Xi’s international belligerence and military build-up, his track record in the South China Sea and Hong Kong, and the strategic agreement with Solomon Islands all show the direction of traffic.

To that we can add the State Department’s urgent direction to Taiwan to arm more quickly with simple but effective weapons. Australia’s strategic geography is different—we need reach, not just homeland defence—but the timeframe is no different.

Finally, Ukraine’s tragic experience shows that a determined smaller country working with the backing of allies can put up a powerful defence against the biggest of bullies.

Australia can turn its defence fortunes around, but it will take lateral thinking of a type not happening in official circles. Our history is that we ignore the obvious international signs and allow ourselves to be surprised when conflict comes calling.

The first and biggest test of the next Australian government will be to see if we can do any better than that today.

This article was published by The Strategist.