The Sir Richard Williams Foundation this week held a seminar on high-intensity operations and sustaining self reliance to address the challenges faced by the ADF as it repositions from counter-insurgency missions in the Middle East to a renewed era of global great power competition.
Whilst Australia’s ability to sustain and supply its own military has long been the subject of debate, speakers at the seminar pointed out areas that are often overlooked.
“Discussions about self-reliance rarely begin with a conversation on supply and support,” Lieutenant Colonel David Beaumont of Army School of Logistics said. “The ability to conduct military operations independent of another’s aid depend on the ability to move supply and sustain that force.”
“It’s what we do in logistics that lets strategy do its magic.”
The problem, LTCOL Beaumont said, is specific to major new platforms where not enough thought has gone into sustainment in a contested environment.
“We have to start questioning whether our big capabilities – F-35s and others - can endure on a battlefield where our friends are far away,” LTCOL Beaumont said.
“Logistics constraints and strengths can determine the form and means of operations. As we seek to answer the question of what we can achieve on our own, concerns about logistics must be front and centre.”
LTCOL Beaumont also argued that investments in the logistics side of the battle are, in many ways, a direct investment in raw combat power.
“Without supplies, the technology at the ADF’s disposal is worthless. Even on operations led by the ADF, we have been supplied from other quarters,” he said. “There are real risks that our operational habits and reliance on others may have created false expectations about our own logistics capabilities.”
Donna Cain-Riva, Director Future Logistics Capability for RAAF, argued that the traditional definition of self-reliance and the nature of operations in the Middle East over the past two decades are not accurate weathervanes for the future of military logistics.
“We must redefine the definition of self reliance,” Cain-Riva said. “We must understand the nuances between sovereign and collective self reliance.”
“We must move beyond what I call our Middle East sustainment mindset. If we take a deeper look, the build up of support forces and infrastructure across the region preceded operations.
“Basing systems were located in areas of safety. Global supply chains were free to transport to safe locations, where the ADF supply chain then moved them across the theatre. Demand did not outstrip supply. Logistics systems were unaffected in cyberspace. Operations in the Middle East were supported by traditional supply chains.
“We were not self-reliant, but our experience did not demand it.”
According to Cain-Riva, this experience may have made the ADF complacent about its ability to project power in future.
“How long could we sustain high-intensity operations before we run out of fuel?” Cain-Riva asked. “Australia relies on imports of refined petroleum. Are we confident in the ability of the market to surge supply if the regional environment degrades?”
Some good news, on the other hand, was brought to the table by LTCOL Kierin Joyce, head of UAS Systems for Army.
“We have the beginnings of a sovereign industrial drone capability in Australia, and that’s where my thoughts on future sustainment lie,” LTCOL Joyce said.
“Australia is perfect for this. We have the people, the ground, and the use cases for robotics and autonomous systems. The writing is on the wall – feasible, realistic, and globally exportable.”
The challenge, however, is convincing political leaders in Canberra that lower-level investments in cheap UAS systems are worth it.
“UAS aren’t measured in billions of dollars. This kind of capability sits under the threshold of big investment decisions,” LTCOL Joyce said.
“But that’s also our biggest opportunity. Because we’re not really expensive, a small per cent of budget can do a lot to develop a sovereign industrial drone capability.”