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We’re an island, for crying out loud! We need a bigger, stronger Navy

It goes without saying that the ongoing debate about the future of Australia’s surface fleet is shaping up to be one of the most contentious decisions in recent memory, with decisions about the necessary platforms equally debated.

It goes without saying that the ongoing debate about the future of Australia’s surface fleet is shaping up to be one of the most contentious decisions in recent memory, with decisions about the necessary platforms equally debated.

Many regular readers will by now know that I am very fond of a powerful quote by famed American naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan in his 1890 work, The Influence of Sea Power upon History, where he states, albeit in the American context, “whether they will or not, Americans must now begin to look outward. The growing production of the country demands it”.

Now more than ever is this statement and its implications about the influence of maritime security, stability, and control more relevant for Australia’s enduring sovereignty, security, and prosperity in this era of renewed great power competition in which we find ourselves.


This reality is critically important in the light of mounting regional and global naval build ups and is the driving force behind the nation’s pursuit of the trilateral AUKUS agreement which will deliver the nation’s nuclear-powered submarine fleet, which has drawn extensive attention both at home and abroad.

At the foundation of this renewed emphasis, the long-awaited Defence Strategic Review (DSR) highlights the renewed importance of the nation’s maritime security, stating: “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.”

Establishing both our immediate region (read maritime economic exclusion zone) and the long-term control and security of our critical sea lines of communication and maritime trade, as the central responsibilities of the Royal Australian Navy, with additional emphasis placed on the strategic deterrence and sea control priorities of Australia’s future nuclear-powered submarine fleet.

In light of the findings of the Albanese government’s Defence Strategic Review and the implications of the currently underway Surface Fleet Review being conducted by US Navy (Ret’d) Admiral William Hilarides, extensive debate has erupted across Australia’s defence and national security policy communities about the future composition of the Royal Australian Navy’s surface fleet.

Much of the commentary has focused on the suitability of potential platforms ranging from Lürssen’s C90 corvette proposition, Navantia Australia’s hybrid proposal of additional Hobart destroyers and Alfa light frigates and most recently, Babcock’s proposal of Arrowhead 140 general purpose frigates to meet the growing demand for greater firepower, greater regional presence, and a larger overall capability for the Royal Australian Navy.

The road so far

To this end, recently, we have seen commentary from a range of distinguished commentators, including Rear Admiral (Ret’d) Rowan Moffitt, who takes particular issue with the growing conversation in support of corvettes to bolster Australia’s firepower and available hulls, stating rather provocatively, “Corvettes do not suit Australia’s needs, especially when we’re short of money. Corvettes are a sensible answer for countries whose geostrategic circumstances make them suitable.”

Contrary to this is the director of foreign policy and defence at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney and co-lead of the Defence Strategic Review secretariat, Peter Dean, who has advocated for the acquisition of a corvette fleet to meet the tactical and strategic requirements of Australia’s new geostrategic environment, stating, “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”.

Finally, we have former Chief of Navy, Vice Admiral (Ret’d) David Shackleton who articulates the very real and rapidly changing environment Australia now finds itself in, with many of our neighbours, whether friend, neutral or potential foe significantly expanding their surface and submarine fleets to better protect and promote their interests in a rapidly deteriorating and disrupted global and regional order.

Shackleton states, “In our part of the world, combat ships are still essential to attack the enemy while defending themselves and protecting the ships carrying the vast quantities of logistics a fight requires. Where we live, combat operations will be largely at sea whether we like it or not. That’s why all other navies in our region are muscling up, while we’re going the other way.

Shackleton has also long advocated for significant growth in the number of missile cells at sea, highlighting, “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.”

Taking each of these individual positions into account, coupled with the central priorities of the Royal Australian Navy as identified in the Albanese government’s Defence Strategic Review, we have to accept two fundamentally key points: first, we need a larger surface fleet with its primary focus on delivering the core priorities identified in the DSR, and second, we need a far stronger navy capable of achieving the priorities identified by the government.

This reality is only reinforced by former defence minister Kim Beazley’s 1987 Defence White Paper calling for, “The Navy’s fleet of major surface combat ships [will] be expanded from 12 to 16 or 17 by developing and building a new class of warship with the range and armament to operate throughout our area of direct military interest and beyond. Eight of these ships will be built over the next 10 years, to serve with the destroyers and frigates now with the fleet or being built. Australia will also acquire six new submarines, with the most advanced underwater combat systems in the world.”

With the former Defence White Paper advocating for a powerful surface combatant fleet of “16 or 17” vessels at a time when our major security threat, the Soviet Union, was for all intents and purposes, on the other side of the planet, what do we require now when the threat is effectively on our doorstep?

Our immediate region

Australia needs to accept it is significantly more vulnerable to the changes reshaping the modern geopolitical, economic, and strategic paradigms at home and abroad than almost any other nation in the region. This is exacerbated by our insistence on remaining “part of” Oceania as our main economic, political, and strategic measuring stick allows Australia’s policymakers and the Australian public to live in a state of arrested development when compared to the reality of us being geographically closer and more interconnected with Southeast Asia than the South Pacific.

Meanwhile, the geographic realities of our immediate region, namely the tight archipelagic environs of Southeast Asia, in proximity to Indonesia, New Guinea, and Melanesia seemingly present operational constraints on the Australian Navy and have long served as the geographic “fence” for containing Australia’s naval capabilities since the end of the Forward Defence-era of the decades immediately following the Second World War.

Importantly, Australia’s emphasis on our northern approaches also neglects the nation’s interests in the Southern Ocean and the Antarctic, largely as a result of there being no perceived or recognised threat from our icy southern neighbour (besides the penguins, we’re not repeating the emu mistake) and rightfully so, however, there are still maritime security concerns worthy of consideration and response (we will come back to this).

First things first, the sheer immensity of Australia’s economic exclusion zone, at 10,190,000 square kilometres, according to Geoscience Australia, presents challenges that platforms like our planned Arafura Class offshore patrol vessels and the Cape and evolved Cape Class patrol boats are at least in principle, designed to solve.

This is where Dean’s proposal for a fleet of corvettes seemingly enters the debate with full force, with proposals including Lürssen’s C90 corvette or Navantia Australia’s evolved Alfa light frigate solution, respectively providing some much-needed firepower to Australia’s maritime security and border protection fleet, and are probably an ideal platform for such roles in a rapidly deteriorating strategic environment, provided they have the range required to operate independently for sustained periods of time.

Returning to our Southern Ocean and Antarctic interests, increased Chinese interest in the Antarctic and surrounding islands and concerns about surveillance operations being conducted from a range of islands by the People’s Liberation Army from islands like Inexpressible Island necessitates a greater, more capable, and persistent Australian presence in the region to protect our interests and enforce the 1959 Antarctic Treaty.

Accordingly, reprioritising planned acquisitions, including streamlining procurements supported by the creation of a single, consolidated and militarised Coast Guard can better maximise the mission requirements of our “immediate region” and the performance of the platforms, without detrimentally impacting the tactical and strategic capability of the Navy.

An example of this could look like a reduction of the Arafura Class offshore patrol vessels from the planned 12 to eight in the patrol configuration, supported by a consolidated fleet of evolved Cape Class patrol boats, with the older vessels retired or transferred to regional partners across the South Pacific would serve as the backbone of a militarised coast guard, while also allowing for a dedicated “militarised Antarctic capability (similar to Canada’s Harry DeWolf Class Arctic offshore patrol vessels) to support the RSV Nuyina.

At the top end of this “immediate region”-focused tier would be a fleet of nine light frigates or corvettes, optimised for sustained, long-range patrols throughout our economic exclusive zone to provide added muscle and cover to the Coast Guard if/where required in the short-to-medium range zone. Whether built locally, a hybrid or entirely in-country, there are a range of mechanisms that can be leveraged to maximise the broader economic impact of the procurement of these vessels for the Navy.

Finally, modernising the Navy’s existing hydrographic and mine hunter capabilities via the construction of six Arafura Class vessels to the hydrographic/mine countermeasures standard would provide a much-needed rationalisation of this critical capability while also allowing for economies for procurement, sustainment, and training as a result of economies coming from the use of a common hull across Navy and the Coast Guard, as well as delivering the next-generation naval hydrographic survey and mine hunter force.

From a basing perspective, consolidating the disparate military and law enforcement/border protection units into singular Coast Guard and basing them in central, “close to the action locations, namely Cairns, Darwin, and Geraldton, in the case of our northern approaches and Hobart as it relates to the Antarctic and Southern Ocean area of operations, serves to provide closer proximity to key hot zones, with minimal costs associated with infrastructure, while also serving to build the economies of these major towns and cities.

Prioritising sea control

Sea control, particularly that of Australia’s sea lines of communication and maritime trade necessitates a dramatically different approach to the way we have “done business” in the past, only gains further importance as we are constantly reminded of the rapidly deteriorating strategic environment and Australia’s increasing vulnerability to hostile action against foreign interference and hostilities against our maritime corridors.

Hence, taking the responsibility of maritime border protection and interdiction out of the hands of Navy and placing it in a better equipped and fit-for-purpose” Coast Guard affords greater tactical and operational capability for the surface fleet we need in order to secure Australia’s interests in this era of great power competition.

The basis of sea control is power projection and we fundamentally need to accept that reality, particularly in the face of this new global paradigm. Accordingly, at the centre of a potent surface fleet is force multipliers like our Canberra Cass LHDs (I heard the collective sigh, bear with me) which have been woefully under-utilised as nothing more than glorified troop transports or humanitarian and disaster relief vessels – simply, they need teeth and they need them quickly, so how do we do that?

Well, our fleet of Apache attack helicopters is a step in the right direction, but we all know the answer and it is a capability we have shunned since the 1980s, fixed-wing naval aviation in the form of F-35Bs (we still have an option for an additional 28 F-35s under the terms of our initial contract) and/or General Atomics’ new marinised, short take-off and arrestor-assisted landing variants of the MQ-9 series of uncrewed combat aerial vehicles.

Such a capability takes these vessels from being passive actors to active participants in sea control and securing our critical sea lines of communication and maritime trade. However, to maximise the tactical and strategic capabilities of these platforms, they will require escorts and highly capable ones at that.

We already have the basis of powerful escorts, but true to form, we haven’t got enough of them, so we have to rectify that. I am of course talking about our three Hobart Class air warfare destroyers, which will undergo a AU$5.1 billion upgrade to give them a ballistic missile defence capability, alongside the integration of Tomahawk land attack cruise missiles, yet not an additional missile cell? Well, first things first, rectify that with a “Hobart payload module to expand the missile capacity in line with Shackleton’s concerns and acquire an additional three (at least, but preferably six) such vessels to add much-needed mass and firepower to the Navy’s surface fleet.

Australia faces an increasing number of highly capable combat submarines, with 50 per cent of the world’s submarines expected to be operating in the Indo-Pacific by the end of the decade. We will require a truly next-generation surfaced-based anti-submarine capability, which by all accounts, despite the trouble, the Hunter Class frigates are slated deliver (if they’re ever delivered).

But proceeding as if the Hunter program survives relatively intact, a fleet of six-to-nine (provided BAE does something to make sure they’re not hilariously under-gunned) provides Australia with the basis of a potent anti-submarine capability and maintains the long-term naval shipbuilding workforce, experience, and industrial base that will prove essential in any future sustained kinetic great power conflagration.

Providing long-range sea lane control to operate independently of any Australian or allied task group is a fleet of nine (at least) general purpose patrol frigates that provide a jack-of-all-trades anti-air, anti-surface, and anti-submarine capability at long-range across the Indian and western Pacific Oceans respectively, ensuring that Australia’s access to key industrial inputs, namely energy and our access to allied support, materiel and industrial capacity remains unmolested.

In this role, general purpose patrol frigates are perfect and can serve an overlapping role to the aforementioned fleet of smaller, light frigate/corvettes filling that role, a little closer to our continental approaches. Adding increased resilience and “time on station to these general purpose frigates is the manned-unmanned teaming opportunity presented by Leidos’ Sea Hunter autonomous surface vessel to enhance the long-range surveillance and sea control capabilities of these general purpose frigates.

Finally, keeping these critical surface combatants at sea is essential. No point in having these capabilities if they can’t spend sustained periods of time on station conducting their core mission. Accordingly, at sea replenishment is essential, meaning an additional Supply Class tanker and a slight expansion of the proposed Joint Support Ships under SEA 2200 to provide redundant at sea replenishment capacity and expanded sealift.

This combination of surface capabilities would effectively provide Australia with a truly formidable surface combatant capability designed to fulfil the dual core missions and implied strategy identified in the Defence Strategic Review of, “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”.

Final thoughts

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. Equally, while taking shortcuts to end up with 50 per cent of something, as opposed to 100 per cent of nothing is an admirable goal, however, ultimately it will 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 “wunderwaffe” 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”.

Importantly, no one has said that defending the nation in this era of renewed and increasingly capable great power competition will be cheap or easy and we have to accept that uncomfortable reality.

In the second part of this series I will take a closer look at how we can potentially overcome the personnel challenges we face, while asking some important questions about how we use our manpower when compared to other regional partners, namely Singapore, who operates a similar number of warships with a fraction of the personnel Australia fields.

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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