As a maritime nation Australia is dependent on unlimited access to the ocean – as the regional paradigm changes, placing greater strain on the Navy to protect the national interests, is the Navy large enough to execute the mission in a radically evolving geo-political and strategic order?
Indo-Pacific Asia’s evolving power paradigm is changing the way Australia views itself and its position in this changing world. The need for both continental and forward defence highlights the necessity for the nation to balance the strengths and weaknesses of Australia’s historic doctrines to form the basis of a reinvigorated Australian presence in the Indo-Pacific.
In 1890, American naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan in his work The Influence of Sea Power Upon History outlined that "whether they will or not, Americans must now begin to look outward. The growing production of the country demands it", establishing the basis of America's foreign and strategic policy well into the 21st century despite periods of isolation.
Now, for the first time in the nation's history, Australia's prosperity, security and way of life is intrinsically linked to the ambition, stability and direction of its Indo-Pacific neighbours. Guaranteeing this requires the nation to find a balance between the expeditionary and interventionist focused 'Forward Defence' and the continental defence focused 'Defence of Australia' doctrines to counter the high and low intensity threats to the nation's security and interests.
Australia's focus on the Indo-Pacific region makes a great deal of sense, particularly given the positioning of key regional economic and strategic partners across what has been referred to as the 'Arc of Instability', which plays host to a range of traditional state and asymmetric economic and political challenges, however the growth of China and India and smaller nations surrounding them, combined with the importance of the Indo-Pacific as a pillar of the national, regional and global economy, now requires renewed Australian focus.
However, the question now becomes, given the geographic area of responsibility Australia will become increasingly responsible for and dependent on, is the Royal Australian Navy and the recapitalisation and modernisation programs currently underway enough for Australia to maintain its qualitative and quantitative lead over regional peers?
Major platform recapitalisation
As part of the largest military rearmament program since the Second World War, Australia's $90 billion Naval Shipbuilding program is focused on recapitalising and modernising both Australia's surface and submarine fleets at a time of rapid modernisation and expansion by regional navies.
The $35 billion SEA 5000 Hunter Class future frigate program builds on the Hobart Class guided missile destroyer program, providing a fleet of leading-edge, anti-submarine and multi-purpose guided missile frigates to replace the rapidly ageing and overworked 1990s-era Anzac Class frigates, which have served as the backbone of Australia's surface fleet.
The nine Hunter Class frigates will be based on the BAE Systems Type 26 Global Combat Ship currently under construction for the Royal Navy and will replace the eight Anzac Class frigates when they enter service beginning in the late 2020s. Hunter is billed as an anti-submarine warfare (ASW) centric vessel delivering an advanced ASW capability to the Royal Australian Navy at a time when 50 per cent of the world’s submarines will be operating in the Indo-Pacific region.
Australia's ageing fleet of Collins Class submarines have been the focus of much contention – with both the government and opposition adding further fuel to the debate around platform suitability, delivery time frame and the viability of the $50 billion SEA 1000 Attack Class future submarine program.
The 12 Attack Class are expected to deliver a quantum leap in the capability delivered to the RAN and its submarine service by leveraging technology and capabilities developed for nuclear submarines, implemented on a conventional submarine.
The end of 2018 set the pace for 2019, with the official sod turning at the Future Submarine Construction Yard in Adelaide heralding the beginning of the next stage for the $50 billion program. 2019 has kicked the tempo into high gear as both the government and industry have hit the ground running with a cluster of major program milestones, including: the signing of the Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA) between the Commonwealth and prime contractor Naval Group, the signing of the Framework Agreement between Naval Group and ASC, and the successful completion of the Submarine Design Contract.
The third major naval recapitalisation program, SEA 1180 Phase 1, will deliver a fleet of 12 new Arafura Class offshore patrol vessels (OPV) to replace and enhance the capability delivered by the 13 Armidale Class Patrol Boats – these OPVs will undertake constabulary missions and the OPV will be the primary ADF asset for maritime patrol and response duties.
Should we increase the naval shipbuilding tempo and order?
It is no secret that Australia's naval shipbuilding and submarine building capabilities are starting from a relatively low base – while the government has sought to rectify this through the $95 billion Naval Shipbuilding Plan and the Sovereign Industry Capability plans, the changing tactical and strategic reality of the Indo-Pacific ranging from asymmetric threats to high-intensity, peer-level technologies is raising a key question: Are the current recapitalisation plans enough?
The rapidly developing qualitative and quantitative capabilities of regional surface warship and submarine fleets, namely by Russia and China – combined with the increasing proliferation of surface vessels and submarines designed and built by the aforementioned nations by emerging peer competitors – serves to stretch the tactical and strategic capabilities of the RAN.
Additionally, the increasing proliferation of advanced anti-ship ballistic and anti-ship cruise missiles, combined with the growing prominence of naval aviation – again led by China, but also pursued by Japan and India – is serving to raise questions about the size and the specialised area-air defence, ballistic missile defence, power projection and sea control capabilities of the RAN.
Australia is defined by its relationship and access to the ocean, with strategic sea-lines-of-communication supporting over 90 per cent of global trade, a result of the cost effective and reliable nature of sea transport. Indo-Pacific Asia is at the epicentre of the global maritime trade, with about US$5 trillion worth of trade flowing through the South China Sea and the strategic waterways and choke points of south-east Asia annually.
The Indian Ocean and its critical global sea-lines-of-communication are responsible for more than 80 per cent of the world's seaborne trade in critical energy supplies, namely oil and natural gas, which serve as the lifeblood of any advanced economy.