New technology, especially cheap precision-strike weapons, will influence stabilisation operations and challenge current assumptions over the ability of Australian ‘fires’ and logistics overmatch to protect deployments in the South West Pacific, writes Ben Morgan.*
Historically, Australia’s fires overmatch and overwhelming logistics protected and supported stabilisation operations in the South West Pacific (SWP). The proliferation of cheap precision-strike weapons and unguided missiles, however, may challenge future deployments by providing new fires capabilities to smaller nations or paramilitary groups.
A history of successful peace-support, underpinned by war-fighting capability
The SWP has a history of successful Australian-led peace-support operations. Australian forces provided logistics support and a guaranteed overmatch in combat power, with indirect fires capabilities providing a ‘big stick’ that rendered military opposition untenable.
Since 1998, joint forces have successfully deployed to Bougainville, East Timor, Solomon Islands, and Tonga in peace-making roles, supporting peace negotiations or providing security aid; every deployment confident that Australia’s combat and logistics capability over matched potential opposition.
Other nations contributing to peace-support operations with Australia, including New Zealand, Fiji, Tonga or Papua New Guinea, all benefit from this overmatch and contribute their relationships and cultural competence to joint task forces. By working together like this, the nations of the Pacific have conducted a wide and largely successful range of operations over the last 25 years.
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The proliferation of precision-strike is a game changer
The proliferation of relatively cheap drones, missiles, and more importantly, digital technology that links sensors and shooters, however, is changing how indirect fires are applied on the battlefield. In 2020, the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War demonstrated the effectiveness of a new generation of relatively simple and easily acquired drones, with Azerbaijan drones effectively targeting Armenian armoured vehicles.
Developing affordable, all-weather drones with a useful payload has taken time, but in recent years the technology has been maturing. Before the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War, drones had limited impact because they were cheap but too small and low tech to be influential, or if they were useful they were prohibitively expensive. Drone war was limited to the major powers with funds to purchase and maintain sophisticated systems.
The Second Nagorno-Karabakh War’s generation of drones, such as the Bayraktar TB2, were not only affordable but also carried useful payloads, could operate in most conditions and had sufficient range to make them highly effective.
An especially painful lesson of the war was that modern air defence is not designed to defeat drones, a concern highlighted in the November 2020 article “Military lessons from Nagorno-Karabakh: Reason for Europe to worry’’ by Gustav Gessel, who wrote:
“Europe should look carefully at the military lessons of this conflict, and not dismiss it as a minor war between poor countries. Since the cold war, most European armies have phased out gun-based self-propelled air-defence systems. Man-portable air-defence systems (MANPADS) like the Stinger and Igla – the primary short-range air-defence systems in Europe – have little chance of acquiring such small targets like loitering munitions or small drones invisible to the operator.”
This analysis was proven correct in the Ukraine War.
“The Houthi are a large group but are not a national army, yet they are using drones and missiles to attack Israel from around 1800km away.”
Additionally, precision tech is getting cheaper and easier to access. The Corvo cardboard drone, made in Australia and used in Ukraine is an example. Costing about USD 3,500, it can carry 5kg of payload accurately to a target approximately 120km away, or it can be fitted with a high-resolution camera able to transmit real-time information to its operator.
It is also almost invisible to radar so is hard to shoot down. A fact demonstrated on 27 August 2023 when a swarm of Corvos damaged a Mig 29, four Su-30s, two Pantsir anti-aircraft systems and a S-300 air surface-to-air missile defence system at an airfield in Russia’s Kursk Oblast.
The potential of maritime drones, either surface craft or submersibles, has also been demonstrated by Ukraine using these weapons to attrit the Black Sea Fleet. Ranging from submersibles like the Toloka TK-150 Uncrewed Undersea Vehicle (UUV) to relatively low-tech Uncrewed Surface Vessels (USV) such as the Magura or Seababy families of drones, Ukraine’s maritime drone capability has increased rapidly.
The skies of Ukraine are also full of precision-guided weapons ranging from guided artillery shells to HIMARs and cruise missiles, and the ability to observe a target and strike it accurately at long-range is becoming increasingly common. Further, there is a direct link between these weapons and drones being used as observation platforms, a new and powerful sensor-shooter link.
Hamas’s 7 October attack on Israel demonstrated that region’s proliferation of cheap, effective missiles. Hamas’s Qassam missiles are unguided but easily produced and can to saturate areas within a range of about 15km. Hamas also recently deployed the Ababeel 1 series of locally built drones, including attack drones. Another Gaza para-military group, Palestinian Jihad’s al-Quds 101 missile represents a dangerous escalation, with intelligence sources estimating the rocket has a high level of accuracy over ranges of about 20km.
The recent interception of missiles and drones targeting Israel launched by Houthi rebels in Yemen provides another insight into future conflict. The Houthi are a large group but are not a national army, yet they are using drones and missiles to attack Israel from around 1800km away.
Paramilitary organisations and smaller nations states can now acquire or build large quantities of cheap and effective indirect fire weapons. Therefore, stabilisation operation planning needs to consider indirect attack by missiles and air or seaborne drones.
“Today, East Timor’s militias could be supported by foreign governments opposed to Australia, supplying weapons like the Qassam artillery rocket.”
1999’s successful lodgement of INTERFET in Dili enjoyed a total fires overmatch provided by Australia’s airpower, naval gunfire support and ability to deploy artillery rapidly. Today, East Timor’s militias could be supported by foreign governments opposed to Australia, supplying weapons like the Qassam artillery rocket. By targeting pre-selected static targets like airports, potential helicopter landing areas or Dilli Harbour and firing scores of missiles from hidden and dispersed firing points, even a relatively small and poorly trained force could do considerable damage.
Add in a drone capability like the Ababeel 1 or Corvo able to strike key targets, and perhaps leadership or command teams spotted by civilians live streaming targeting information, and the operation becomes much more difficult.
Fighting smarter and thinking unconventionally
Facing this challenge is difficult and will require re-thinking traditional methods of operation. Some thoughts include:
The proliferation of these weapons makes the relationship between military ‘hard power’ and diplomatic ‘soft power’ more important than it has ever been. Now military planners require long-term hybrid thinking because an initial step to defeating this threat is reducing proliferation of these weapons systems within the region in the first place by legal and political action.
Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasse Sogavare stated this year, for example, that his government intends to build a defence force. Although a highly unlikely and hypothetical example, Solomon Islands could use this tech to build a defence force able to deter intervention by an Australian-led coalition. It is important, therefore, that political steps are taken at the earliest possible point to disincentive acquisition of precision-strike weapons and to build strong alliances so local states do not see the requirement for these capabilities.
Australia and its SWP partners need to invest in intelligence operations during peace time. Specifically, relationships providing human intelligence (HUMINT) that can monitor local capabilities so that if required these weapons, their supply lines, and operators can be targeted. Satellites, aerial observation and electronic monitoring struggle to identify underground facilities or those hidden in complex terrain, and HUMINT provides another information source.
Additionally, electronic intelligence or monitoring the electromagnetic spectrum to identify frequencies being used for command and control of surveillance and attack assets needs to improve. Likewise, cyber dominance is an emerging requirement given that the internet is likely to be used to transfer surveillance and targeting information.
Open-source intelligence (OSINT) is a further consideration. Recently, OSINT company Bellingcat published information about the use of live video feeds from existing CCTV networks, a tool providing potential targeting intelligence to any force with internet access.
Operational reporting indicates the most effective response to drones is jamming. Some examples include:
- The relatively limited impact of US Switchblade drones in Ukraine is linked to effective Russian jamming using intelligence gained during the Afghanistan War.
- Ukraine’s crossing of the Dnipro River in October 2023 is reported to include a specific programme of electronic drone suppression.
According to Gessell, “Azerbaijan’s drones roamed free because Armenia had no jammer able to interrupt the signals linking the drones to their guidance stations.” The Australian Defence Strategic Review 2023 included investment in electronic warfare, but are countries like New Zealand following suit?
This is an area that many smaller militaries have tended to contract out of, relying on US air defence to secure their forces. Unfortunately, this model is based on an older picture of air threats from piloted aircraft.
Tomorrow’s Pacific conflict is likely to see very small forces fighting in widely dispersed organisations – a difficult model to provide air defence to. Militaries will need to protect their own units, including logistics infrastructure and units in depth, as long-range precision-strike becomes more available.
On land and sea tactical organisation will need to change, with dispersion becoming the rule to avoid presenting large targets. The US’s Marine Littoral Combat Regiments and experimental light cavalry units in the 25th Infantry Division point towards the future of land forces – very small units widely dispersed, relying on long-range rocket artillery for destruction of point targets and on mortars or light artillery for close support.
However, it is unlikely that armoured vehicles will disappear given that they provide not only combat power but protection, mobility and the ability to carry equipment. In an operational environment requiring widespread electronic jamming and close-range air defence more of this equipment can carried by vehicles than by infantrymen. Armoured vehicles can be loaded up with a range of equipment, thus providing an operational hub for a small infantry team.
On the sea, mobility and dispersion will also be vital for survival. Mooring large numbers of amphibious ships close to a lodgement is no longer an option. Instead, lodgement and logistics over the shore needs to be fast and flexible, probably at night and again dispersed across a range of unexpected locations.
The archipelagos of the SWP will require a new approach for amphibious operations using many small but long-ranged vessels like the Swedish CB 90 to quickly move small units around.
Forces like this would be supported by conventional naval assets able to support long-range surveillance drones and providing long-range air defence and precision-strike.
A weakness of dispersion is keeping small and dispersed forces supplied with ammunition, food, fuel and batteries. Future forces will need to be self-sufficient and able to operate by themselves, requiring the equipment and training to survive in the operational area. Self-reliance and the ability to operate far from a Forward Operating Base (FOB) will need to be developed in front-line troops.
Likewise, logisticians will need to think laterally and start to plan to supply widely dispersed small forces probably in the first stage of an operation from logistics ships loitering far off shore and outside the range of drone or missile attack. A difficult proposition.
China already has area denial capability, but SWP militaries need to start planning for other weapon exclusion zones created by rapidly proliferating precision-guided weapons and cheap unguided missiles used by smaller nations and paramilitary groups.
Even relatively limited area denial capability deployed in the complex terrain of the SWP will be difficult to counter and could deter deploying stabilisation forces. The implications for security in the SWP are potentially significant if the rules-based international order cannot be supported by the deployment of stabilisation forces. Small nations or paramilitary forces may soon be able to challenge Australia’s force overmatch that is currently a ‘given’ in operational planning. Countering this threat requires honesty and the courage to admit that considerable restructing of conventional military doctrine is required as dispersion, intelligence and hybrid operations become vital for military success.