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‘Upgunned’ OPVs are still only constabulary vessels

ASPI defence economist Marcus Hellyer makes some valid points about enhancing the combat punch of the RAN’s future Arafura Class OPVs. However, it is important to remember that in an increasingly contested environment, they’re still only constabulary vessels, leaving our pursuit of “distributed lethality” lacking.

ASPI defence economist Marcus Hellyer makes some valid points about enhancing the combat punch of the RAN’s future Arafura Class OPVs. However, it is important to remember that in an increasingly contested environment, they’re still only constabulary vessels, leaving our pursuit of “distributed lethality” lacking.

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.  

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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. 

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The government's $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.

As the Royal Australian Navy is preparing 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.

Now, for the first time in the nation’s history, Australia’s prosperity, security and way of life are 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 this, ASPI defence economist Marcus Hellyer has doubled down on his efforts to advocate for the “upgunning” of the Navy’s future Arafura Class OPVs in his report: “From concentrated vulnerability to distributed lethality – or how to get more maritime bang for the buck with our offshore patrol vessels”. 

A key component within a network of ‘distributed lethality’ 

Hellyer’s calls for increased offensive and defence capabilities for the Arafura Class echo similar calls made by ASPI colleague Dr Malcolm Davis, who has suggested the Royal Australian Navy’s fleet of future offshore patrol vessels, the Arafura Class, should become host to a suite of new anti-ship and anti-submarine capabilities to counter the increasing proliferation of such capabilities throughout the Indo-Pacific. 

“Many other countries use that kind of ship as a warship. The original design had anti-ship missiles on them. We took them off. That’s a quick enhance­ment we could make to get a maritime strike capability,” Hellyer said. 

Hellyer’s comments echo the sentiment of Dr Davis, who issued a broader call to arms to restructure the Navy’s surface fleet, saying: “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.

“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.”

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 to undergo a rapid capability modernisation and expansion, combined with the precedence of mission creep, it will require increased offensive and defensive 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.

A range of OPV variants 

This well-identified mission creep raises the question, should the Arafura Class vessels be “upgunned” 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?

For Hellyer, he believes that the OPVs are well positioned to deliver the demands for increased combat capability for the Royal Australian Navy, stating: “At a time when the ADF needs more combat power, the OPV is well placed to deliver. Defence should be seeking to maximise its war-fighting potential.

“I’m not suggesting that each OPV should become a multi-role vessel or advocating turning it into a mini ‘Death Star’ by going down the path of wanting it to do everything.

“Defence has rigorously rejected scope creep in the OPV project and should be commended for doing do. That disciplined approach should continue. But the design’s inherent potential offers much more capability, and realising that potential can help address the challenges outlined above,” Hellyer states. 

For Hellyer, this includes a range of upgrades for the OPVs, including:

  • Incorporating active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar upgrades to be provided by Canberra-based CEA Technologies – drawing on the experience of the RAN’s Anzac Class program and Army’s LAND 19 Phase 7B.
  • Introducing a dedicated anti-surface warfare variant – Hellyer states: “Lürssen’s original reference design had four anti-ship missiles in two twin packs between the superstructure and funnel. Restoring and increasing them to two quad packs of anti-ship missiles would give the OPV as much anti-ship strike capability as the Brisbane Class destroyers for a fraction of the cost.” 
  • Introducing a dedicated anti-submarine variant  Hellyer states: “Equipping some OPVs with towed sonar arrays would deliver an immediate and substantial increase in the Navy’s ASW capability. Miniaturisation has enabled the development of small, containerised solutions that can be installed on small combatants.”
  • Introducing a dedicated anti-air warfare variant – Hellyer articulates the growing need, stating: “The main role of the air warfare variant would be to contribute to the defence of the team. The CEAFAR radar would be essential in this role. Another option to explore would be installing early-warning radars, passive radars or radar warning receivers on UAVs operated from the OPV’s flight deck.”
  • Replacing the Huon Class with a Mine-warfare variant – Hellyer added, “Under project SEA 1778, the Navy is already exploring the use of deployable MCM systems that can be used from vessels of opportunity rather than requiring dedicated minehunting ships... All OPV variants could also conduct offensive mine warfare by employing autonomous systems. For example, they could launch smart swimmer mines from well outside key choke points or areas of strategic interest, which can then glide into position and wait until activated or relocate as necessary.”

Hellyer expands on his concerns about the limited capacity of the Royal Australian Navy to meet his concerns regarding the firepower available across the fleet, saying, “Even before COVID-19 struck, the government indicated that its current defence force structure plan needed revision to meet our increasing strategic risk. It will need to acquire greater self-reliant capability sooner than the existing investment plan delivers.

“Despite the size of the government’s $200-billion defence investment program, that plan isn’t well placed to respond to either of those challenges.

“Core planks of the investment program are still several years away from starting construction, and some that are delivering now are sending most of their dollars offshore. Consequently, the current plan offers few opportunities for large stimulus spending.

“Moreover, with delivery of the three Hobart Class destroyers now complete, the plan won’t deliver any new combat vessels for a decade. Despite the growth of submarine numbers in our region, the plan doesn’t provide a new submarine until 2034.

“It doesn’t provide another surface combatant equipped with a towed sonar array until 2030. Despite China now outbuilding the US Navy in surface combatants, the plan doesn’t get any new missile-equipped ships to sea until 2030,” Hellyer states. 

Your thoughts 

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. 

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‘Upgunned’ OPVs are still only constabulary vessels
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