© Commonwealth of Australia, RAAF, Image ID S20202698

Two Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) Hawk 127 Lead-In Fighters from 79 Squadron during Exercise Western Phoenix.

Australia’s 2020 Defence Update: Lessons for Canada, and Snowbird Futures

by Martin Shadwick

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At a time when most defence establishments are warily eyeing the prospect of cuts, potentially deep cuts, in their budgets and capabilities as governments around the globe grapple with the enormous expenditures incurred in responding to the medical, socio-economic, industrial and myriad other consequences of COVID-19, it is telling that the Government of Australia moved forward, mid-pandemic, with an ambitious scheme for the reshaping of Australia’s defence strategy and, to a lesser extent, force structure. This is not to suggest that the new defence policy ignored COVID-19. On the contrary, the implications for Australian security of the pandemic, apparent or potential, are invoked on multiple occasions in the defence policy statement. Although “the trend towards a more competitive and contested region will not be fundamentally altered by the effects of the pandemic,” it “is sharpening some aspects of strategic competition between the United States and China” and prompting “some countries” to utilize “the situation to secure greater influence.” The pandemic “has also highlighted the importance” of secure defence-industrial supply chains.

Cover of 2020 Defence Strategic Update.

© Commonwealth of Australia, Australian Government, Department of Defence

Cover of 2020 Force Structure Plan.

© Commonwealth of Australia, Australian Government, Department of Defence

Unveiled on 1 July 2020, the blunt 63-page 2020 Defence Strategic Update—and its associated, hefty and profusely illustrated 123-page 2020 Force Structure Plan (Canada’s 2017 Strong, Secure, Engaged defence policy statement totalled 113 pages)—sets out “the challenges in Australia’s strategic environment and their implications for Defence planning. It provides a new strategic policy framework to ensure Australia is able—and is understood as willing—to deploy military power to shape our environment, deter actions against our interests, and when required, respond with military force.”

While acknowledging the persistence of the “six drivers” identified in the 2016 Defence White Paper “that would shape Australia’s strategic environment” (i.e., “the roles of the United States and China, challenges to the stability of the rules-based global order, the enduring threat of terrorism, state fragility, the pace of military modernisation in our region, and the emergence of new, complex non-geographic threats”), the 2020 document argues that several of these drivers “have accelerated since 2016, and in some cases their impacts are posing new challenges.” Australia “now faces an environment of increasing strategic competition, the introduction of more capable military systems enabled by technological change; and the increasingly aggressive use of diverse grey-zone tactics to coerce states under the threshold for a conventional military response.” This security environment is “markedly different from the relatively more benign one of even four years ago, with greater potential for military miscalculation. This could conceivably include state-on-state conflict that could engage the Australian Defence Force (ADF) where Australia’s interests are threatened. Accordingly, Defence must be better prepared for the prospect of high-intensity conflict.”

The 2020 Defence Strategic Update observes that “previous Defence planning has assumed a ten-year strategic warning time for a major conventional attack against Australia. This is no longer an appropriate basis for defence planning. Coercion, competition and grey-zone activities are occurring now. Growing regional military capabilities, and the speed at which they can be deployed, mean Australia can no longer rely on a timely warning ahead of conflict occurring. Reduced warning times mean defence plans can no longer assume Australia will have time to gradually adjust military capability and preparedness in response to emerging challenges. This includes the supply of specialised munitions and logistic requirements, such as fuel.”

The 2020 strategic update posits that the implementation of the 2016 Defence White Paper—an ambitious document in its own right—“has seen substantial progress in building a more potent, capable and agile Australian Defence Force” but cautions that “important adjustments to defence policy” are required “to respond to the rapid changes in the strategic environment.: The 2020 strategic update consequently “replaces the Strategic Defence Framework set out in the 2016 white paper with three new strategic objectives”: (a) to shape Australia’s strategic environment; (b) to deter actions against Australia’s interests; and (c) to respond with credible military force, when required.

The “new objectives will guide all aspects of Defence’s planning including force structure planning, force generation, international engagement and operations. To implement the new objectives, Defence will:

  • prioritise our immediate region (the north-eastern Indian Ocean, through maritime and mainland South East Asia to Papua New Guinea and the South West Pacific) for the ADF’s geographic focus;
  • grow the ADF’s self-reliance for delivering deterrent effects;
  • expand Defence’s capability to respond to grey-zone activities, working closely with other arms of Government;
  • enhance the lethality of the ADF for the sorts of high-intensity operations that are most likely and highest priority in relation to Australia’s security;
  • maintain the ADF’s ability to deploy forces globally where the Government chooses to do so, including in the context of US-led coalitions; and
  • enhance Defence’s capacity to support civil authorities in response to natural disasters and crises.”

The shaping of Australia’s strategic environment, the first of the troika of new strategic objectives, will position the country as “an active and assertive advocate for stability, security and sovereignty in our immediate region. Australia’s partnerships “with regional countries have a long history but will need to be continually developed to support shared interests in the context of our evolving strategic environment. This will involve expanding our defence diplomacy, cooperation and capacity-building activities, including delivering security-related infrastructure.” The update argues that “the capacity to conduct cooperative defence activities with countries in the region is fundamental to our ability to shape our strategic environment,” and notes that, for defence planning, “shaping Australia’s strategic environment includes preventing our operational access in the region from being constrained.” The document notes that “the security arrangements, interoperability, intelligence sharing, and technological and industrial cooperation between Australia and the United States remains “critical” to Australia’s national security, and that Australia will “continue to prioritise” engagement and defence relationships with “partners whose active roles in the region will be vital to regional security and stability, including Japan, India and Indonesia.” Australia will also “increase investment in capabilities that support the ADF’s awareness of our immediate region,” including the expansion of the Jindalee over-the-horizon radar network to provide wide area surveillance of the country’s eastern approaches.

To deter actions against Australia’s interests, the update observes that Australia possesses “a highly effective, deployable and integrated military force” but cautions that “maintaining what is a capable, but largely defensive, force in the medium to long term will not best equip the ADF to deter attacks against Australia or its interests” in the contemporary strategic environment. The “nature of current and future threats—including coercion in the region, more capable and active regional military forces, and expanding anti-access and area denial capabilities—requires Defence to develop a different set of capabilities. These must be able to hold potential adversaries’ forces and infrastructure at risk from a greater distance, and therefore influence their calculus of costs involved in threatening Australian interests.” Only “the nuclear and conventional capabilities of the United States can offer effective deterrence against the possibility of nuclear threats against Australia,” but “it is the Government’s intent that Australia take greater responsibility for our own security. It is therefore essential that the ADF grow its self-reliant ability to deliver deterrent effects.” Relevant assets will include “longer-range strike weapons, cyber capabilities and area denial systems.”

© Commonwealth of Australia, Australian Army, S20202681 by Corporal Daniel Strutt

Charlie Company’s Return from Afghanistan ~ M113AS4 AOCs return fire during Exercise Brolga Run, Townsville Field Training Area, Queensland.

The final element of the troika, “responding with credible military force,” observes that “the prospect of high-intensity conflict in the Indo-Pacific, while still unlikely, is now less remote. The ADF must be better prepared for such conflict if deterrence measures fail, or to support the United States and other partners where Australia’s national interests are engaged.” This “means it is vital that we continue to enhance the lethality and readiness of the ADF, as well as the logistic support required for high-intensity warfighting. In the event of a high-intensity conflict that engages the ADF, we need to have depth for sustaining key capabilities and materiel, especially munitions.” The ADF “will also need to enhance its support to civil authorities in response to national and regional crises and natural disasters, such as pandemics, bushfires, floods or cyclones. This includes “detailed planning for the provision of logistic and other support for civil authorities during and after a disaster.”

Building upon the 2016 Defence White Paper—which “laid the foundation for the largest expansion of the Royal Australian Navy since the Second World War”—the 2020 strategic update pledges “additional investments” in anti-submarine warfare, sealift, border security operations, maritime patrol and reconnaissance, air warfare, sea control and undersea warfare capabilities and prioritizes the acquisition of “strike weapons to increase the ADF’s maritime deterrence and long-range land strike capabilities.” The total package is ambitious, embracing twelve Attack-class submarines, nine Hunter-class frigates (derived, like the Canadian Surface Combatant, from Britain’s Type 26 frigate), twelve Arafura-class offshore patrol vessels, six evolved Cape-class patrol boats, two Supply-class replenishment ships, two multi-role sealift and replenishment vessels, a support and salvage vessel, up to eight new vessels for mine countermeasures and hydrographic duties, upgrades to the three newly-acquired Hobart-class destroyers, the “expanded acquisition of maritime tactical remotely piloted aerial systems” and a host of other projects.

© Commonwealth of Australia, Royal Australian Navy S20202675 by LSIS Christopher Szumlanski

HMAS Stuart conducts a live firing exercise utilizing its Mount 51 – 5 inch gun during Exercise Rim of the Pacific 2020 off the coast of Hawaii.

In the air domain, Canberra’s plan calls for “further enhancements” to some existing platforms and capabilities, including the F-35A Lightning II fighter, the EA-18G Growler electronic attack aircraft, the E-7A Wedgetail airborne early warning and control aircraft and the P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft. The plan also envisages “the acquisition of remotely operated and/or autonomous air vehicles and the development of advanced air-to-air and strike capabilities with improved range, speed and survivability, including potentially hypersonic weapons. The survivability of our deployed forces will be improved through new investments in an enhanced integrated air and missile defence system…” Additional intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) assets are projected. Air mobility acquisitions will in due course include an “expanded fleet of replacement aircraft” for the C-130J Hercules fleet. The plan also broaches a successor to the KC-30A tanker-transport. This is admittedly a longer-term proposition but mere mention of a successor to the RAAF’s youthful KC-30As must generate angst in some RCAF quarters given the age of Canada’s long-serving Hercules and Polaris tanker-transports. The plan also embraces a fully integrated air combat management system and numerous infrastructure projects.

The perceived requirements to “increase the land force’s combat power, and give the Government more options to deploy the ADF in the more competitive environment Australia now faces, and is expected to face in to the future” and to “enhance the ADF’s ability to support the nation in times of domestic crisis and to respond into the region for humanitarian assistance or stability operations” also generate a lengthy list of capital requirements. Ongoing and new procurement initiatives include the Boxer reconnaissance vehicle, an infantry fighting vehicle to replace the M113AS4 armoured personnel carrier, upgrades—and an eventual successor—to the M1 Abrams main battle tank, two regiments of new self-propelled howitzers, the enhancement or replacement of the M777 lightweight towed howitzer and the expansion of earlier plans for a long-range rocket artillery and missile system. Also envisaged are new armoured combat engineering vehicles, new medium and heavy trucks, a fleet of “future autonomous vehicles”, several large amphibious vessels, a fleet of inshore/riverine patrol craft, a replacement for the Tiger armed reconnaissance helicopter from the mid-2020s, procurement of a special operations rotary-wing capability, “remotely piloted aerial systems” and a plethora of smaller projects. The latter include small arms and heavy weapon systems, night vision equipment, personal ballistic protection and load carrying equipment and enhanced medical capabilities.

Rounding out the package are a host of additional projects including joint command, control and communications projects, joint electronic warfare and defensive and offensive cyber capabilities, increasing “the range and quantity of weapon stocks,” a variety of defence-industrial initiatives and additional or upgraded infrastructure. A “significantly” increased investment in the ADF’s space capabilities will include a network of satellites to provide “an independent and sovereign communications capability.”

The 2020 Defence Strategic Update reports that “the Government is on track to meet its commitment to growing the Defence budget to two percent of Australia’s Gross Domestic Product…in 2020-2021, providing $42.2 billion of funding to Defence…in 2020-2021.” This funding “will grow over the next ten years to $73.7 billion by 2029-2030. The total funding of $575 billion over the decade includes around $270 billion in capability investment, compared to $195 billion in capability investment for the decade to 2025-2026, when the 2016 Defence White Paper was released.” Significantly, the defence budget “has been decoupled from GDP forecasts to avoid the need for adjusting Defence’s plans in response to future fluctuations in GDP.”

Although allowances must be made for the three-year gap between the appearance of Strong, Secure, Engaged in 2017 and the arrival of the symbiotic Defence Strategic Update and Force Structure Plan in 2020—and three years of heightened tension in the global geo-strategic environment—it is no less true for being obvious that there are significant differences between the handling of some issues in the Canadian and Australian policy documents, and in the broader security and defence philosophies and strategic cultures of Ottawa and Canberra. For example, in marked contrast to Strong, Secure, Engaged—but in harmony with the broader thrust of Australian defence policy—the Australian documents devoted considerable attention to defence-industrial, defence-industrial preparedness, defence-scientific—and readiness and sustainability—issues. The handling of “people” issues also differed markedly, with Strong, Secure, Engaged devoting extensive and prominent (i.e., chapter one) attention to quality of life, diversity and inclusion and cultural change while their Australian counterparts focused more narrowly on matters of recruitment and retention and projected personnel increases. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, Strong, Secure, Engaged paid far more attention to reserve forces than the Australian documents. Less surprisingly, the Canadian document devoted far more attention to peacekeeping and peace support operations.

If the Canadian and Australian approaches to security and defence are compared more broadly, the Australian approach would appear to reflect a markedly greater willingness to expend national treasure on the armed forces (although some Canadian naysayers will no doubt argue that the Australians are unlikely to fully implement their full 2020 agenda, particularly given COVID-19, and that, in any event, much of the projected capital spending is comparatively long term), a long-standing and growing streak of self-reliance, a much more blunt, realpolitik approach to the risks posed by a deteriorating geo-strategic environment (albeit one heavily shaped by Australia’s presence in a particularly challenging region) and a more holistic approach to defence, foreign, industrial and science policy. The Australian documents retained the commitment to maintain three well-rounded, combat-capable services. Strong, Secure, Engaged did, too—albeit, perhaps, with question marks over certain aspects of army recapitalization—but Canadians should not be unduly sanguine on this point. As the late Brian MacDonald—for decades one of Canada’s most respected defence commentators—cautioned on multiple occasions, there was an ongoing, post-Cold War risk that fiscal limitations and political machinations might leave Canada with one or two full-scope services and one or two less useable and less combat-capable (even constabulary-style) services.

Canberra’s robust reaffirmation of self-reliance is potentially instructive, at least in a modified form, given the worrisome dilemmas generated by the contemporary international environment. As Thomas Axworthy, the Public Policy Chair at the University of Toronto’s Massey College and the late Greg Donaghy—then the Director of the Bill Graham Centre for Contemporary International History at the University of Toronto’s Trinity College—noted in the Globe and Mail of 16 January 2020, “for the first time in our history, Canada is virtually alone in the world, creating unprecedented challenges for our foreign policy. We need to get more serious about our diplomacy than ever before. The hard, big-ticket items are obvious: Increase defence spending to 2 per cent of GDP to meet our North Atlantic Treaty Organization obligations and bolster foreign aid to much more than the current paltry 0.26 per cent of GDP.” These are most intriguing recommendations but, as John Ibbitson of the Globe and Mail noted on 18 July 2020, “an approach toward foreign policy that places a greater emphasis on self-reliance would be expensive, requiring major new investments to beef up defence in the Arctic” and, one might add, elsewhere. “But with the deficit approaching the full capacity of federal spending, where will the money come from and how can taxpayers be persuaded to provide it?” How, indeed?

DND photo CX2010-0144-27 by Sergeant Robert Bottrill

The Snowbirds fly in Big Arrow formation over the Strait of Georgia.

Snowbird Futures

The loss of two Snowbird CT-114 Tutors in the past year, the first on 13 October 2019 near Atlanta, Georgia, and the second, in Kamloops, B.C., on 17 May 2020—which tragically claimed the life of Captain Jennifer Casey, the team’s Public Affairs Officer, and seriously injured the pilot—have not surprisingly rekindled long-simmering debates over the age and adequacy of the long-serving Canadair CT-114 Tutor in the air demonstration role, the scope and schedule of the Tutor modernization and life extension project and, in the longer term, the options for re-equipping the Snowbirds. Looming in the background is the much broader and thornier question of whether Canada should even continue to field a Snowbird-style military air demonstration team. For many Canadians, both inside and outside of the armed forces, the answer is affirmatively and robustly self-evident; others, mindful of the potential financial implications—particularly those associated, directly or indirectly, with the acquisition of a Tutor replacement—and/or a variegated assortment of other concerns, remain far from convinced. In the middle, perhaps, are those who are amenable to a comparatively low-cost Tutor modernization and life extension, but wary of the type of long-term commitment to the Snowbirds that the acquisition of a replacement for the Tutor would entail.

Although its appearance belies its age, there is no denying that the Tutor—taken on strength by the RCAF as a basic jet trainer in 1963, and the mount of the Snowbirds since 1971—is ‘long in the tooth.’ That said, it—like the Snowbirds—is economical to operate and arguably continues to provide solid value for money in terms of public relations (for the Canadian Armed Forces as whole and not simply the RCAF) and military recruiting (again, for the Canadian Armed Forces as whole and not simply would-be aircrew). It can be argued as well that the Snowbirds remain an enduring coast-to-coast-to-coast national symbol in a country that at times appears to suffer from a dearth of such symbols—civilian or military—and, on the international level, effective ambassadors for Canada and an internationally-respected strategic media asset. The international profile of the Snowbirds is, indeed, quite remarkable, given that the team has never performed outside of North America. At the operational level, the Tutor’s modest size and speed continue to render it an effective air demonstration platform. By this logic—and given that a successor to the Tutor, even if ultimately approved by Ottawa, will not arrive anytime soon—the case for an expedited life extension and modernization project that would address safety systems (i.e., the ejection seat and associated sub-systems), avionics (particularly navigation and communications) and other areas of concern is strong and compelling.

An eventual outright replacement for the Tutor, however, would present challenges of a very different order, partly because of the much higher direct or indirect financial cost and the concomitantly much more intense media, public, political and other scrutiny, partly because Canada has not previously acquired an aircraft type specifically for air demonstration purposes. The F-86 Sabres of the Golden Hawks and the Tutors of the Golden Centennaires and the Snowbirds were drawn from the existing, and already paid for, aircraft inventory, and partly because of the need to determine how a Tutor replacement could fit—or not fit—into the nascent Future Aircrew Training (FAcT) project (i.e., the intended successor to a variety of outsourced and in-house aircrew training). Acquiring sufficient aircraft to meet the training requirements of FAcT and the air demonstration needs of the Snowbirds would bring a number of standardization and other benefits, not least, the ability to rotate aircraft between the training and air demonstration roles—as was originally the case with the Snowbirds, and is currently the case, for example, with the Pilatus PC-21s of the Royal Australian Air Force. If, however, contractor personnel maintain both the training- and air demonstration-assigned aircraft, how would the re-equipped Snowbirds demonstrate the oft-cited professionalism and teamwork of military aircrew and military groundcrew? Also worthy of consideration would be the reaction of the public to Snowbird aircraft that are privately and not Government-owned. This is not meant to suggest that an eventual successor to the Tutor is a ‘non-starter.’ It is meant to suggest, however, that multiple challenges are looming, and that supporters of the Snowbirds will need to be responsive, innovative and forward-looking in pursuing a successor to the stalwart Tutor.

USAF photo 170930-F-BQ566-443 by Airman First Class Alexander Cook

The Snowbirds take their act ‘out of country’ to the 2017 Breitling Huntington Beach Air Show, Huntington Beach, California, 30 September 2017.

Martin Shadwick has taught Canadian Defence Policy at York University for many years. He is a former editor of Canadian Defence Quarterly, and he is the resident Defence Commentator for the Canadian Military Journal.