In recent weeks we have taken a closer look at how the shift towards the contested waterways of the Indo-Pacific, combined with advances in technology, provides the opportunity for developing a potent new form of sea control – while balancing the necessary development of Australia’s own naval force projection capabilities, creating some confusion about the capabilities.
Contemporary maritime warfare and key technologies are both evolving at a similar pace to that of other domains – the rise of unmanned technologies, advanced sensor suites, smart munitions combined with the increasing proliferation of cost-effective submarines, small surface warships including modern fast torpedo and missile attack boats, are serving as low-end balances for fleets of destroyers, frigates, large-deck amphibious warfare ships and aircraft carriers.
The Indo-Pacific presents a different geo-strategic environment to the Mediterranean and Atlantic – the importance of maritime choke points is enhancing the lethality of these platforms, giving rise to a new era of asymmetric naval warfare particularly in the Indo-Pacific where maritime choke points like the Straits of Malacca, Lombok and Sunda challenge traditional maritime protection doctrine.
Recently, Defence Connect has taken a closer look at both traditional force projection capabilities and asymmetric naval capabilities including the return of advanced, fast-attack torpedo and missile attack boats – both of which serve unique, yet complementary roles in modern tactical and strategic naval operations. These two topics have resulted in a wave of feedback.
The vast majority of the feedback received has fallen prey to the traditional mindset of Australian strategic thinking, the dichotomy of 'black' and 'white', failing to recognise the nuance needed for Australia to respond to the increasingly precarious position the nation finds itself in as a result of the relative decline and strategic schizophrenia exhibited by the US, combined with the rise of China and resurgence of nations like Russia in combination with the rise of regional great powers challenges the nation's now precarious position.
Shifting beyond this reductionist approach requires nuance, it also requires an acceptance that 'Pax Americana', or the post-Second World War 'American Peace', is over and Australia will require a uniquely Australian approach and recognition that the nation is now solely responsible for the enduring security of its national interests with key alliances serving a secondary, complementary role to the broader debate.
This nuanced approach and acceptance of Australia's precarious position mandates a layered, complex and self-reliant approach not exhibited in Australia before across traditional military capabilities, industrial and economic output and the development of a unique, Australian 'Grand Strategy' to support the development of Australia's self reliance.
Air combat capabilities of the last 50 years have been defined by the 'high'-'low' mix between specialised air supremacy platforms like the F-22, F-15 and the multi-role air combat capabilities of aircraft like the F-16, F-18, Eurofighter Typhoon and the F-35. Similarly, naval operations are defined by 'brown', 'green' and 'blue' water power capabilities.
'Green water' sea control and 'blue water' force projection
The geographic realities of the Indo-Pacific range from narrow maritime strategic choke points bound by archipelagos to vast swathes of open 'blue' water ocean, requiring a balance of capabilities to support both contemporary sea-control capabilities and naval force projection – with each serving niche, yet complementary roles in modern tactical and strategic engagements.
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Australia has long been identified as a 'green water' navy – with a rapidly developing force projection capability on the back of the HMAS Choules and the two Canberra Class landing helicopter docks supported by a modern fleet of destroyers, frigates and offshore patrol vessels – however, the very nature of Australia's operating environment means that the nation straddles the line between both a 'green water' and 'blue water' navy.
As a result of this confusing position, Australia's capabilities and growing responsibilities in the Indo-Pacific have placed the nation in a unique position, requiring a nuanced response to ensure that the complementary 'green' and 'blue' water capabilities fully support the implementation of Australia's maritime doctrine as both an independent and supporting actor in the increasingly contested 21st century.
A naval high-low mix?
The geo-strategic nature of the Indo-Pacific requires nuance. Balancing maritime asymmetric force multipliers and traditional naval force projection capabilities enables Australia to directly confront the increasing range of contingencies the Royal Australian Navy as part of the broader 'joint force' – with common communications, sensor suites and weapons systems all serving as potent force multipliers.
In particular, the advent of highly capable asymmetric force multiplying platforms like the Norwegian Navy's fleet of superfast, stealth 'missile corvettes' in the Skjold Class, which incorporates a potent arsenal for a vessel of their size, including eight Kongsberg Naval Strike Missiles and a 76mm mounted gun when operating in conjunction with a pseudo-mothership.
The future-Arafura Class offshore patrol vessels could serve as that pseudo-mothership for small hunter-killer groups of the Australian Skjold Class vessels to support Australia power projection and sea control operations, while also supporting and protecting larger naval assets like the Canberra Class in high intensity operations – effectively establishing a 'high' and 'low' capability mix for the RAN.
At the 'high' end of the naval capability mix is the increasing conversation about a return to Australian fixed-wing naval aviation capabilities and the continued development of Australia's own amphibious force projection capabilities, enabling Australia to reliably deploy Australian air, land and sea forces independently or as part of an allied task group.
Further supporting these 'high' end capabilities is the acquisition of advanced anti-submarine warfare frigates as part of the $35 billion SEA 5000 Hunter Class and the $50 billion SEA 1000 Attack Class submarine programs, which will support the interoperability and broader naval combat capability of the RAN when it operates either independently or in conjunction with allied nations.
Australia’s security and prosperity are directly influenced by the stability and prosperity of the Indo-Pacific, meaning Australia must be directly engaged as both a benefactor and leader in all matters related to strategic, economic and political security, serving as either a replacement or complementary force to the role played by the US – should the US commitment or capacity be limited.
The nation's response can no longer be an "all or nothing" approach – rather it requires nuance and understanding. In particular, it requires an understanding that Australia will be required to present a more conventional force projection capability, supported by a fleet of advanced, high-speed and adaptable asymmetric sea control capabilities – combining doctrine and technology to enhance the independent and interoperable tactical and strategic capabilities of the RAN.
Enhancing Australia's capacity to act as an independent power, incorporating great power-style strategic economic, diplomatic and military capability serves not only as a powerful symbol of Australia's sovereignty and evolving responsibilities in supporting and enhancing the security and prosperity of Indo-Pacific Asia – shifting the public discussion away from the default Australian position of "it is all a little too difficult, so let's not bother" will provide unprecedented economic, diplomatic, political and strategic opportunities for the nation.