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First responders, escorts and missile defenders: Surface action groups

While carriers and amphibious expeditionary groups are the most prominent naval task groups – surface action groups provide valuable, flexible force structures for contemporary navies, drawing on the specialisation and increasing capabilities of contemporary surface combatants.

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. 

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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.

This renewed focus on the Indo-Pacific makes a great deal of sense, particularly given the position of key regional and global economic and strategic partners across the region. However, this strategic reorientation and the dominance of the maritime environment is not without its challenges, as both traditional state and emerging asymmetric threats evolve to challenge the enduring economic, political and strategic stability of both the region and Australia. 

The Royal Australian Navy has emerged as one of the major beneficiaries of the nation's largest peace time military recapitalisation and modernisation program – the $90 billion Naval Shipbuilding program has focused on enhancing and future proofing the capability of both the surface and submarine fleets during a period of rapid modernisation and expansion of regional navies and, more broadly, advanced weapons systems. 

Recognising these emerging challenges and the growing responsibilities Australia will come to bear the surface combatants of the RAN will become increasingly important factors of the broader regional security order. However, force structures and concepts of operations (CONOPS) will become increasingly important force multipliers for the Australian Navy. 

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Major platform recapitalisation and positioning 

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 RAN 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 vessels 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 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. 

Surface action groups enhancing sea control, missile defence and escort capabilities

Surface action groups (SAG) emerged following the Second World War's shift from major capital ships like the battleship to the aircraft carrier as the basis of modern naval power projection and sea control while carrier strike groups (CSG) and their cousin, amphibious expeditionary strike groups (ESG), serve niche roles within broader naval and amphibious power projection operations, SAGs serve distinctly different roles.   

However, unlike the CSG and ESG counterparts, surface action groups fill a number of niche roles primarily focused on fire support, area air defence, sea control and maritime interdiction and escort roles, each of which combine a range of platforms to support the required mission objectives. SAGs also provide a bespoke force package, capable of rapidly responding to a range of contingencies. 

The shift away from traditional battleships to powerful guided missile cruisers, destroyers and frigates in recent decades particularly by middle powers like Australia provide Australian decision makers with powerful force multipliers and critical components as part of a broader, distributed 'joint force' critical to developing a robust force capable of a range of CONOPS, including: 

  • Traditional sea control operations; 
  • Forward deployed area-air and ballistic missile defence; 
  • Anti-submarine patrol and escort;
  • Counter-piracy operations; and
  • Long-range fire support and strike operations.  

Fulfilling these roles can be supported by a relatively small number of basic force structure models using platforms like both the Hobart and Hunter Class vessels as the respective 'flagship' of the detachment – with a forward deployed area-air and ballistic missile defence SAG using a combination of the vessels, while a counter-piracy and low-intensity sea control SAG could use a Hunter Class frigate as the 'flagship' supported by a small detachment of Arafura Class OPVs. 

Additionally, Australia's ageing, yet still highly capable fleet of Anzac Class guided missile frigates can be called on to lead, or in some cases form anti-submarine patrol and more broadly, escort SAGs, freeing up the more capable Hobart and Hunter Class vessels to support high-intensity operations and roles with larger Australian and allied task groups. 

Supporting the new regional paradigm 

However, the question now becomes, given the geographic area of responsibility Australia will become increasingly responsible for and dependent on, is the RAN and the recapitalisation and modernisation programs currently underway enough for Australia to maintain its qualitative and quantitative lead over regional peers? 

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.

Traditionally, Australia has focused on a platform-for-platform acquisition program – focused on replacing, modernising or upgrading key capabilities on a like-for-like basis without a guiding policy, doctrine or strategy, limiting the overall effectiveness, survivability and capability of the RAN. Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below, or get in touch with This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

First responders, escorts and missile defenders: Surface action groups
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