With the growing debate about the future constitution of the Navy’s surface fleet and speculation about major modernisation programs like the Hunter Class frigates gather pace, is it time to look at establishing a dedicated “militarised” Coast Guard to ease the burden on Navy and deliver better maritime security outcomes?
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As the largest island continent on the planet with a maritime jurisdiction of in excess of 8 million square kilometres, Australia, as a nation and a people, is defined by its relationship with the ocean. Beyond the social and cultural aspects, our relationship with the ocean and our maritime approaches has ranged from angst and anxiety through to hostility as a result of our “tyranny of distance”.
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.
Unpacking this further, the DSR emphasises a three-pronged approach to modernising and expanding the nation’s maritime combat capabilities, including 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: “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 have 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”.
In order to deliver this desired outcome, the Albanese government has initiated yet another “short, sharp” review into the size with an emphasis on larger numbers of smaller vessels along with the composition and nature of Australia’s future surface fleet force structure in the context of complementing the nation’s future nuclear-powered submarine fleet.
This seemingly indicates an expansion of the Royal Australian Navy’s surface fleet, bulking the fleet out with smaller, “Tier 2”, corvette style vessels to provide a continuous, regional presence, with vessels that aren’t as focused on high-intensity conflict, but still capable of adding something to any prospective fight, while being complemented by larger, more complex “Tier 1” vessels, similar to the Hobart Class and Hunter Class, respectively – adding to this, the DSR states: “This would significantly increase Navy’s capability through a greater number of lethal vessels with enhanced long-range strike (maritime and land) and air defence capabilities, together with the ability to provide presence in our northern maritime approaches.”
At the centre of the government’s review into the surface fleet is the aforementioned emphasis on Tier 1 and Tier 2 surface combatants which has stimulated intense debate over what constitutes a Tier 1 and Tier 2 surface combatant respectively, particularly igniting a debate over the relevance and suitability of corvettes for Australian surface in place of the Arafura Class offshore patrol vessels (OPV) at the cost of an as yet undefined number of maligned Hunter Class guided-missile frigates.
Yet there does appear to be a very large, very distinct elephant in the room, that is that the three priorities, the security of Australia’s vast maritime jurisdictions, coupled with our responsibilities in the “immediate region”, and finally the security of our sea lines of communication and maritime trade all require VASTLY different solutions.
The corvette debate
Sadly, we’re not going to end up with a fleet of sweet new Corvette Stingrays (sorry to burst people’s bubbles, my own included) but the debate surrounding corvettes in the Australian context is important to understand, with two distinct camps arguing for and against the respective platform-type for Australian service.
In the pros column is Professor Peter Dean from the Sydney University-based US Studies Centre who argues, “to meet the Defence Strategic Review’s requirement for an enhanced-lethality surface fleet, minimally armed offshore patrol vessels and patrol boats won’t cut it. Instead, Defence should consider replacing the OPV build with a fleet of much more capable combatants, and a corvette or light frigate option should be seriously looked at”.
Meanwhile, in the cons column is Rear Admiral (Ret’d) Rowan Moffitt who counters Professor Dean’s position, with an emphasis on the geographic realities that face Australian policymakers, stating, “Australia is surrounded on three sides by open ocean (the so-called blue water) and must operate there, as well as in the archipelago to the north (the so-called brown water). Blue-water navies can comfortably and effectively operate in brown-water areas as the RAN has always done, but brown-water ships – including corvettes – will fail quickly in blue-water operations.”
Now yes, I have extensively summarised the arguments of both men, but the corvette debate is not entirely the point of this piece, this is just about providing a basis of understanding the broader operational requirements of maritime border security, sea control, and long-range power projection as part of the government’s signature “impactful projection” doctrine articulated in the Defence Strategic Review.
In particular is the vastly different requirements of maritime border security, where the Arafura Class offshore patrol vessels will currently fit within the Navy’s force structure, alongside the Australian Border Force and Navy’s own fleet of Cape and Evolved Cape Class vessels, respectively (with the future of Navy’s Evolved Cape Class once the arrival of the Arafura Class is still unknown).
Re-enter the debate around the potential acquisition of corvettes as proposed with both Lürssen and Navantia, respectively presenting corvette designs as a solution to meet the range and firepower concerns raised about the Arafura Class vessels (and rightfully so), yet corvettes, or at least those proposed by both Lürssen with the C90 and Navantia with the Avante-series, have a marginal increase in firepower through the incorporation of vertical launch systems and naval strike missile cannisters with a seemingly marginal increase in range.
Such a swap doesn’t necessarily seem like a bad idea if it’s a one-for-one swap of the currently planned fleet of Arafura Class vessels (with some vessels to be retained by Navy? We’re not quite sure) with the entire fleet to be based across northern Australia to maximise their time on station. However, they also seem like a bit of overkill for the largely maritime border security and interdiction role they would largely be filling, yet somewhat undercooked for adding serious weight to an Australian or allied taskforce, so perhaps it’s time for a bit of a rethink?
Time for a militarised Coast Guard?
Australia is unique for a maritime nation of its size and jurisdictional responsibility in that it doesn’t have a dedicated, “militarised” Coast Guard responsible for maritime border security and interdiction and law enforcement, rather we depend on Navy and a small detachment of the Australian Border Force under the auspice of Maritime Border Command to provide the capability with overlapping areas of responsibility and capability, it seems like a costly and illogical duplication of resources and effort.
Structurally, the command is led by a rear admiral of the Royal Australian Navy and incorporates a range of personnel from across Defence, the Australian Federal Police, and Border Force creating virtual spaghetti bowl of inter-agency and inter-department roles and responsibilities, proof that Australia likes to do things the hard way.
These points, coupled with the ongoing discussion and review into the constitution of the Royal Australian Navy’s surface fleet, strengthens the argument for rationalising the force structure and composition of the Navy and accordingly, the nation’s maritime border security and interdiction force in a formalised and importantly, in this era of renewed great power competition, militarised Coast Guard.
Reprioritising funding from the contentious and troubled Hunter Class frigates to fund a fleet of corvettes as a replacement for the Arafura Class again appears to be a rather attractive option rather than maintaining and upgunning the order for the Arafura Class as is, and could serve as the basis for the nation’s new, militarised Coast Guard, effectively easing the operational burden on Navy to provide Coast Guard duties and responsibilities, allowing them to focus on high-end warfighting.
There are some issues in that Border Force and Home Affairs don’t technically have the funding available to run such an operation, so folding the Coast Guard into the functional command structure of the Navy (as is done with the United States Coast Guard) would also serve to provide a streamlined organisational structure, while drawing on available funding from the now defunct Australian Border Force’s Maritime Border Command.
I know at the onset of this piece you were expecting me to probably be against corvettes entirely, well surprise, you’re wrong, corvettes provide a very real avenue for enhancing Australia’s naval capabilities, just not in the way they’re being billed by much of the defence and national security ecosystem.
Simply put, corvettes (as proposed) for a dedicated, militarised Coast Guard equals a big tick. Corvettes for Tier 2 surface combatants to “enhance” the long range, persistent strike capabilities of the Navy, big minus.
As retired RADM Moffitt states, “If Australia is willing only to fund a brown-water naval combat force, let’s be honest about that. Buying brown-water ships and telling our people we have a lethal blue-water capability that can deliver impactful projection and deterrence by denial would be a very expensive delusion.”
The rapidly deteriorating geopolitical and strategic environment that is transforming the global and regional security paradigm requires a realistic analysis and assessment by Australia’s policymakers, taking short cuts and ending up with 50 per cent of something, as opposed to 100 per cent of nothing is an admirable goal, but will ultimately only prove more costly in the long run as we scramble to rapidly develop high-end warfighting capability.
Equally, both the Australian government and the Australian public have to accept and understand that we will need to dramatically increase spending in our national defence and do so over the long term, rather than short term sugar hits or slights of hand that push money out over the forward estimates and allow inflation to account for "increases" in spending, despite there being little-to-no new money in real terms.
Ultimately, this comes back to the government’s shift away from a “balanced force” towards “focused force” as championed in the Defence Strategic Review. It equally fails to account for the planned increase in ADF personnel by 2040 and places ultimate hope in a series of as yet to be developed “wunderwaffen” or wonder weapons, like autonomous systems, cyber or tactical weapons like HIMARs and others to provide both “impactful projection” and deterrence against “any potential adversary”.
Again, referring back to retired RADM Moffitt in his previously quoted statement about our brown-water versus blue-water naval capability discussion, this is a conversation that needs to be had in the open with the Australian people and the implications of pursuing one course of action equally needs to be discussed as ultimately, they will be called upon to help implement it, to consent to the direction, and to defend it should diplomacy fail.
This requires a greater degree of transparency and a culture of collaboration between the nation’s strategic policymakers and elected officials and the constituents they represent and serve – equally, this approach will need to entice the Australian public to once again invest in and believe in the future direction of the nation.