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Awakening of a maritime nation 50 years in the making

21 February | Jennifer Parker

Image: HMAS ANZAC, Royal Australian Navy

It is a historic day when the government has finally agreed to support an enhanced surface combatant fleet capability for the Royal Australian Navy.

Australia has a proud history of defending our nation, but our maritime history is often missing from this discourse, a strange omission for an island nation. In the announcement of the enhanced naval surface combatant fleet capability, Australia took a large step forward in acknowledging the realities of our geography and of our strategic circumstances.

Following much conjecture, an eight-month Defence Strategic Review, a five-month independent analysis and four-month government deliberation, we finally know the planned future of the Royal Australian Navy’s surface combatant fleet.


The RAN currently has 11 major surface combatants, eight Anzac class guided missile frigates and three Hobart class air warfare destroyers. While this is not the entirety of the RAN’s surface fleet, these surface combatants are the ships that provide the RAN’s defensive and offensive maritime capability, its frigates and destroyers.


Until yesterday’s announcement, the ageing Anzac class ships had been scheduled to be replaced by nine vessels from the troubled Hunter class frigate program.

A largely expected outcome of the review team’s recommendation has been to reduce the Hunter class frigate program from nine vessels to six. Although the detail is yet to follow, the timing of the build also appears to have been spread out with the final of the six being delivered in 2043.

 

Although there has been significant criticism that the Hunter class is not a capable vessel, this criticism largely undersells the need to have towed sonar array capable anti-submarine warfare ships as part of a balanced naval force.


Australia took a large step forward in acknowledging the realities of our geography and the realities of our strategic circumstances.


The big change in yesterday’s announcement was the decision to acquire 11 multipurpose frigates, multipurpose meaning that they can operate across the full spectrum of naval warfare from combatting submarines, to surface ships, aircraft, missiles and likely uncrewed capabilities.


Of course, the type of frigate this will actually be is unclear as Defence will undertake a competitive evaluation process, but the contenders have been narrowed down to options from Germany, Spain, the Republic of Korea and Japan.


What we do know is that this will be a frigate anywhere between the size of a 3500-tonne Anzac class frigate, which is a light frigate by all intents and purposes, to something closer to 5000-6000 tonnes with at least twice the amount of missile capability of an Anzac class frigate. The size is important because a general-purpose frigate will need the capability to operate in a range of different warfare scenarios.


The second surprise announcement, although perhaps it shouldn’t have been, was the decision to acquire six large optionally crewed surface vessels (LOSV), in concert with the United States.


This is largely code for joining the current United States large uncrewed surface vessel program, one that the United States has been pushing as a solution to their dwindling naval fleet size.


The proposed concept for these vessels is that they will be designed with significant missile capability and teamed with the Hobart class destroyers or Hunter class frigates to enhance the number of missiles that can be put to sea in a naval task group.


Whilst this is not an existing capability, it is certainly a naval concept of operations that the United States has been toying with for some time. To many, it was likely intriguing that the Government stressed in yesterday’s announcement that this capability would be crewed, despite it being developed to be an uncrewed capability.


The emphasis on crewing was likely to combat any concerns raised with the legal status of lethal autonomous vessels, which is yet to be resolved under international law.


The LOSV capability is not expected to commence delivery until the mid-2030s, and there is a lot of water to pass under the bridge, so to speak, between now and then.


Pending the evolution of the technology, international law, and the concept of employment it is highly likely that this capability will operate in our navy in an uncrewed fashion, despite yesterday’s announcements.


The final capability change was the decision to reduce the size of the Arafura Offshore Patrol Vessel fleet from 12 to six.


Another troubled naval shipbuilding program, it has never been clear where the Arafura sits in the navy’s concept of operations. Its crew size in the 40s makes it inefficient for constabulary operations and its lack of armament and survivability make it unable to be used in the event of crisis and conflict.


This is not to mention, of course, that there are clear engineering issues with the vessel, with the first of class launched in 2021, but introduction into the navy’s fleet appearing to be delayed indefinitely.


While it was too late to scrap this vessel, with two in the water and five in build, there is perhaps a missed opportunity to offer this vessel for sale to a regional partner to boost their maritime capabilities in countering China’s aggression in the South China Sea.


For 50 years reviews of the surface combatant fleet have been calling for a larger navy to defend Australia’s extensive maritime interests.


It is indeed a historic day that the government has agreed to support this capability, but there are significant challenges to be addressed, including the development of the workforce to build and crew these vessels.


And it must be acknowledged that for the latter half of the 2020s we are accepting a significant risk, with a reduced and degraded surface fleet.


Of course, we have been here before, when the 1987 white paper based on the 1986 Dibb review agreed to an increase of the naval surface combatant fleet. Hopefully, this time we stay the course. To defend Australia, we will need to.


Although there is a long way to go, perhaps we are finally becoming a true maritime nation.

 

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