Revelations that the government’s response to the findings of its own surface fleet review is still some time off, ultimately spells trouble for Australia’s national security.
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It goes without saying that 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.
Recognising this fundamental strategic and tactical reality, the Albanese government’s Defence Strategic Review, released in late-April 2023, has moved to fundamentally reshape the Royal Australian Navy.
This realignment of Navy’s force structure and capability is part of government’s recognition that the Australian Defence Force as a whole is no longer fit for purpose in the era of increased great power competition and multipolarity, heralding a shift away from a “balanced force” towards a “focused force” in the face of mounting great power competition in the Indo-Pacific.
First and foremost is the rapidly deteriorating geopolitical, tactical, and strategic situation emerging across the Indo-Pacific, necessitating the development of a flexible, future-proofed force capable of reliably responding to the tactical and strategic requirements placed upon the service by the nation’s policymakers.
Highlighting this emphasis, the Defence Strategic Review states, “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.”
Second is Australia’s planned fleet of nuclear-powered, conventionally armed submarines to be delivered as part of AUKUS Pillar 1.
Lastly is the necessity to fundamentally overhaul the Navy’s surface fleet in order to deliver “An enhanced lethality surface combatant fleet, that complements a conventionally armed, nuclear-powered submarine fleet, is now essential given our changed strategic circumstances.”
In response to these factors, the government also announced at the release of the Defence Strategic Review that the Royal Australian Navy’s surface fleet would be undergoing a “short, sharp” review into the constitution of its force structure to support the delivery of the nation’s new defence posture of “impactful projection”.
All of these factors are set against the backdrop of repeated reminders by the government that we live in a truly unpredictable, dangerous, and competitive period of global history, not experienced since the interwar years.
Yet, despite this combination of factors, recent revelations have left questions about the government’s commitment to deliver the necessary capabilities to ensure that the Royal Australian Navy in particular is fit for purpose in face of the deteriorating regional and global outlook.
Namely, the government’s decision to delay its response to the findings of the review conducted by US Vice Admiral (Ret’d) William Hilarides, until Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Richard Marles explained at a Submarine Institute of Australia event in mid-September, “Our intention is to provide our response to that, meaning the decisions which come from that, in really the first part of the first couple of months of next year. We’ll try and get this out the door as quickly as we can, but that’s essentially the timeframe that we’re working on.”
This is further reinforced by Defence Industry Minister Pat Conroy, who said, “It’s an incredibly complex piece of work, detailing recommendations around platforms that cost tens of billions of dollars. It really will drive the structure of the Royal Australian Navy for 30, if not 50 years to come, and government will take our time working through its recommendations, and we will respond to it, and we’re aiming to release a response in the first couple of months of next year at the latest.”
While commendable they’re taking the time to “do the hard yards”, this seeming lack of urgency seems to fly in the face of repeated reminders about the precarious position in which we now find ourselves.
What we know so far
At the centre of VADM Hilarides’ review emphasis is the major step change in the conceptualisation of Navy’s mission profile, responsibilities and subsequently, the implications for force structure.
To this end, the government has spruiked plans to field two distinct tiers of surface combatant 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”.
This seems to indicate an “expansion” of the Royal Australian Navy’s surface fleet, bulking the fleet out with smaller, 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.
The government envisages that these “Tier 2” vessels would be complemented by larger, more complex “Tier 1” vessels, similar to the Hobart Class and Hunter Class, respectively.
As part of this, it would seem that the Defence Strategic Review as the foundational document for the surface fleet review articulates the need to “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”.
This approach, seems to in large part, predict the outcome, with mounting commentary advocating for corvettes to meet the “Tier 2” capability slot of Australia’s still (let’s face it) poorly misunderstood tactical and strategic requirements, highlighting just how quickly the “new and shiny” can seduce even the most discerning minds.
While we can (and will continue to) debate the individual platforms that best suit our requirement, again we come back to Australia’s seeming lack of urgency in the face of this rapidly deteriorating global and regional circumstances – if they’re so bad, where is our urgency?!
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 sleight 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.