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Highway to the danger zone? Surface fleet review concedes no ‘new capability’ before 2030 has major implications

The Albanese government has conceded that the Navy will receive no new capability before 2030, with a dip in the number of surface combatants over the near term. With the potential for regional conflict greater than ever, is what is proposed ideal for the other side of conflict?

The Albanese government has conceded that the Navy will receive no new capability before 2030, with a dip in the number of surface combatants over the near term. With the potential for regional conflict greater than ever, is what is proposed ideal for the other side of conflict?

We are being increasingly told by our political representatives that we live in the most “dangerous period in history” since the 1930s.

Autocratic powers are on the march across Europe, the Middle East, and increasingly closer to home in the Indo-Pacific, casting into doubt the durability, resilience and in many cases, legitimacy of the post-Second World War order.


Defence Minister Richard Marles best summarised this in recent weeks, telling ABC, “We can obviously look over the past and see that what is happening is that China is engaged in the biggest conventional military build-up in the world since the end of the Second World War...

“What that has done is give China a much greater ability to seek to shape the world around it … and it’s in those circumstances that we need to be making sure that we are as capable as possible. It’s not that anyone is imagining that Australia is going to be invaded. But it is trying to ensure that no matter what potential threats there are of coercion, we are in a position to maintain our way of life, that we have the capability to deter coercion. And that’s what the building of this surface fleet will seek to do,” Marles explained.

In response, since the 2016 Defence White Paper, both sides of Australian politics have sought to engage with the Australian public and raise awareness about the challenges facing the nation, seemingly with little real outcome.

The Albanese government’s Defence Strategic Review, released in April 2023 and the follow on Independent Analysis into Navy’s Surface Combatant Fleet, more colloquially known as the surface fleet review, are just the latest examples that appear to be falling on deaf ears.

In particular, the government’s recent recognition and concession that the Royal Australian Navy will not receive any new capability before 2030 raises questions, particularly, why aren’t Australians more concerned with and invested in their own security?

Equally, why aren’t they raising hell over the fact that Australia won’t have any real, meaningful naval capability during this turbulent period in history as the government articulates?

Andrew Tillett of The Australian Financial Review, highlighted this predicament, stating, “Less America. More China. It’s an unthinkable proposition for security hawks with an unerring faith in US primacy. But strategic thinking at some of the highest levels in Canberra is beginning to look past the dangerous decade of the 2020s to think what the world will look like for Australia in the 2030s and beyond.”

Expanding on this, Tillett added, “this week’s overhaul of the Royal Australian Navy concedes it is too late to do anything that makes a tangible boost to capability this side of 2030. If a war does break out this decade, Australia’s naval contribution will be little more than a token effort”.

Equally, this begs an important question, do both the Defence Strategic Review (DSR) and the surface fleet review (SFR) adequately prepare the Australian Defence Force to face the challenges posed on the other side of any potential regional conflict?

Highway to the danger zone?

When paired with the rhetoric of our political leaders, it is becoming increasingly clear that Australia is speeding down a highway to the danger zone.

Tillett reinforced this, saying, “This week’s response to the surface fleet review means the size of the Navy will shrink in the short term from 11 warships to nine with the retirement of the two oldest Anzac Class frigates. The first of 11 ‘general purpose frigates’ will be delivered by the end of the 2020s while it will be 2031 before the Navy begins to grow in real terms.

“However, the government argues that it will have acquired four warships by 2034, compared to one under the Coalition’s shipbuilding plan, when the first of the Hunter Class frigates is due to enter service,” he explained.

While some capability, in this case the yet to be announced general purpose frigates “in the water” is better than nothing, it is becoming increasingly clear that what has been proposed is designed, at least in part, for the world on the other side of any potential regional conflict.

This only becomes more apparent when taking into account the broader challenges facing Australia’s own national security and defence capability, with Charles Miranda of The Daily Telegraph for example, in a piece, titled, Australian Defence Force losing more people than it is recruiting, detailing the continued deterioration of Australia’s defence capabilities.

Miranda established an important basis for understanding this predicament, stating, “More men and women are marching out of the Australian Defence Force (ADF) than targets to recruit, despite ‘critical’ need to swell the ranks to their biggest levels since the Vietnam War...

“On Wednesday it will be 12 months since the release of the Defence Strategic Review (DSR) that warned our defences were not fit for purpose as the nation faced its most challenging security outlook in 80 years. Just how we got here spans several governments, but never has the Defence establishment been more at loggerheads with the government over the strategic outlook than now.

“And that leaves Australia’s defence mired in delays, indecision and endless reviews,” Miranda explained.

Returning to the surface fleet review and expansion of the Royal Australian Navy’s surface fleet from the current 11 surface combatants to 26 as part of the broader rearmament and modernisation of the broader Australian Defence Force, we have to ask: Is the ADF we’re getting, as outlined in the DSR and SFR, enough?

This question is only more important when measured against the “Balanced Force” versus “Focused Force” debate that is now beginning to swirl in the aftermath of both the DSR and SFR and their respective findings.

‘Balanced Force’ v ‘Focused Force’

Arguably for Australia, the stakes have never been higher.

We confront the reality, that is the relative decline of main security benefactor in the United States, which continues to descend into domestic political chaos, coupled with mounting economic and financial concerns that continue to plague the country.

Meanwhile, rising great powers in the Indo-Pacific, namely China, continue to assert their own interests, ambitions, and designs in this new world. Equally important is the acceptance that our region isn’t solely defined by one great power, rather, we face a hotbed of geopolitical, religious, and ethnic competition, often based in historic grievances and animosities, each of which add an additional layer of complexity to Australia’s strategic and tactical planning.

Against this broader geostrategic backdrop, the question has to be asked, what is better placed to serve Australia’s tactical and strategic requirements in coming decades, a “Balanced Force” or a “Focused Force”? And what do these look like when accounting for the challenges?

In order to deliver this new “Focused Force”, the Albanese government embarked on additional reviews designed to supplement and ensure the delivery of the key findings of the Defence Strategic Review.

Army and Navy are at the epicentre of this structural realignment for the Australian Defence Force’s combat capabilities, meanwhile, the Air Force has seemingly been left in a state of limbo.

In fact, the Albanese government announced the major restructuring of the Australian Army in line with the findings of the Defence Strategic Review, delivering a number of major changes for the Army.

At the core of this decision is, as the government announced, “1st Brigade will be light, agile, and quick to deploy in the littoral environment. Third Brigade will be an armoured brigade designed for amphibious operations with the Royal Australian Navy in order to secure decisive terrain. Seventh Brigade will be motorised and optimised to project by air and sea to respond to regional contingencies.”

Minister for Defence Richard Males reinforced the importance of this, stating, “These changes to Army are about responding to the recommendations of the Defence Strategic Review to maintain peace, security, and prosperity in our region.

“This will mean Army has a concentration of people and capabilities in Australia’s north, making it easier to deploy for training, major exercises or to support our partners and allies in the region,” the Defence Minister explained.

Acting Chief of Army Major General Richard Vagg expanded on the minister’s comments, explaining, “This is about organising Army to train as we would fight and making the most of the resources we have been assigned.

“These changes will deliver world class, relevant, and credible combat capabilities that are focused and optimised for operating in the littoral environments of our region, on land, at sea, and in the air," MAJGEN Vagg added.

Shifting to the Navy, we now know the make-up of the surface fleet (at least in part, we’re still waiting to find out what the real plan is for the rest of the surface fleet, think amphibious, auxiliary, hydrographic and sealift ships).

Meanwhile, we have to remember that the government’s Defence Strategic Review also seems to leave Air Force “as is” with no planned, proposed or rumoured, for that matter, expansion to the nation’s air combat capability, and only a marginal expansion of the nation’s airlift capabilities.

So, if all of this combined to create a “Focused Force” as prescribed by the government, what exactly is it focused on? Because as it stands, this “Focused Force” looks more like a budget constabulary force seeking to masquerade as a credible middle power’s military.

It should be reinforced that statement is not an indictment on the men and women who serve in the Australian Defence Force, rather it is an indictment of our national apathy and laziness when it comes to really taking responsibility for our own national security.

Final thoughts

The rapidly deteriorating geopolitical and strategic environment that is transforming the global and regional security paradigm requires a realistic analysis and assessment by Australia’s policymakers.

Equally, while taking shortcuts to end up with 50 per cent of something, as opposed to 100 per cent of nothing, as proposed by the government is an admirable goal; however, ultimately, it will only prove more costly in the long run as we scramble to rapidly develop high-end warfighting capability.

Equally, both the Australian government and the Australian public have to accept and understand that we will need to dramatically increase spending in our national defence and do so over the long term, rather than short-term sugar hits or sleight of hand that push money out over the forward estimates and allow inflation to account for “increases” in spending, despite there being little-to-no new money in real terms.

Ultimately, all of this comes back to the government’s shift away from a “Balanced Force” towards “Focused Force” as championed in the Defence Strategic Review and the foundational problem that is our lack of clearly defined role and objectives for our own defence capabilities and the nation more broadly.

This reality equally fails to account for the planned increase in ADF personnel by 2040 and places ultimate hope in a series of as yet to be developed “wunderwaffe” or wonder weapons, like autonomous systems, cyber or tactical weapons like HIMARs and others that are being shoehorned into fulfilling strategic” roles to provide both “impactful projection” and deterrence against “any potential adversary”.

Importantly, no one has said that defending the nation in this era of renewed and increasingly capable great power competition will be cheap or easy and we have to accept that uncomfortable reality.

Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on Australia’s future role and position in the Indo-Pacific region and what you would like to see from Australia’s political leaders in terms of partisan and bipartisan agenda setting in the comments section below, or get in touch at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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