Opinion: The Defence Strategic Review team has delivered their report and the Australian government has published their response. What remains is mostly implementation planning and resourcing except in the vital area of naval surface ships and capabilities, subject to a further review reporting in September this year, writes former naval officer and defence industry analyst Christopher Skinner.
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Coincidentally, the Australian National Audit Office has delivered its report on the SEA 5000 Hunter Frigate program of nine ships to be built in Adelaide by BAE Systems, which company is also the prime contractor for the joint SSN AUKUS nuclear submarine program for both the UK and Australia.
Let us first consider the environment in which Australia’s maritime trade and travel take place. Located at the junction of three great oceans through two of which much of the world’s trade shipping travels carrying bulk and containerised cargoes that underpin the global economy. Interruption of that trade shipping would be a global economic and geopolitical crisis of similar proportions to that caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The DSR report and its predecessors in 2020 and earlier have all noted the need to protect so-called sea lines of communication [SLOC] that are the collective international connectivity for the trade shipping, and also for strategic goods such as military material, supplies and consumable items such as ammunition and fuel for vehicles and platforms.
Relating this to naval surface combatants (ships and their accompanying aircraft and uncrewed vehicles) there are three overriding criteria to be met:
- Effectiveness – to achieve the mission set for that asset.
- Survivability – to continue to deliver the intended effects in spite of threats and unexpected environmental changes.
- Sustainability – to be capable of replenishment, maintenance and adaptation for the intended life so as to achieve acceptable cost of ownership.
The mission is the capability to provide effective defence and proactive offence as needed for joint task forces and for civil installations and shipping that are important for national security in littoral and oceanic locations. This requires intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) over the areas in which this mission is to be performed and then the necessary maritime assets to respond to best effect, making readiness and location also important.
Ships and aircraft are generally visible to space and other surveillance and therefore lack the stealth that submarines rely upon. However, ships can be disguised as other craft of less interest or made less conspicuous by inclusion in larger formations. Nevertheless, it is reasonable to assume that the location and identity of ships is more likely to be known to an observer than not. This makes the targeting of anti-ship missiles a feasible task and conversely the essential capability for anti-ship missile defence (ASMD) a vital part of all naval ships.
Then if a ship does sustain damage from a missile hit or other incident, the survivability must be enhanced by attention to damage control, typically described as NBCD (nuclear, bacteriological and chemical warfare and damage control). Naval architecture has many decades of experience in such design for air and spaceborne weapon hits, but less so for the more profound damage from a heavyweight torpedo exploded several metres below the ship’s keel. Hence, anti-submarine warfare is still a paramount issue even in the era of hypersonic cruise missile.
The warship rule of thumb is float, move, fight. Sustainability is about the move part of that trio, and that means cost-effective and maintainable propulsion and ship control including the necessary auxiliary facilities to support crewed and uncrewed aircraft and other vehicles based on that ship platform.
A major challenge confronting naval surface force development is climate change and the ensuing cessation of fossil fuels. Civil shipping is moving to propulsion employing hydrogen or ammonia as a more convenient source of hydrogen, and naval ships will need to follow suit as carbon-based fuels become scarce. Another obvious but expensive option is to employ nuclear propulsion as the US Navy does in its aircraft carriers.
So, the Naval Surface Force Review Team has only a few months to consider these fundamental points within a time pressure of the current Anzac frigates now requiring a nine-year life extension (similar to that for the Collins Class submarines) and further delays in the Hunter Class frigate program.
What should also be noted from all of this is that the rate of change of naval technology is just as rapid as in all other fields, and similarly in geopolitical challenges, and the only thing that doesn’t change are the geographic relationships between nation states and shipping terminals.
The most important lesson that must be addressed is that in both submarine and frigate programs, there were unacceptable delays in force structure analysis and decision making that must never be permitted in the future. Australia can only be regarded as a sovereign nation making an effective contribution to regional security and rules-based international intercourse, provided we get our own house in order by thinking ahead into the possible needs of an uncertain future and investing the necessary analysis and resources to define an incremental way ahead that is responsive to the inevitable changes that will occur. This by conceiving a long-term planning direction but with incremental execution of that plan.