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 peacetime 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.
Further complicating the tactical and strategic equation, China continues to expand its web of integrated anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) systems in the South China Sea and the US has sought to adapt to the changing tactical and strategic environment, resulting in the development and introduction of a range of disparate long-range precision strike weapons, multi-domain tactics and distributed lethality networks.
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?
The US Navy's distributed lethality network
Most recently the US Navy has moved to enhance the offensive capability of the Independence Class Littoral Combat Ships (LCS), designed by Australian company, Austal by incorporating the joint Raytheon-Kongsberg-designed Naval Strike Missile (NSM) to provide an enhanced, long-range naval strike capability.
The launch of an NSM from the Littoral Combat Ship USS Gabrielle Giffords at the decommissioned frigate USS Ford off the coast of Guam marked the first time the NSM has been tested in a live-fire scenario in the Pacific.
This test firing was not a solely navy dominated affair, with the US Navy working with the B-52s from the US Air Force's Expeditionary 69th Bomb Squadron and other multi-national forces to demonstrate the power of an integrated yet distributed, multi-domain kill-chain incorporating a disparate web of platforms and systems into a cohesive battlespace sensor/shooter solution.
As part of the test, the bombers dropped ordnance and were supported by missiles launched from maritime patrol aircraft, and surface-to-surface Harpoon missiles fired from two of Singapore’s frigates, the RSS Formidable and RSS Intrepid, according to a US Navy media release.
Combining operations on sea, air, land, space and cyber space is the central concept of the Army-Air Force concept of Multi-Domain Operations, which the Navy and Marines aren’t yet fully on board with.
Recognising the power presented by the up-gunned LCS, US Navy Rear Admiral Joey Tynch, commander, Logistics Group Western Pacific, said, "LCS packs a punch and gives potential adversaries another reason to stay awake at night. We are stronger when we sail together with our friends and partners, and LCS is an important addition to the lineup."
Looking to Australia, the combination of increasing Chinese capacity in the region, combined with 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 of 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 and extends to supporting operations and personnel development.
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.