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Minimise capability gap while waiting for the new fleet to surface

6 May 2024 | Jennifer Parker

Ten years from now, Australia will have its most potent navy in decades. In the interim, it will have the least capable in more than half a century.

Image: HMAS ANZAC 11 September 2023. Defence image gallery

Last week, the outgoing commander of the United States Indo-Pacific command referred to China’s strategy in the region as a “boiling frog” strategy – gradually increasing the pressure within the region, with the “ultimate” danger under-appreciated.

This year has so far been a year of government defence announcements. Many have rightly focused on Australia’s status and vulnerabilities as an island trading nation. A nation whose daily survival depends on the fuel, fertiliser, pharmaceuticals and other essentials that are imported by sea.

This maritime awakening has been underpinned by significant announcements on Australia’s acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines, a historical increase to the Royal Australian Navy’s surface combatant fleet and an integrated investment program that pours 38 per cent of Defence’s investment into the maritime domain.

From the glossy documents, you could be forgiven for thinking Australia’s naval capabilities have been strengthened in the short term; that our navy can defend Australia’s existential dependence on maritime trade, and project into the region to enact Australia’s strategy of deterrence by denial.

The problem with this perception of Australia’s growing naval power is that it is only half true.

Ten years from now, when the first Virginia class nuclear-powered submarine arrives in Australia and the new general-purpose frigates and Hunter class frigates are rolling off the production line, Australia will have its most potent navy in decades.

In the interim, however, Australia’s naval power will decline and, without a significant readjustment of its naval posture, so will its ability to defend the maritime trade which is the lifeline of its economy.

Surface fleet to shrink

Despite the increased investment over the decade, the alarming fact is that for the next 10 years Australia will have the least capable naval surface fleet it has had in more than 50 years.

The surface combatant fleet, the frigates and destroyers that constitute the backbone of the Royal Australian Navy, will increase to 20 in the 2030s and early 2040s. But before then, Australia’s surface combatant fleet will contract.

Most reviews of the Australian naval surface fleet over the past 50 years have recommended that Australia needed 16 to 20 surface combatants to protect its maritime interests. These assessments were conducted before the rapid militarisation of the region, before the persistent pressure of China’s maritime aggression in the South China Sea and before Australia was subjected to China’s economic coercion.

Instead of the 16-20 surface combatants, Australia has 11. Before the fleet size increases in the early 2030s, it will substantially decrease.

HMAS Anzac, one of only eight Australian frigates, will decommission this month, reducing the surface combatant fleet to 10. In 2026, the fleet will fall to nine– less than half the strength of the surface combatant fleet recommended by 50 years of analysis.

During a period of global tension that has been compared to that before World War II, the island nation of Australia will have the least powerful surface navy it has had in more than 50 years.

What do we do?

How did we get here? It’s a long story that cannot simply be attributed to the current or former governments. It is a story of devaluing naval capability, of delaying decisions and accepting risk where the risk was not fully understood. In many ways, “how did we get here?” is an uninteresting and unhelpful question.

The pivotal question for the defence of this island nation is: what do we do about the gap?

This is where naval structure, readiness and posture come in. We are a nation dependent on maritime trade, with a 10-year gap in our ability to defend this trade. We must be bold.

For the next 10 years, Australia must maximise the potency, operational readiness and posture of the remaining ships in the Royal Australian Navy.

Basing a frigate in Singapore or the Philippines would increase Australia’s presence in the contested South China Sea

This includes maximising the sea-time of existing nine surface combatants, with alternate crewing and readiness models. Rather than one crew per ship, this may mean multiple crews per ship, something the Royal Australian Navy has previously trialled and other navies such as the Royal Navy are enacting with their forward deployed frigates to the Middle East.

But what about the implications for the challenged naval workforce? If it matters, we can make it happen. Historic times call for historic approaches. Boldness has always been Australia’s innate advantage.

But we must go further. To maximise our diminishing naval assets, we should take a leaf out of the playbook of our AUKUS partners by permanently forward deploying one of the remaining surface combatants to South-East Asia.

Basing a frigate in Singapore or the Philippines would increase Australia’s presence in the contested South China Sea, maximising the potency of Australia’s naval capability during the foreseeable capability gap.

In times of historic global tension, our government and our navy must take bold action to maximise the operational effectiveness of our remaining fleet. The lifelines of the Australian economy, and our way of life, may well depend on it.

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