On March 31/09, The Australian ran a investigative feature titled “Our defenceless force,” and the related “Military not ready for war as fighter jets, choppers and submarines unfit for frontline.” The articles were more measured than their titles might suggest, but they listed a litany of reasons why:
“Across the entire ADF, an alarming amount of expensive military equipment is not in a suitable upgraded condition to be sent to war… the legacy of project mismanagement and a Defence Department mindset that focuses more heavily on the defence force of tomorrow than on the force of today.”
One critical element of both today’s and tomorrow’s force is Australia’s submarine fleet. The 2009 White Paper aims to increase Australia’s fleet to 12 submarines, but current reports put the number of operational boats at… 1.
The Australian’s Report, and DID’s Coverage
“Similarly, most of the air force’s 71 F/A-18 Hornets can’t be deployed against modern air defence systems because they have not yet been upgraded with a mature electronic warfare capability. Defence says only 16 F/A-18s have received electronic warfare upgrades and even these have been given only an “interim electronic warfare capability”, raising doubts about theirdeployability.”
DID: “Project Failure: Australia’s ALR 2002 Protection System for F-18s (updated)” covers the problem, the initial project, and the orders placed for the ALR 2002’s replacement.
“A plan to upgrade the Anzac class frigates into a capable air defence platform was abandoned, although an air-surface missile defence upgrade will provide a self-defence capability.”
DID: “Australia and USA Collaborating on New Phased Array Radar” details some of the work being done to develop that capability.
“Meanwhile, the navy still has none of its four guided-missile frigates available for active service because they have not been cleared for operations after a bungled upgrade was delayed for five years, blowing the total cost out to $1.5 billion. Even if both classes of ship could be deployed, they would be an easy target for enemy submarines because the navy’s anti-submarine warfare capabilities are negligible.”
DID: “Australia’s Hazard(ous) Frigate Upgrade” offers in-depth coverage of the project, and its problems.
“The navy’s helicopter capability is also in disarray, especially following the cancellation last year of the troubled Seasprite project.”
DID: “Australia’s Ill-Starred SH-2G Seasprite Project” offers an in-depth history of a project that went beyond troubled – it became a case study in the Australian Defence College’s leadership and ethics course.
“Defence has spent almost $500 million refurbishing the more than 400 of the Vietnam War-era M113s, only to find that they may be vulnerable to roadside bombs, rockets and mines used by insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
DID: “Australia’s M113 APC Family Upgrades” offers a full report on the project. One way to avoid those bombs, of course, is to avoid roads. Something the tracked M113s are quite capable of doing, without worrying about maintenance issues or getting stuck.
Other issues discussed in The Australian’s reports include a fleet of 6 advanced Collins Class submarines, with enough crews to staff just 3; a non-operational submarine rescue vehicle; a shortage of blue force tracker transponders, which limit deployability in coalition operations; and inability to send the Army’s S-70 Blackhawks to perform MEDEVAC and other missions alongside Australian troops in places like Afghanistan, because they lack defensive systems against shoulder-fired missiles.
A Special Case: Australia’s Collins Class Submarines
The Australian’s reports also discussed Australia’s a fleet of advanced Collins Class submarines. The class was designed with the strong cooperation of ThyssenKrupp’s Swedish Kockums subsidiary, and built in Australia by state-owned ASC. The class has encountered a number of issues, including significant difficulties with its combat systems, and issues with acoustic signature.
Even so, the class’ most serious issue at the moment has nothing to do with its technology. Reports that Australia can only staff 2 of its 6 submarines put a huge crimp in the fleet’s usefulness. That gap became a big issue as Australia’s Labor Party government prepared its 2009 White Paper, which proposed increasing Australia’s submarine fleet to 12 boats by 2030-2040. High-level attention led to 29 recommendations aimed at improving conditions and staffing on Australia’s submarines, and those are now being implemented.
Their long term effect remains to be seen, even as Australia’s fleet sinks to just 1 semi-operational submarine in 2010. Read “Australia’s Submarine Program in the Dock” for full coverage.
* DID – Australia’s 2009 White Paper.