Australia’s Armidale Class patrol boats have steadily experienced mission creep throughout their operational life, therefore it is reasonable to assume that the succeeding Arafura Class will be required to play a variety of roles. As the Indo-Pacific becomes more contested they will begin to take on more high-intensity combat operations, which raises the question: should the OPVs be up-armed from the get-go?
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.
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.
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.
Mission creep has frequently revealed a number of Australia's platforms to be woefully inadequate for the operations the government expects of the respective services, with advances in technology and the '90s era concept of "fitted for but not with" further compounding operational issues – this mission creep is not unique to Australia, as allies like the US and UK have had to expand the offensive and defensive capabilities of platforms across their services.
Up-gunning the Arafura Class
From the get-go, the Royal Australian Navy's Arafura Class vessels have been designed to be significantly more capable then the Armidale Class vessels they replace – with a range of tactical and strategic advantages over their predecessors, including in the armament space. However, as the region continues undergo a rapid capability modernisation and expansion, combined with the precedence of mission creep, it will require increased offensive and defensive capabilities.
The US Navy has begun a program of 'up-arming' its own Independence and Freedom Class littoral combat ships to incorporate a range of advanced weapons systems, including long-range anti-ship missiles, namely the Kongsberg Naval Strike Missile and advanced Harpoon variants, upgraded armour, an upgraded main gun and as both classes have been presented as options for the FFG(X) program, a range of anti-submarine warfare capabilities.
Comparatively, Australia's Arafura Class will be relatively lightly armed, with a single 40mm main gun and two .50 calibre machine guns for close-in-defence, hardly adequate for a class of vessels expected to replace approximately 26 vessels across four warship classes currently in service with the Royal Australian Navy (including the Armidale, Huon, Leeuwin and Paluma Class vessels), while also providing additional support for deployed amphibious task groups centred on a Canberra Class landing helicopter dock (LHD), and the future Supply Class fleet auxiliaries are designed to operate either independently or as part of a larger task group.
This well identified mission creep raises the question, should the Arafura Class vessels be 'up-gunned' beginning with the first vessel, HMAS Arafura, to enable the vessels to better fulfil the expected escort, hydrographic, mine hunting, maritime border protection and constabulary operations already expected of the class vessels?
One area the Arafura Class vessels have a wealth of underdeveloped opportunity in is the role as a pseudo-mothership for small hunter-killer groups of relatively small, fast and inexpensive patrol boats. While there are few international examples of vessels that fit the role of a contemporary PT boat, with most contemporary peer or near-peer competitor navies focused on establishing solely 'high end' capabilities – however, Australia's unique operating environment, combined with the changing strategic environment, requires the joint development of a 'high' and 'low' capability mix of naval capabilities.
The Norwegian Navy's Skjold Class vessels provide a modest fleet of superfast, stealth 'missile corvettes' that weigh in at 274 tonnes fully loaded with a maximum speed of 60 knots (110km/h). The vessels incorporate a relatively potent arsenal for a vessel of their size, including eight Kongsberg Naval Strike Missiles and a 76mm mounted gun – would be ideal for supporting Australian 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.
Designed to hunt in packs, these highly capable vessels serve to mimic the wolf pack tactics of the German U-Boats, maximising the offensive capabilities of a force limited by domestic and broader international political realities. These platforms leverage their cost effective nature, combined with swarming tactics and the increasing capability and interoperability afforded by relatively cheap missile systems, to overwhelm the defences of multibillion-dollar warships and unarmed tankers.
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.