US-based Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) has released an analysis of the US Navy’s planned surface force structure, providing invaluable insights into the future direction, acquisition and planning of the Royal Australian Navy’s own surface combatants.
Naval power has always played a critical role in the way great powers interact – competitions to design the most powerful warships often characterising the great power competitions of the past.
The decades leading up to the outbreak of the First World War saw an unprecedented competition between the UK and German Empire, with much of the emphasis placed on Dreadnought battleships echoing a similar, albeit smaller, naval arms race gathering steam between the US and China.
Today, naval power remains one of the central pillars of any nation's strategic policy and the world's premier navy, the US Navy, is increasingly facing the very real limitations of US economic, industrial and political will at a precarious period in global history.
While the US President Donald Trump has been rather inconsistent on the subject, he remains committed to achieving a 355 ship fleet, capable of guaranteeing global maritime security, freedom of navigation and stability in the face of increased peer and near-peer competitors.
This push has seen many within the US Navy and within the US naval shipbuilding industry seek to balance shipbuilding and 'readiness' in a new era of state-based competition.
Indeed recently, Defense Secretary Mark Esper explained the importance of balancing readiness with force and platform modernisation, explaining to the Senate Armed Services Committee:
"This need to balance current readiness with modernisation is the department's central challenge and will require strong leadership, open and continuous dialogue with others, and the courage to make tough decisions."
Nevertheless, concerns from across political, service and academic spheres have raised increased concerns about the capacity of the US and indeed allied surface fleets to meet the mounting challenges of contemporary threat environments, particularly given the proliferation of advanced anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) weapons.
Most recently, the Washington-based Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) released an analysis of the concerns, titled Taking back the seas: transforming the US surface fleet for decision-centric warfare. Building on this, adjunct professor James Goldrick of the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre has entered the foray with insights for the future of the Royal Australian Navy's own surface fleet.
Increasing the surface fleet, its firepower and 'collective' lethality
While discussion about the size of the US Navy has been a contentious issue for some time – recent efforts to get the force to 355 ships has seen growing support, particularly as China continues to exert its own influence and presence throughout the Indo-Pacific.
However, this has given rise to growing concerns about the US Navy developing a 'hollow force', one that has a large fleet, with little to no manpower to support the tactical and strategic requirements of America's national security doctrines.
Explaining this further, acting Secretary of the US Navy Thomas Modly recently made comments identifying that while the Navy would require more money, it needs to provide a clear, 10-year plan for getting to the touted 355 ship fleet.
"The path to 355 is a challenging path because, frankly, it’s a mathematical issue. I mean, if you’re going to grow the force by 25 to 30 per cent, and we started at 275 [ships], you need to have a top line that matches that. We had a big bump [in funding] in the first year or two [of the Trump administration], but … we’re sort of flat going forward," acting Secretary Modly explained during an interview with American radio host Hugh Hewitt.
Expanding on this, Goldrick explains: "The US Navy therefore plans to increase both the number of surface platforms at sea and their collective lethality ... The conundrum is that sufficient numbers of missiles cannot be sent to sea in cruisers, destroyers or frigates because all these ships are too expensive to be produced in sufficient quantities to overcome their individual physical constraints of weapon capacity. Alternative weapon carriers therefore have to be provided — and they must be cheap."
Balancing unmanned and manned platforms
The growing advances in unmanned and semi-autonomous/autonomous surface vessels are emerging as key force multipliers for the US, allied and potential adversarial navies to balance the costs associated with fielding ever larger, more costly platforms.
"The most important suggestion of the CSBA study is to man the vessels while retaining the option to operate them unmanned, rather than the large unmanned surface vessels' (LUSV) optional manning of a vessel fundamentally intended for unmanned operations. There are two key advantages to having what the authors call a corvette (DDC)," Goldrick explained.
"First, in high-intensity conflict there are likely to be many situations in which the adaptability and flexibility of humans in the loop will still be important and perhaps critical. Second, as the study observes, there is more to force structure than combat."
Critically, the rising importance of larger hulls, capable of fielding larger numbers of advanced munitions for area-air, battle group defence and long-range, precision strike aboard unmanned vessels are a key component of this proposal.
"Many tasks in situations short of war could effectively be fulfilled by such substantial vessels — at 2,000 tonnes, both the LUSV and DDC are bigger than the Royal Australian Navy’s new offshore patrol vessels. Furthermore, the DDCs would be much more cost effective and appropriate in many presence and maritime security tasks than major surface combatants," Goldrick added.
Harking back to the 'arsenal ship' concept developed following the retirement of the US Navy's Second World War-era Iowa Class battleships, such larger platforms, combining manned and unmanned systems, provide an important means for supporting greater maritime presence, sea control and long-range, maritime deterrence.
This value proposition is something that Professor Goldrick proves an enticing option for smaller allied navies like the Royal Navy and the RAN, which he articulates: "Simple, multipurpose vessels which have the capacity to embark vertical launch tubes and the data links necessary to allow external initiation and guidance of the weapons onboard, but which are capable of deployment in many other scenarios, have obvious attractions for smaller navies like the RAN and the Royal Navy that are under pressure to expand."
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.