Following decades of relative relegation resulting from uncontested airspace, growing trends have invigorated a renewed emphasis on Air Defence as an essential asset in the operating environment. An increasingly capable and demonstrative Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has stimulated ongoing debate over the necessity, utility, and performance of Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) systems. In similar fashion, recent events in Ukraine and Syria, notably the growing employment of Low Slow Small (LSS) Unmanned Aerial Systems by both state-based forces and violent extremist networks (VEN) and the destruction of Israeli[i] and Russian[ii] aircraft, has reinforced the importance of Short Range Air Defence (SHORAD) systems in protecting friendly ground elements and disrupting enemy air operations. The ADF has identified these trends and the 2016 Defence White Paper identifies, “By 2035, more countries in our region will have access to ballistic missile technology and it is possible more countries may have acquired them. The difficulty of countering ballistic missiles increases their threat, including to deployed Australian forces.”[iii] Similarly, the White Paper identifies the need, “to enhance the defences of our deployed forces against attacks” through the acquisition of, “new deployable short-range ground-based air defence weapons.”[iv]
In such a context, the Australian Army must assess how best to approach the structure of its Ground Based Air Defence community with consideration of its modest size and economic restraints. The aim of any such construct should be task-focused; rather than aligning with acquired platforms, essential tasks form its foundations. Accounting for the vast differences between the two forces, this discussion will use the US Air Defense Artillery (ADA) community as a platform to consider potential challenges and possible solutions for an Australian GBAD structure. It will identify what Australia needs from its GBAD community, discuss the challenges of our current structure, and provide a suggested approach to GBAD. Ultimately, this is a discussion of Australian GBAD, primarily SHORAD, with a look to understanding its likely tasks in current and future operating environments and suggesting one possible way forward. Its aim is to prompt consideration and discussion surrounding a task-focused GBAD structure that enables an enhanced capability to the Australian Army.
Lessons from the US
Despite the obvious differences in size and capability, there is much to be gleaned from the experiences of the US Army ADA community. The US experience perhaps best demonstrates the rapid transition of a SHORAD capability from peripheral concern to a core asset in the operating environment. Observing the US ADA story provides an understanding of challenges inherent to the GBAD community, in particular the difficulty in balancing support for manoeuvre elements and support for missile defence.
Following the disintegration of the Soviet Union threat, the US SHORAD capability was progressively reduced[v] while the growing ballistic missile capabilities of various states, such as Iraq and the DPRK, saw an emphasis on BMD systems disassociated with the manoeuvre elements (the exception being the relatively short-lived offensive campaign of Iraq in 2003). The Patriot missile system became the primary focus of the US Army’s active ADA community while SHORAD capabilities became the responsibility of the National Guard. The prolonged focus on High to Medium Air Defence (HIMAD) at the expense of SHORAD generated several identifiable challenges for the US ADA community.
Firstly, US Army HIMAD assets have faced considerable isolation from the wider Army community due to the nature of their employment and increasing integration with Air Force and strategic level Missile Defense Agency (MDA) elements. Perhaps the most significant effect of this isolation is felt by ADA Officers who, while exceptionally competent in the technical aspects of BMD systems, have fallen behind in understanding tactical employment of AD in support of manoeuvre, specifically against air threats such as LSS UAS, rotary wing aircraft and fixed wing CAS platforms. Although this does not apply to all US ADA Officers, as the US reacts appropriately to identifiable trends and looks to reinvigorate its SHORAD, it faces the challenge of rapidly generating a cadre of officers with sufficient understanding of the tactical level integration of these capabilities in support of wider Army. The Australian Army must take note of this when considering what it asks of its GBAD elements, a point that will be expanded upon in the next part of this discussion.
In addition to the isolation of the ADA community from manoeuvre, the concentration on BMD through the employment of HIMAD assets has led to the doctrinal stagnation of SHORAD. For a period of time, the rapid pace of change in the operating environment far exceeded the pace of doctrinal adaptation by US forces, resulting in ad hoc solutions to immediate problems. The expansion of UAS capabilities spurred by the commercial sector and their exploitation by VEN demanded immediate attention just as observing the growing employment of UAS in the Ukraine conflict spotlighted a monumental capability gap for future conflict in Europe. It is important to note that since identifying this capability gap, the US ADA community has largely overcome — or is, at least, rapidly overcoming — this discrepancy, through a substantial focus on revitalising doctrine and employment concepts to provide a solid foundation for SHORAD employment. This recalibration has been necessitated by the historical tolerance of such doctrinal stagnation. Thus, in assessing the US Army’s rapid readoption of SHORAD, the Australian Army should consider that in expanding its AD capabilities we must be wary of focusing too heavily on the new at the expense of the enduring.
Since at least 2016, the US ADA community, specifically SHORAD, has been reinvigorated in response to growing and persistent trends in the operating environment. At the time of writing, the US is several months into its interim solution of providing organic Stinger MANPADS teams to EUCOM manoeuvre elements.[vi] Additionally, the US Army is concurrently pursuing the development of SHORAD platforms to provide defensive fires capabilities that are commensurate with the supported manoeuvre asset.[vii] Despite significant differences between the Australian and US AD communities, the recent US experience provides important considerations for the Australian Army as it looks to the structure of its GBAD. As will be discussed in a later section, the Australian Army AD community is one based on SHORAD. As the potential for acquiring systems beyond SHORAD is discussed, we should remain aware of the challenges this may present.
Tasks for Australian GBAD
The Australian Army is a modest force by global standards[viii] and remains largely unaffected by many of the active conflicts in the international environment. Consequently, we should embrace an independent approach that is tailored to our specific requirements. In the realm of GBAD this takes place within the context set forth by the Defence White Paper. The following section suggests two essential tasks that will shape Australian GBAD in the operating environment, and demonstrates that the Australian Army should focus on the completion of one while handing responsibility of the other to the Royal Australian Air Force.
Ballistic Missile Defence:
The first, and most ambitious, of these tasks is ballistic missile defence. In order to appropriately discuss BMD, it must be divided into two elements: 1) BMD of vital domestic infrastructure, and 2) BMD of deployed forces. Although the White Paper repeatedly purports there is, “no more than a remote prospect of a military attack by another country on Australian territory in the foreseeable future,”[ix] it notes ongoing technological advances by regional actors and highlights the potential threat of ballistic missiles and other long-range precision munitions, such as cruise missiles. Indeed, shy of some sort of invading force, any actor wishing to strike targets within Australia is limited to these assets. Given the resource requirements of BMD for domestic infrastructure and the threat likelihood it is unreasonable to expect Australia to develop or acquire an organic BMD intercept capability; instead we must, as the White Paper suggests, further develop our sensor capability and deepen our integration with US BMD. This is reflected as, “Australia’s priorities[…] are to develop a more detailed understanding of options to protect our forces which are deployed in the region from ballistic missile attack.”[x] Notably, while not directly contributing to BMD, the Australian Army must understand these programs and the possible shaping effects these have on regional and international deployment of forces.
The White Paper identifies the threat of shorter-range ballistic and cruise missiles to deployed forces.[xi] While it remains possible that these munitions will be employed against deployed manoeuvre forces, it is far more likely that their primary use will be against critical assets ISO Anti-Access Area Denial (A2AD) attempts. In employing these assets, future enemies will prioritise points of entry and sustainment, such as key ports and airfields, over dispersed manoeuvre elements. Although it is exceedingly unlikely that Australia will ever conduct unilateral operations in such a contested environment, if the ADF looks to acquire a ground-based BMD system to protect deployed forces, it should prioritise its protection in accordance with the aforementioned threat likelihood. The capability associated with such a task would likely be relatively immobile and reliant on enhanced connectivity to data networks that provide more effective threat detection and identification. The Air Force is far better placed to take ownership of this task for several reasons, such as, but not limited to: existing and extensive knowledge/understanding of the required data networks, likely ownership of the defended assets, and ease of incorporation into the Air Operations Centre (AOC).
As the future of Australian GBAD presents the potential for BMD, it must be seen within the context of our modest force and appropriately structured. Taking the Australian Army away from SHORAD risks facing the same challenges as the US ADA community, whereas adding an additional, and resource intensive, task to the already stretched Australian Army GBAD capability is unrealistic. The Air Force is well situated to adopt this task and if the ADF does indeed acquire new medium-range GBAD weapons to “help protect valuable assets, including deployed airfields and command centres,”[xii] its first port of call should be the Air Force.
Protection of Manoeuvre Forces:
In one sentence the 2016 Defence White Paper generated significant anticipation and excitement within the Australian Army GBAD community. “To enhance the defences of our deployed forces against attacks, new deployable short-range ground-based air defence weapons will enter service by the early 2020s to replace the existing RBS-70 system.”[xiii] Australia’s existing GBAD force is primarily a SHORAD force; despite it being tasked with several additional capabilities and responsibilities it remains, at its core, a SHORAD fighting element. Integration with, and protection of, deployed manoeuvre forces is, and should remain, the main effort and the primary focus of any Australian Army AD structure. Trends in the contemporary operating environment, such as UAS proliferation and an increasingly contested airspace, have resulted in a greater vulnerability of ground forces to threatening air assets.[xiv] While Australia’s modest size limits our capabilities in the BMD fight, there is no excuse not to have an effective SHORAD capability that can seamlessly integrate with the asset it is supporting.
The greatest challenge to overcome in the Australian context is identifying how best to structure a SHORAD capability, in particular one that is likely to become significantly more capable in the next decade. Conceptual debate on the best execution of SHORAD to support manoeuvre warrants its own forum; however, it is important to note that the contribution of SHORAD platforms, to the protection of deployed forces, far exceeds the mere destruction of air threats. As forces become more reliant on sensors to provide information they become more open to deception; to paraphrase a comment originally published in a 1919 Infantry Journal, sensors will always accurately collect existing information, the art of deception lies in conveying a misleading impression of what that information means.[xv] GBAD assets, or the apparent presence of such, can be highly effective in contributing to an overall deception plan. In the Australian context of limited asset availability, the reliance on effective deception will be fundamental to successful operations against air threats. Within the essential task of protecting the manoeuvre force, the GBAD community should place emphasis on manipulating threat sensors.
As has been demonstrated by the US ADA experience and reinforced in the comments of the White Paper, the contemporary and future operating environment includes trends that are increasing the requirement for SHORAD. As it increases its capability in this regard, the Australian Army should ensure it looks to a structure that allows the enhanced integration with manoeuvre elements to enable the effective application of SHORAD assets.
The significant AD sensor assets residing with the Air Force serve to amplify my suggestion that any future BMD task be adopted by that service. Although those assets provide a unique capability to the ADF, they are beyond the Australian Army’s control. This discussion is focused on the Army’s GBAD structure, based around 16 Air Land Regiment (16 ALR). The following paragraphs will highlight two issues with the existing structure as it relates to developing a SHORAD focused element for the protection of deployed forces. Arguably, these issues spawn from past attempts to structure a seemingly unnecessary AD capability in a fiscally-constrained environment.
The establishment of 16 ALR in late 2011 witnessed the amalgamation of several disparate Army capabilities and units, and thus saw GBAD become just one of several capabilities competing for the Regiment’s attention. With an operational focus on Counter-Rockets Artillery and Mortar (C-RAM) in Uruzgan, a negligible threat in the operating environment and ageing platforms, GBAD was necessarily relegated to a peripheral concern to allow 16 ALR to better support operational requirements. Since its creation, much has been asked of 16 ALR but little in the realm of SHORAD. Rather, the focus has been on Air Land Integration and support to the Counter Fires fight as the Army makes best use of rapidly acquired platforms for the operational C-RAM mission. These tasks remain indispensable to enabling successful combined arms and joint operations; however, in an operating environment that is demanding more of SHORAD assets, the Australian Army must be wary to the perils of this essential task being subject to the competing demands within a single unit tasked with a broad range of disparate responsibilities. The Australian Army’s SHORAD capability should be structured so that it does not have to compete internally with other tasks.
Arguably the greatest challenge for the GBAD community is achieving adequate integration with wider Army, in particular the Combat Brigades. Geographic isolation of 16 ALR increases the complexities of integrating during training exercises and maintaining awareness of the available capability; there are similar difficulties integrating into a joint environment. This is an issue faced by all enablers; however, as the growing need for SHORAD support to manoeuvre is reinforced by events in the international environment, it is of particular concern for 16 ALR’s GBAD elements. Great effort has been made to reduce the friction caused by these integration difficulties, and undoubtedly 16 ALR’s relationship with supported assets continues to positively develop. Despite this, it is likely that developments in the GBAD community will occur in isolation and existing friction points for integration will be exacerbated as a consequence. Due to the absence of a permanent presence, GBAD is, as all enablers are, at risk of failing to integrate and thus being dislocated once operations commence.
Although GBAD elements will do their best to execute the tasks that are demanded of them, the current GBAD structure of the Australian Army is poorly situated to effectively achieve the task of adequately protecting deployed forces. Where the operating environment of recent past demanded the relegation of GBAD it is now demanding its prominent inclusion. There should be a focus on permanent integration of SHORAD to ensure the Australian Army is adequately responding to aerial threats against its deployed manoeuvre forces; however, this does not have to come at the expense of other tasks but rather the reallocation of those tasks to an appropriate command.
Suggestion for an Australian GBAD structure
The purpose of suggesting a specific structure for Australian Army GBAD is to prompt discussion and consideration for potential solutions. It reflects my personal opinions on a way to mitigate against the challenges faced by the aforementioned US experience and the issues of our existing structure. I have already clearly indicated that I believe the Australian Army’s focus should solely remain on SHORAD and any capability beyond this be placed in the remit of the Air Force. There are three elements to the suggested structure.
Firstly, the Australian Army’s SHORAD unit should be centralized and placed under command of the 1st Division Headquarters. Assets can thus be appropriately force-assigned in accordance with the main effort of Australian operations. It is highly unlikely that the Australian Army will ever have the capability to provide all supported elements with GBAD assets and, as such, placing them under the 1st Division enables the timely and appropriate application of this specialized force. A closer relationship to Headquarters Joint Operational Command would also enhance the ability for that SHORAD element to integrate into a wider IAMD system.
Centralising GBAD in the 1st Division does not solve the issue of integration difficulties. The second element is the permanent posting of GBAD detachments within Combat Brigades to provide continual training in All Arms Air Defence (AAAD) and enable greater integration when assigned AD assets. It is unreasonable to expect GBAD platforms to be permanently stationed with each Brigade; however, the enduring presence of air defenders and the reinforcement of GBAD integration into operational planning would work to mitigate the physical dislocation of these assets.
Finally, the removal of additional tasks, such as Air-Land Integration and Weapons locating, from the GBAD unit and re-establishment in other units would avoid a loss of capability while simultaneously facilitating a more appropriate command structure. ALI, for example, would be better facilitated through a permanent presence in the Brigade and Divisional Headquarters, similar to the Brigade Air Liaison Officer, and drawn from the permanent GBAD detachment. Similarly, Weapons Locating, as alluded to by Major Justin McBurney in a recent RAA Liaison Letter article,[xvi] should be given to those who need it, namely the Brigade Offensive Support assets. The reallocation of these additional tasks would enable the GBAD community to focus on its core skill of protecting deployed forces from ever-growing air threats.
Beyond the suggestions above there are myriad alternatives that would allow the Australian Army to generate and sustain an enhanced GBAD capability. I would offer the following two additional considerations for any discussion on future Australian GBAD structure: 1) the provision of SHORAD units/elements as organic Brigade assets. Each of the Combat Brigades would receive a GBAD element to support their operations; 2) developing a Joint GBAD unit that is manned by both RAAF and Australian Army personnel working within a joint command structure.
Undoubtedly all solutions will generate multiple challenges. The best mitigation is to establish a structure that provides a task-focused SHORAD solution aligned with the constraints of our modest Army both now and into the future.
The Australian Army needs to critically assess how vulnerable its forces are to effect from the air. Taking into account the trends of the operating environment, the argument can be made that they are highly vulnerable. This being the case, there needs to be a permanent structure in place to ensure that deployed manoeuvre elements are afforded protection from these threats whenever possible. I believe the only way this can be done is by developing a thoroughly integrated SHORAD focused fighting element.[xvii] No suggestion has been made that we develop soldiers and officers solely specialised in SHORAD, as the ADF does not have the resources to enable such an approach, but rather this paper proposes we establish a SHORAD-focused unit that is owned by Division and allocated according to operational demands. The additional tasks that remain should be absorbed under the Divisional structure or allocated to other units. In an environment that is only making GBAD, in particular SHORAD, more relevant, the Australian Army needs to consider how it structures itself to ensure this task is given the attention it deserves.
About the author
Captain James Easton is an Air Defence Officer currently posted to the US Fires Center of Excellence.
The views expressed do not reflect any official position or that of any of the author’s employers – see more here.