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Australian Defence and National Security in 2015: what to watch out for

2014 was a significant year for the Australian Defence Force and the wider national security community. The first LHD (landing helicopter dock) entered service, Australian forces returned to combat operations in the Middle East, and the combined effort of law enforcement and Intelligence thwarted a homegrown terrorism plot to behead innocent civilians.

These are only a few of the successes but they are not the complete representation of the state of Australia’s national security. Capability compromises more than just platforms and national security challenges are rapidly changing. The true state of a force’s readiness also lie in other areas such as training and manning, just to name a few. Here is the ‘Top 5’ of programs to monitor closely and interrogate how they are tracking.

1. LHD and the Amphibious Readiness Element

The LHD will form a central role within Australia’s amphibious force. The Amphibious Readiness Element, or ARE, will be certified by the end of 2015 and this will involve both Navy and Army assets. The Talisman Sabre series of military exercises will be the proving grounds for Australia’s amphibious force so it is important to analyse what is featured within press releases or, for that matter, what is omitted from them. This will be a significant achievement for the ADF so there is no doubt that a successful certification will be widely celebrated.

2. F-35 Joint Strike Fighter

The RAAF took delivery of its first F-35 late in 2014. It has successfully conducted flight trials but it will remain in the United States where it will be used for training. The program, however, has not been without its critics and it would seem that their claims are founded on good evidence. No one said that buying a brand new stealth fighter would be easy and fortunately the stop-gap purchase of the Super Hornets have paid off. Continuously running an ageing air combat fleet may force Defence planners to siphon from various sections of the RAAF budget in order to maintain readiness. This would then have long-term implications for other aspects of strategic planning, such as the requirement to reduce international engagement due to fiscal constraints.

3. The Australian Border Force

Later this year the Department of Immigration and Border Protection and the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service will amalgamate into a single Department of Immigration and Border Force. The operational arm of the agency will be known as the Australian Border Force and the unified agency would fulfill a role similar to that of the Department of Homeland Security in the United States. Significant concerns, however, with DHS’ purpose and performance in recent years raises questions about our own pursuits in this field. Plus, merging departments and evolving within the bureaucracy can be tedious. Six months may not enough time to fully assess how the Border Force will perform but cracks, if there are any, will begin to appear during this early stage.

4. Hobart-class DDG (Air Warfare Destroyer)

HMAS Hobart, the first of the AWDs was supposed to enter service last year. The announcement regarding the two-year delay was no big surprise and many within the Defence community have accepted the time and cost blowouts. As the project continues along I would not be surprised if there are further indications of delayed delivery and more cost blowouts. The second issue is the longer-term impact this would have on the Navy, and thus Australia’s security. Personnel trained in anticipation of the ship’s arrival would soon cycle out of their postings, potentially reducing personnel readiness. More would need to be trained and skills-fade amongst those already trained is of concern. Furthermore, this could force the Navy to extend the life of the current Adelaide-class FFGs, digging further into Defence’s bottom line as ships become more expensive to maintain as platforms age.

5. Collins-class submarine replacement

Along with the Special Forces, Australia’s submarines are the most important strategic assets. The Collins class has proven its lethality and the crews are among the most well trained in the world. The plan to replace the subs was initiated in 2007, with a design to be identified by 2013 and construction to be completed by 2025. There were good indications that the Abbott government were leaning toward a Japanese-designed Soryu class submarine, skipping the tendering process and potentially building them offshore. As of January this year, no official decision has been made on a replacement. Given the strategic effect of this capability, a gap would have far reaching consequences for the state of Australia’s defence.

To the ordinary Australian the topic of long-term national security and strategy is, at times, murky and not as attractive as stories of operational success. Failure to adequately identify, plan and prepare for Australia’s defence would not be felt by current decision-makers; generations to come may feel the full effect of poor decisions made now. 2015 could prove to be a bellwether year for Australia’s defence and national security. Let us hope that this year’s developments point in a positive direction.

Nam Nguyen is the Australian National Security and Defence Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

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Image Credit: US Air Force (Flickr: Creative Commons)

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