ASPI senior analyst Malcolm Davis has issued a call for the Royal Australian Navy and Defence bureaucracy to meet the changing technological and regional realities of the Indo-Pacific by expanding the size of the surface fleet with Corvette-sized vessels, leveraging numbers and unmanned/autonomous systems.
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 the limited numbers and availability of both the OPV and frigates.
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.
Recognising the limitations of Australia's concentrated development of 'high-end' naval warfighting capabilities in platforms such as the Hobart Class guided missile destroyers and the Hunter Class guided missile frigates, Dr Malcolm Davis of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) has issued a call to arms to restructure the Navy's surface fleet.
"It’s time for the Royal Australian Navy to break out of a 20th century force design mindset and embrace the robotic revolution at sea," Davis states.
"As part of the debate surrounding the Pacific 2019 and Sea Power conferences, I argued that even with the recapitalisation now underway, the Navy would remain seriously undergunned to deal with possible scenarios emerging in our region."
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Developing distributed surface lethality
A key capability focus for Dr Davis is addressing the concentration of capability into a small cluster of platforms and the efficacy of such platforms in a range of tactical and strategic scenarios.
"The problem we face is too few missiles on too few (very complex and expensive) hulls," Dr Davis said explaining the limitations of the Anzac Class frigates, the small number of Hobart Class vessels and their relatively small payloads.
In response, Dr Davis called for an expansion in the size of the Royal Australian Navy's surface fleet, with a focus on establishing what amounts to a 'high-low' surface combatant capability – combining a fleet of advanced, flexible, small and comparatively cheap surface combatants with the larger 'high-end' surface combatants.
"If Beijing increases that pressure, Australia should increase the size of its navy beyond the plan laid out in the 2016 integrated investment program. Rather than reducing the number of Hunter Class frigates to fund other platforms, we should develop a new, mid-level capability by acquiring larger numbers of advanced, but off-the-shelf, small surface combatants."
Developing such a capability, based-on what Dr Davis uses as an example, the Swedish Saab Visby Class corvettes, is a sound, logical conclusion to make, with the potential for follow on benefits for Australia's naval shipbuilding industry – should companies like Henderson-based Austal be involved.
Furthermore, such a development would enable the large, high-end platforms to focus on 'high-end' warfighting responsibilities, while offensively optimised Corvette-sized vessels fill a niche, yet flexible role drawing on technological advances in unmanned aerial and undersea systems to expand Australia's distributed lethality capacity in the Indo-Pacific.
Responding to China's increasing assertiveness
Dr Davis expands on the challenge posed by these issues in the face of mounting Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea, the Indian Ocean and in Australia's backyard, the south-west Pacific.
"But we face a very different emerging reality. The rapidly growing PLA Navy is overtaking the US Navy in ship numbers, and is steadily eroding the US’s qualitative lead while expanding China’s ability to project power into our maritime approaches. China has reportedly negotiated access to Cambodia’s Ream naval base, and its de-facto control of the South China Sea expands its ability to operate further south, notably with aircraft carriers in its South Sea Fleet," he said.
"A recent standoff between China and Indonesia over the Natuna Islands is a worrying sign that China won’t limit its maritime claims. China’s expanding presence in the south-west Pacific is ringing alarm bells in Canberra because it raises the prospect of a future military staging post within striking distance of Australia’s east coast."
Building on this, Dr Davis calls for an enhanced Australian military presence at strategically vital offshore territories like the Cocos (Keeling) Islands in the Indian Ocean and the yet-to-be developed Manus Island facility, which would give Australia rapid access to the Pacific Ocean in the event of myriad contingencies.
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.
Meanwhile, 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. This has been largely done without a guiding policy, doctrine or strategy, limiting the overall effectiveness, survivability and capability of the RAN – should the capability of our primary security benefactors become impaired or cease to exist in the era of renewed great power competition.