As the Royal Australian Navy prepares for the arrival of the first Arafura and Hunter Class vessels in the early-to-mid 2020s, evolving regional and global dynamics are highlighting the need for a fleet of ocean going patrol frigates to ease the operational burden on both the OPV and frigates.
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.
Additionally, rising tensions in the Persian Gulf and the growing need for an allied presence to ensure the stability and security of the global energy supplies in the event of conflict between the US and Iran will require a greater presence from major nations, including Australia placing greater operational pressure on existing platforms like the Anzac Class frigates, Hobart and eventually Hunter Class vessels.
Back to the future – convoy escort
Convoy escort operations figured as prominent operations during the First and Second World Wars and served as a constant challenge for strategic and operational commanders and planners in the US, UK and France during the Cold War – as convoys of materiel, manpower and resources from North America would prove pivotal in countering any Soviet invasion of western Europe.
Fast forward to the 21st century and increasingly congested and contested global sea-lines-of-communication requires renewed focus on developing escort capabilities to support increasingly vulnerable commercial tankers and commercial shipping. This increasing vulnerability is driven largely by the proliferation of advanced anti-ship ballistic and cruise missiles, increasingly powerful conventional submarine fleets and the cost-effectiveness of small arms, asymmetric threats and aircraft all compound the challenging environment.
Furthermore, the rising cost of high-end weapons platforms like the Royal Australian Navy's Hobart and future Hunter Class vessels and the size limitations of the Arafura Class vessels and similar international contemporaries equates to a number of challenges, namely the overkill deploying a multibillion-dollar warship to conduct a constabulary operation and the glaring capability gap between 'high' and 'low' end capabilities.
Recognising these challenges, both the US and British Royal Navy have initiated the development and acquisition of multi-role patrol frigates to free up 'high' end capabilities like the Arleigh Burke, Type 45 and Type 26 Class vessels to support power projection, high-value task group escort and missile defence roles – while platforms like the Littoral Combat Ships, to be complemented by the FFG(X) program and the British Type 31 program are designed to support 'high' and 'low' intensity operations.
These vessels are designed to operate in contested environments – countering air, missile and submarine threats in a manner, beyond the limited capabilities of offshore patrol vessels like the Arafura, the British River and US Coast Guard's National Security Cutter Class vessels. The utility of patrol frigates goes beyond the basis of convoy escort operations – an extents to supporting operations and personnel development.
Supporting Australia's naval shipbuilding capacity
Furthermore, the acquisition of such platforms further supports the development of a local shipbuilding capability. Contemporary naval shipbuilding expands beyond the traditional manufacturing side of the process and requires extensive and costly research and development processes throughout the concept development and life of the platforms to enhance capability and sustainability over the life of service – something often overlooked in existing policy.
Accordingly, supporting Australia's domestic ability to design warships, designed by both government and the private sector, with a focus on providing through-life support for both domestic and export customers in a manner similar to the model implemented by BAE Systems through the $35 billion Hunter Class program is an existing model of success for Australian industry and government to use as a reference point for developing future policy.
Further supporting this is the requirement to begin developing and implementing a National Strategic Industry Act to support the development of the nation's naval shipbuilding industry and broader reindustrialisation of the Australian economy using defence industry as a best-of-practice model to draw examples from.
Supporting the development of Australia's naval shipbuilding industry also requires the legislative power of government to counter-balance industry development policies of allied, yet still competitor nations like South Korea – which leverages the industrial development policies of export oriented industrialisation (EOI) to develop its economy into a major economic and modern, advanced manufacturing powerhouse.
Korea's industry development is driven by a range of government incentives for industry, including corporate tax incentives, employment incentives and payroll tax incentives. As a result, in order to develop Australia's own naval shipbuilding industry, similar innovative and adaptive policy making is essential to developing a competitive domestic naval shipbuilding industry.
Diversifying Australia's naval shipbuilding capabilities beyond focusing on Australia's own shipbuilding requirements is a necessity should the broader naval shipbuilding plan be successful – targeting growing export demands in the region and Middle East, combined with international industry collaboration and partnerships, is central to this.
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.