Staying Prepared in Todays Indo-Pacific

24 June 2022

Many have observed that Australia’s strategic environment has become increasingly challenging in recent years. China has become more assertive, using its military to support claims around disputed territory, violating international law and norms in the process. China is also employing diplomatic means and engaging in expeditionary military operations to demonstrate its ability to project influence and force across the Indo-Pacific. 

Fortunately, such events have resulted in debates and Defence investments for the future including nuclear submarines promised through AUKUS, long-range missile systems, fighter-sized unmanned aircraft, improved cyber capabilities and unmanned underwater vehicles. While debate and funding are needed to realise these significant capabilities, the systems associated with such initiatives don’t typically arrive on the battlefield for a decade or more. This leaves the question of what might be done to increase the ability of the Defence Force to respond should we face potential conflict over the next five years. 

It is well-known that China poses a long-term threat, but why might the next five years be so critical? Many indicators point to the potential for near-term conflict over reunification of Taiwan. China has focused modernisation of its conventional forces; building amphibious capabilities needed for a cross-strait invasion and enhancing anti-access and area denial capabilities meant to deny friendly nations an opportunity to support Taiwan. China is also modernising and expanding its nuclear capabilities at a dramatic pace, moving beyond the minimal nuclear deterrent it traditionally maintained. This expanded nuclear force could deter outsiders from interfering in Chinese conventional military operations, much like Russia has used nuclear threats to limit NATO’s assistance to Ukraine. 

China’s military also continues testing and exercising its forces around missions associated with an invasion of Taiwan. Fighters, bombers and intelligence aircraft regularly fly large numbers of sorties near Taiwan, meant to stimulate and analyse the reactions of Taiwanese forces. These flights also build experience flying long-range missions outside China’s airspace. Simulated U.S. warships have been built at China’s missile test ranges, making their intentions clear. In a 2021 Report to Congress, the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission concludes that a threat to Taiwan isn’t a decade away. It clearly states, “Today, the PLA either has or is close to achieving an initial capability to invade Taiwan.”

Should China invade in the coming years, major powers will likely engage in high-intensity conflict in the Indo-Pacific. Early phases of conflict could even include attacks on Australia and the ADF. A recent wargame examining a 2027 invasion of Taiwan opened with attacks on Australian air bases and fuel depots. Should conflict with China emerge in the 2020s, are there ways to increase ADF capability to ensure security?  

This near-term threat highlights the importance of military force preparedness: the ability of the military to contribute to today’s challenges. Preparedness is strongly dependent on proper training (to maximise the capability of personnel and equipment) and sufficient resourcing of maintenance and sustainment capabilities (to ensure equipment will function properly when needed). If conflict were to start in the next year or two, the ADF would go to the fight with its current force. To maximise the capability of that existing force, the ADF must be properly resourced for training, maintenance and sustainment.

Investments in advanced modelling and simulation capabilities, that allow operators to experience and practice high-intensity warfare, are needed. Fuel and munitions, needed for exercises and training, to help operators stay current and refine tactics. Additionally, processes to rapidly deliver large portions of the ADF to fight under a short warning time must be developed. Force generation cycles that rotate a fraction of ADF forces into theatre at a time were well-suited for recent operations in the Middle East but won’t provide the needed heft for successful high-intensity conflict. Rapid mobilisation of forces will be needed. 

To improve capability in the medium-term (over the next five-years), a pair of investments should be prioritised: guided weapons and innovative off-the-shelf solutions to military challenges. In recent conflicts, nations have underestimated both the length of the fight and the rate of guided weapons expenditure. As a result, NATO ran low on guided weapons in Libya. The United States encountered the same problem against the Islamic State. An even greater demand for guided weapons exists in conflict against a highly capable adversary. This is why recent wargames examining conflict with major powers highlight the importance of large stockpiles of guided weapons. The expected rates of expenditure of such weapons combined with timelines associated with production means that building weapons to meet demand during a conflict won’t be feasible (as the U.S. encountered in delivering weapons to Ukraine).

To innovate and deliver new capabilities in shorter timelines, Defence must adapt and encourage new ways of doing business beyond traditional acquisition methods. Successful models implemented by the U.S., under the Defense Innovation Unit, and the UK, under jHUB, can be leveraged. Both organisations make connections between world class technology and military operators by using innovation scouts. These scouts are tasked with finding solutions to military problems in the commercial world, including exploring companies that aren’t traditional defence contractors. Another factor distinguishing these models from traditional acquisition is agile contracting and processes that can put solutions into the hands of military users in months rather than years. Rapid innovation could truly make the difference between success and failure in future conflict. 

Given increased competition between major powers over the past decade, the risk of high intensity conflict in the Indo-Pacific remains heightened over the coming years. While no nation should want conflict, an old adage states that “If you want peace, prepare for war.” Modernisation of major combat systems is needed to ensure Australia’s long-term security, but investments in preparedness, force generation, guided weapon stockpiles and innovation must keep us prepared in the meantime. 

Carl Rhodes is founder of Robust Policy, a Canberra firm providing high-quality analysis and policy solutions. Previously, he served 25 years with RAND Corporation including a term as director of RAND Australia.

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