Australia’s capacity to control the maritime continent’s approaches is a critical component of securing the nation – an equally important yet often overlooked part of the equation is sustainably projecting long-range Australian presence throughout the Indo-Pacific using a range of “high-low” naval capabilities.
Australia’s Two Ocean policy, established in the late 1980s, marked a major shift in the naval force posture of the Royal Australian Navy as it shifted away from the last vestiges of power projection in the region toward continental defence in the sea-air gap. However, the rapidly evolving balance of regional power raises an important question about the validity of a three-decade-old policy.
The nation’s involvement in the Vietnam conflict at the behest of the US signalled a major shift in the direction of the nation’s strategic policy that continues to influence Australia’s doctrine to this day. Domestic political backlash and a changing geostrategic environment would see Australia adopt an arguably more isolationist policy, focusing almost entirely on the “Defence of Australia”.
While Australia’s alliance with the US further enhanced the nation’s position as an integral US ally, mounting domestic political dissatisfaction, the new Whitlam government and the mounting cost of Australia’s involvement in the conflict, combined with rapidly declining US support for the conflict, saw the nation’s post-Second World War strategic reality and doctrine begin to shift away from regional intervention and towards a policy favouring the defence of the Australian mainland and outlying territories.
This shifting domestic and regional environment saw the formalisation of the Defence of Australia (DoA) policy in the 1986 Dibb report and the subsequent 1987 and 1994 Defence White Papers, which established the sea-air gap as a strategic “buffer zone” for Australia.
Said buffer zone enabled the reorientation of Australia’s strategic and broader defence industry posture, shifting away from what Dibb identified: “Until the late 1960s, Australian defence planning and policy assumed that our forces would normally operate in conjunction with allies, and well forward of the continent. We saw our security inextricably linked with the security of others.”
The sea-air gap encompasses what has long been defined as Australia’s primary “sphere of primary strategic interests” – the narrow maritime sea lines of communication, vast areas of open ocean and air approaches to the north of the Australian landmass throughout south-east Asia that served as the nation’s strategic, economic and political links to the broader region, through what would eventually become known as the Indo-Pacific.
In the maritime domain, the introduction of the Two Ocean policy in 1987 initiated a period of unprecedented infrastructure and force structure recapitalisation and redeployment of the Royal Australian Navy – with the newly redeveloped Fleet Base West, HMAS Stirling, becoming the home of the Navy’s Collins Class submarines and an increasing number of surface warships.
Today, the Australian government has initiated the single largest investment in the nation’s naval capability since the Second World War, beginning with the Hobart and Canberra Classes, respectively, and now include the $35 billion Hunter Class guided missile frigates, the $50 billion Attack Class submarines, the multibillion Arafura Class offshore patrol vessel and Supply Class auxiliary fleet replenishment replacement programs.
Each of these programs is designed to fit neatly within the sacrosanct 2 per cent of GDP expenditure governments have held up as the standard of Australia’s defence expenditure and its commitment to maintaining the global order. However, the region for which both the DoA and Two Ocean policy was formed has changed, meaning that the acquisition and force structures the government’s signature naval shipbuilding and 2016 Defence White Paper inform will be woefully inadequate.
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Multiple areas of strategic gravity – balancing south-east Asia, the Pacific and Indian Ocean
The growing complexities of the geostrategic, economic and political competition sweeping throughout the Indo-Pacific has prompted the development of a number of competing centres of strategic gravity – each with individual tactical and strategic factors directly influencing the force structure and force posture to enable the Navy to adequately meet the objectives identified by government.
To the nation’s immediate north, the combination of narrow, relatively shallow strategic waterways and vast tracts of open ocean in the South China Sea requires a drastically different approach to developing force structure and capability development when compared to the forces required to operate in the vast, open ocean of the Indian Ocean or the coral atoll, temperate waters of the Pacific.
Further compounding the tactical and strategic challenges presented by these competing centres of strategic gravity is the need for a clearly defined role and objective for the Royal Australian Navy in the 21st century – directly challenging the effectiveness of the Cold War-era Two Ocean policy, necessitating a dramatically different response to developing force structure and force posture.
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.
Australia’s focus on the combined 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”.
This arc 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.
The case for a third LHD?
The lack of a third LHD has long been a sensitive topic in strategic policy circles – while analysts like Hugh White advocate for the scrapping of the existing vessels, others maintain their tactical and strategic relevance at a critical juncture in global and regional affairs.
Australia’s growing responsibilities in the Indo-Pacific necessitate further investment and recapitalisation in the strategic power projection and lift capabilities of each of the branches of the ADF, with the Canberra Class playing the main role in that of the Royal Australian Navy.
Australia’s East Timor intervention highlighted a number of significant limitations on Australia’s capacity to intervene in regional affairs – the introduction of the Defence of Australia (DoA) in the aftermath of the Vietnam conflict saw a sharp reduction in the nation’s strategic sea lift and power projection capabilities, resulting in the acquisition of the Canberra Class landing helicopter dock (LHD) ships and the eventual acquisition of the HMAS Choules from the Royal Navy’s Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA).
Building on this, the LHD platform serves as a known quantity for the ADF – with a proven platform design, operational doctrine, maintenance and sustainment support infrastructure, and services and crew development all in place and functioning to support Navy’s objectives and role within the broader “joint force” – further supporting this established quantity is the government’s recognition in the 2016 Defence White Paper for the need of a large-hulled vessel to support regional engagement, humanitarian, combat and presence building exercises.
While the government will acquire a new large-hulled multipurpose patrol vessel, the Australian Defence Vessel Ocean Protector, for the Navy to support border protection and maritime resource security-related tasks with the Australian Border Force – to be built at the Henderson Maritime Complex in Western Australia – the need for a common platform that is a known quantity and provides consistency of capability is essential.
Further compounding this issue is the need to begin planning a replacement for the HMAS Choules, which when combined with the two Canberra Class amphibious ships will provide scalable and flexible options for greater capacity sea lift and amphibious operations.
The government is expected to extend the life of HMAS Choules and update the capabilities onboard, including modern self-defence and aviation support systems, until it is replaced around 2030.
Medium aircraft carrier: Designed to complement and supplement super carriers
Developed in response to the doctrine established by famed Second World War Admiral and Cold War-era Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, the CVV concept was designed to be a smaller, cheaper aircraft carrier to complement the larger Nimitz Class aircraft carriers then in the early stages of operation and construction.
With a planned displacement of between 50,000-60,000 tons (comparable to the Royal Navy’s new Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carriers), length of 278 metres and a conventionally powered top speed of 27-29 knots and carrier air wing of between 55-65, compared with the 90 aircraft carried by the larger, nuclear powered Nimitz Class, the CVV would be capable of supporting a suite of conventional carrier fighter aircraft.
It was planned that the CVV concept would provide a complement and supplement to the larger nuclear-powered aircraft carriers with a scalable, adaptable and flexible carrier platform for forward deployment when a supercarrier would be considered too expensive a platform to place in harms way or was unavailable in event of tactical or strategic requirements during the Cold War.
While the election of the Reagan administration eventually put an end to the CVV concept during the late 1970s – recent cost increases in the Gerald R. Ford Class has prompted many within the US strategic establishment to propose a reinvention of the CVV concept, with late-senator McCain identifying the growing need for the US Navy to invest in smaller, more deployable and cheaper aircraft carriers in his white paper Restoring American Power.
“The Navy should also pursue a new ‘high-low mix’ in its aircraft carrier fleet... Traditional nuclear-powered supercarriers remain necessary to deter and defeat near-peer competitors, but other day-to-day missions, such as power projection, sea lane control, close air support, or counterterrorism, can be achieved with a smaller, lower cost, conventionally powered aircraft carrier,” McCain’s report posited.
Increasingly, multidomain air power plays an important role in the efficacy of naval forces and serves as a key component in both the force structure and capability development plans for Japan, South Korea and Australia.
These similarities support not only closer relationships between the two nations that share unique geopolitical and strategic similarities, but also provide the opportunity to develop robust force structures to respond to the rapidly evolving regional strategic environment.
The introduction of a dedicated aircraft carrier benefits Australian industry as well, through increased procurement programs for support and escort vessels, larger F-35 supply chain contributions and larger sustainment and maintenance contracts, which are key to keeping the Navy “battle ready and deployed”.
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.
A naval high-low mix?
The geostrategic 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 super fast, 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.
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.
The nation is defined by its relationship with the region, with access to the growing economies and to 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.
For Australia, a nation defined by this relationship with traditionally larger yet economically weaker regional neighbours, the growing economic prosperity of the region and corresponding arms build-up, combined with ancient and more recent enmities, competing geopolitical, economic and strategic interests, places the nation at the centre of the 21st century’s “great game”.
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.
In the next part of this multi-part series, Defence Connect will contribute to the ongoing debate around Australia’s force structure and long-term acquisition programs and paradigm shift from a “defence force” towards a true “armed force”, discussing potential force structures for theRoyal Australian Air Force with follow-on closer look at Special Operations Command, as its own branch of the ADF based on 150,000 personnel.