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A double standard? Emphasis on OPV weapons overlooks other undergunned vessels

The year 2023 was definitely a year of hammering a number of the Royal Australian Navy’s major recapitalisation programs, namely the Arafura and Hunter Class, respectively, but for our Navy’s major workhorses, the Anzacs and the Cape Class are hilariously undergunned, so why the double standard?

The year 2023 was definitely a year of hammering a number of the Royal Australian Navy’s major recapitalisation programs, namely the Arafura and Hunter Class, respectively, but for our Navy’s major workhorses, the Anzacs and the Cape Class are hilariously undergunned, so why the double standard?

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 to anxiety through to hostility and outright apathy as a result of our “tyranny of distance”.


This has only become more front of mind since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the ongoing conflict in the Middle East and the Red Sea, which is responsible for constraining waterways responsible for US$1 trillion worth of maritime trade every year, never mind China’s ongoing brinkmanship and antagonism in the South China Sea.

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.

In doing so, they have called into question a number of the procurement decisions made by the previous government that are set to shape the future capability of the Royal Australian Navy.

At its core, the DSR emphasises a three-pronged approach to modernising and expanding the nation’s maritime combat capabilities, with an emphasis on complementing the nation’s future nuclear-powered submarine fleet, with the review calling for “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 the 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”.

While we all eagerly await the government’s response to the findings of their “short, sharp”, Independent Analysis into Navy’s Surface Combatant Feet, public debate about the suitability of vessels like the Arafura and Hunter Class for everything ranging from constabulary operations through to high-intensity combat.

Yet, for other surface combatants in service with the Navy, namely the Cape Class patrol boats and our venerable Anzac Class frigates, there seems little to no questioning of their suitability for their roles in this new world.

What’s good for one has to be good for the other

In the case of the Arafura Class, much of the public commentary has emphasised the fact that these vessels, despite drawing on an armed reference design, will not be, at least initially, “armed” with a main gun following the cancellation of the 40mm main gun, thus effectively leaving the Arafura Class little more than a lightly armed, battleship grey motor yacht.

Yet at the same time, the new workhorse of our patrol boat fleet, the Austal-designed and built Cape and Evolved Cape Class, is equally undergunned, with nothing larger than a pair of .50 calibre machine guns. In contrast, the Armidale Class boats, at least, had a 25mm Bushmaster chain gun, mounted in a Typhoon weapons mount.

Now I know, I know some will point out that the Arafura’s are slated to be fitted with a similar type weapons system as the preceding Armidale Class as an interim option, but for a vessel effectively five and a half times the size to be armed with effectively the same armament as it’s predecessor is laughable.

Not to be outdone, the Cape Class is effectively an undergunned Armidale Class, so how did we go backwards!?

Equally, why isn’t the same vitriol aimed at the Arafura Class directed at the Cape Class?

The reality of this is perhaps best described by retired Rear Admiral Rowan Moffitt, who stated: “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.”

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. Taking shortcuts 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.

Addressing this comes back to the government’s shift away from a “balanced force” towards a “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.

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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