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What can we expect from the upcoming naval surface fleet review?

With the Australian Navy’s surface fleet review front and centre for many in the Defence policy community, what can we expect, and better yet, what should we expect from the largest, single review into the structure of Australia’s future naval surface fleet?

With the Australian Navy’s surface fleet review front and centre for many in the Defence policy community, what can we expect, and better yet, what should we expect from the largest, single review into the structure of Australia’s future naval surface fleet?

As an island nation, Australia’s sovereignty, security, and economic prosperity is intrinsically linked to the stability of our maritime surrounds and the nation’s uncontested and unmolested access to the global maritime commons.

This reality is critically important in the light of mounting regional and global naval build ups, serving as the driving force behind the nation’s transformative pursuit of the trilateral AUKUS agreement delivering the nation’s nuclear-powered submarine fleet as the centrepiece of Australia’s strategic deterrence capabilities.

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Recognising the centrality of maritime security and stability, the government’s Defence Strategic Review (DSR) reinforced the renewed importance of the nation’s maritime security, with the Royal Australian Navy requiring an immense and comprehensive restructuring to optimise the fleet for the future tactical and strategic challenges we face throughout the Indo-Pacific.

Highlighting this, the DSR explains, “Australia’s Navy must be optimised for operating Australia’s immediate region and for the security of our sea lines of communication and maritime trade.”

To deliver this, the DSR has emphasised a three-pronged approach, renewing and reinforcing the nation’s commitment to the AUKUS trilateral agreement and the nation’s pathway to delivering the SSN-AUKUS, nuclear-powered submarines and what is described as the fundamental realignment and restructuring of the surface combatant fleet, best explained: “An enhanced lethality surface combatant fleet, that complements a conventionally armed, nuclear-powered submarine fleet, is now essential given our changed strategic circumstances.”

This major step change in the thinking of Navy’s mission profile, responsibilities, and implications for force structure has been further influenced by the government’s plans to field two distinct tiers that are capable of “enhancing Navy’s capability in long-range strike (maritime and land), air defence, and anti-submarine warfare requires the acquisition of a contemporary optimal mix of Tier 1 and Tier 2 surface combatants, consistent with a strategy of a larger number of small surface vessels”.

However, in order to deliver this desired outcome, the government has initiated yet another “short, sharp” review into the size, composition, and nature of Australia’s future surface fleet force structure and the way in which it complements the nation’s future nuclear-powered submarine fleet.

To this end, the DSR announced that government’s review into the constitution of the Navy’s surface fleet, would emphasise: “We have recommended that the government directs an independent analysis of Navy’s surface combatant fleet capability to ensure the fleet’s size, structure, and composition complement the capabilities provided by the forthcoming conventionally armed, nuclear-powered submarines. The analysis must assess the capability requirements to meet our current strategic circumstances as outlined in this review. This should include assessment of cost, schedule, risk, and the continuous shipbuilding potential of each option. This examination should be completed by the end of Q3 2023.”

There can be no doubt that the planned introduction of the SSN-AUKUS fleet will require a fundamental rethinking of the nation’s naval capabilities, across the spectrum of crewed and uncrewed platforms and other capabilities as they relate to the broader operational concepts and tactical and strategic priorities identified by the government, but what can we expect and what should our future fleet look like?

Major surface combatants v a dispersed fleet

For much of its history, the Royal Australian Navy has been dominated by an emphasis on the balance between major surface combatants and minor surface combatants, with each of the tiers designed to fulfil specific roles and mission sets within the broader operational framework of the fleet.

Whether it was the aircraft carriers, HMAS Sydney and Melbourne, through to our large deck amphibious warfare ships HMAS Canberra and Adelaide or our fleet of Hobart Class destroyers or the Huon Class minehunters, the fleet has been optimised to serve as a cog within a much larger structure, whether a US Navy carrier strike group or a broader allied task force operating in the Indo-Pacific.

This tendency towards “specialisation” has only been further reinforced by the government’s focus on a “focused force” over the “balanced force” concept that has dominated Australia’s strategic planning since the 1986 Defence White Paper has only served to highlight the fractures within Australia’s defence and national security community as the debates between cancelling major naval programs, cutting them back or shifting towards small, corvettes rage on.

Many commentators have sought to highlight the suitability of platforms like an up-gunned variant of the Arafura Class or Navantia’s Avante Class corvettes with their comparatively smaller operational ranges as viable solutions to adding much needed bulk to the Navys surface fleet at the cost of larger, more costly vessels like the Hunter Class frigates.

While both of these solutions present vessels designed for long-range patrol in an offshore patrol environment, not for delivering high-end warfighting capabilities to the Navy, raising a particularly important question, namely, if we were to pursue one of those options, are we actually delivering “real” capability to the Navy?

BAE Systems Australia has presented a solution to Navy, providing a modified version of the Hunter Class, reconfigured to serve in an air warfare destroyer role to complement the existing Hobart Class, while maintaining the original nine ship build as planned.

Competing with this plan, Navantia Australia has pitched an additional three Hobart Class destroyers to be built either in Australia, Spain or a hybrid build plan to add much needed additional missile cells to the fleet.

Yet, much of the conversation and debate heavily emphasises the role and “fit” of corvettes for Australia’s tactical and strategic requirements, with limited range and striking capacity when compared to larger surface combatants, relying instead on a mass of numbers over the distinct capability of the individual platform.

This approach only serves to exacerbate the already glaring lack of missile capability and capacity within the Royal Australian Navy surface fleet, something highlighted by Vice Admiral (Ret’d) and former Chief of Navy David Shackleton, who said: “By 2006, when the RAN’s final Anzac frigate, HMAS Perth, was commissioned, the class had 64 cells, but the ESSMs they contained were to be used for self-defence. In the interim, two of six older Perry Class ships were decommissioned to provide funds to upgrade the remaining four, including adding eight VLS cells. That gave each ship 48 cells, and an improved capability with the longer-range SM-2. After modernisation, the Perry Class went from six ships to four, but the total number of cells went from 240 to 192.”

So, does Navy require a balanced force structure of overlapping and complementary capabilities across the surface fleet or will we be better served by hyper-specialising in the maritime warfare environment?

Final thoughts

There is no doubt that Australia’s position and responsibilities in the Indo-Pacific region will depend on the nation’s ability to sustain itself economically, strategically, and politically in the face of rising regional and global competition, particularly throughout the maritime commons.

Importantly, if Australia is going to truly respond to the challenges and opportunities presented by the global shift in the balance and centre of economic, political, and strategic power to our immediate region, we, as a nation, need to collectively take responsibility for our own future.

This is reinforced by a growing realisation that both the United States and allies like Australia will need to get the balance of its military and national capabilities just right, not just to support the US as part of a larger joint task force, but to ensure that the Australian Defence Force can continue to operate independently and complete its core mission reliably and responsively.

Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on Australia’s future role and position in the Indo-Pacific region and what you would like to see from Australia’s political leaders in terms of partisan and bipartisan agenda setting in the comments section below, or get in touch This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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