With the Defence Strategic Review’s emphasis on developing a “Focused Force”, a push to deliver a “Balanced Fleet” might seem quite contradictory, but for Australia, it may prove the key to securing our long-term national interests and security in the Indo-Pacific.
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Over the last four decades, Australia, like the world, has undergone a number of major structural realignments of global economic, political, and strategic power with wide-reaching impacts on the posture, doctrine, and structure of the Australian Defence Force.
The first such shift began with Australian strategist Paul Dibb’s review of Australia’s defence posture culminating in the 1987 Defence of Australia white paper which advocated for a shift away from the post-Second World War doctrine of “Forward Defence” and the ensuing power projection focused force structure towards a more “balanced force’’.
The Defence of Australia white paper advocated “self-reliance” and a sense of “balance” between the individual services to maximise the deterrence and response capabilities available to Australian policymakers based on our limited materiel, financial and manpower resources.
Fast forward to the last five years and the material conditions of the world have changed dramatically. The established global order led by the United States as the “indispensable nation” is not only in retreat, its legitimacy, its stability and its prosperity have all shown signs of fatigue, domestic political polarisation, and genuine disenfranchisement with holding the world together.
While the previous government, through the 2020 Defence Strategic Update, identified, and in many ways, preceded the findings of the Albanese government’s Defence Strategic Review and the nation’s shift away from a “Balanced Force” towards the fielding of a “Focused Force”.
Understanding the difference between these two concepts is important before we dig any further.
Beginning with the “Balanced Force”, the Defence Strategic Review defines it as: “A balanced force is designed to be able to respond to a range of contingencies when the strategic situation remains uncertain.” This force design required that the ADF respond to low-level threats related to continental defence, regional operations in support of Australian interests and global support to our alliance partner, the United States.
Conversely, the Defence Strategic Review defines a “Focused Force” thus: “This conceptual approach to force structure planning will lead to a force designed to address the nation’s most significant military risks. The capabilities required to address identified threats will also provide latent capability to deal with lower-level contingencies and crises.”
This dramatic shift in the regional and global status quo and Australia’s response has precipitated extensive debate in policymaking, academic and military circles and rightfully so.
At the core of much of the recent debate is the Royal Australian Navy which is in the early stages of its next evolution ahead of the delivery of the nation’s nuclear-powered submarine fleet which will enhance the tactical and strategic capabilities of the fleet.
However, much of the debate around the future structure and capability of the Royal Australian Navy has emphasised the need for a “balanced force” to maximise the delivery of Australian naval power.
Highlighting this is Australian National University’s National Security College senior adviser Jennifer Parker in her new report for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) titled, An Australian Maritime Strategy: Resourcing the Royal Australian Navy.
In the first part of this short series, we took a closer look at the central thesis behind Parker’s report – the need for a realistic view of the world, the geographic realities and the limitations of nuclear submarines to inform the future naval force structure.
Understanding the concept and necessity of a ‘Balanced Fleet’
While seemingly at odds with the central trend towards a “focused force” as articulated in the Albanese government’s Defence Strategic Review, calls for a “balanced” fleet increasingly make sense when one considers the broader regional and global trends.
In particular, the global trend towards larger, more advanced and capable fleets that emphasise sustained maritime operations, sea control and power projection, with the surface and submarine fleets and the operational concepts designed to complement one another.
Driving this push is the emergence of the People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLA-N) which has over the past three decades transformed from a green-water navy into the world’s largest (at least by hull numbers) navy, with a suite of advanced and highly capable surface and submarine combat capabilities.
Australia however has long been caught between a rock and a hard place, struggling with limited financial, materiel and manpower resources that limit the size and scale of the Australian Defence Force more broadly, but the Navy in particular.
Parker explains this, stating, “The current surface-combatant fleet structure, while notionally balanced (the Anzac Class is arguably outdated and has limited ability to put missiles to sea), will soon be dominated by ASW (on a per tonnage comparison) once the eight Anzac Class frigates are replaced by nine Hunter Class frigates.
“In principle, a fleet with limited ability to operate assets in multiple combat roles requires more assets to perform the same set of overall tasks. Even if the size of the RAN’s surface-combatant fleet is increased, it won’t be feasible to generate a large enough force to support major surface combatants designed specifically for bespoke roles,” Parker details further.
In explaining this, Parker reinforces the necessity of a “balanced” fleet to complement Australia’s planned nuclear-powered submarine fleet but doing so with an emphasis on not further stretching the already tight fiscal situation.
Parker adds, “A balanced fleet is essential because of both the RAN’s size and its multifunctional nature (spanning military tasks, diplomacy and, at times, constabulary). Beyond the specific issue of the RAN’s size and technological complexity, there are also wider challenges associated with the ADF in moving towards a ‘focused’ force that need to be acknowledged. While the DSR is clear on its intent for the ADF to transition to being a focused force to address the ‘nation’s most significant military risks’, that makes a clear assumption that those risks are known and understood.”
Captain, we need more ships!
While we await the public release of the findings for the government’s independent review into the force structure of the Royal Australian Navy’s surface fleet, much of the public conversation and debate has focused on a push for a “larger fleet of smaller surface combatants” namely, corvettes as a means of boosting Australia’s naval firepower.
Whatever the solution, there is a recognition that Australia’s fleet of surface combatants needs to grow and in a major way. There is however a problem, this has been a “known known” for at least the last 35 years.
Parker details this stating, “Dibb’s calculation of 16–17 major surface combatants was based on an ‘assessment of concurrently providing ships to five broad geographic areas across Australia’s north’. It’s clear from Australia’s geography that a fleet of only 12 major surface combatants would generate concurrency challenges.”
This reality was further reinforced by the 1991 Force Structure Review, which Parker details, saying, “The 1991 Force Structure Review assessed that Australia would need 16 major surface combatants in order to support 10 operating on station.”
Parker does concede that the idea of being able to maintain 10 on station at any given time is optimistic, however, a broader question remains about the future force structure of the surface fleet.
If, in the comparatively benign times of the early 1990s called for a surface fleet of “16 major surface combatants”, the question becomes, what do we need now?
Parker unpacks the requirement of an expanded surface fleet, stating, “For Australia to acquire a balanced fleet structure, it needs an expanded surface-combatant fleet. As described in ‘The significance of Australia’s maritime geography’, the RAN needs to operate across vast maritime areas and is protecting seaborne trade and supply that’s vital to the nation. Critics of the proposal for an expanded fleet will argue that the RAN can’t find the workforce and the Defence organisation can’t secure the funds to support an expansion.”
Looking to our current fleet of major surface combatants (eight Anzac Class frigates, and three Hobart Class destroyers) we begin to see that the vast expanse of our maritime approaches and interests, combined with the growing capability of regional neighbours, leaves Australia woefully under-gunned and unprepared.
Parker explains, “The bottom line is that 12 surface combatants with four generally available isn’t enough to service an effective Australian maritime strategy. It might mean two surface combatants in the Coral Sea and forward-deployed units in the SCS, but no ability to respond to urgent tasking in the north-eastern Indian Ocean or the Southern Ocean.”
So, what is the right number of major surface combatants for Australia?
Well, at a minimum, it seems that the immediate “sweet spot” is between 16–20 major surface combatants, which would provide the Australian Navy and policymakers with significant tactical and strategic flexibility in the modern context.
Parker explains, “The 16–20 major surface combatants recommended in past reviews is reasonable (even allowing for the fact that those recommendations were made when 10 years of strategic warning time were expected).
“In order to support the proposed maritime strategy outlined in this report, 16–20 major surface combatants would allow for three or four concurrent task-group operations – an increase from the one or two achievable under the current force structure. Such operations are not only essential to the requirements of sea denial, sea control and power projection under a maritime resilience and defence-in-depth strategy, in an era of potential conflict in the region, but also allow for support to allies and underpin elements of Australia’s conventional deterrence," Parker explains further.
Getting this balance just right will be the trick, as it is clear that Australia will require a significant boost to its major surface combatant fleet and an expansion of its maritime capabilities in general.
The rapidly deteriorating geopolitical and strategic environment that is transforming the global and regional security paradigm requires a realistic analysis, assessment and acceptance by Australia’s policymakers.
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 a “Focused Force” as championed in the Defence Strategic Review and the foundational problem that is our lack of clearly defined role and objectives for our own defence capabilities.
This reality 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 that are being shoehorned into fulfilling “strategic” roles 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, because the alternative outcome is infinitely worse.
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