As an island continent, Australia can’t escape its intrinsic economic, political, strategic, and social connection to the ocean, yet as the Indo-Pacific becomes increasingly contested, we have steadily seen the capacity of the Royal Australian Navy’s surface fleet rapidly deteriorate to our detriment.
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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.
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 (AU$1.51 trillion) worth of maritime trade every year, never mind China’s ongoing brinkmanship and antagonism in the South China Sea putting at risk more than US$5 trillion (AU$7.57 trillion) of maritime trade every year.
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”.
Yet all of this reinvestment and recapitalisation of the Royal Australian Navy comes following nearly four decades of bipartisan under investment and slow decision making and, of course, the enduring impact of the post-Cold War “peace dividend” resulting in the precarious position the nation’s fleet finds itself in.
For former Australian Defence Minister Kim Beazley, in a piece for ASPI titled, Australia’s disappeared surface combatant fleet, we have failed to meet even the basic surface fleet necessary to secure our critical maritime interests during the benign post-Cold War period, let alone the new era of multipolarity we now face.
Dragging our feet on the ‘minimum’ from 30 years ago
For people familiar with Australia’s defence and national security apparatus, policy making, and capability development process, none of this comes as a surprise, particularly in the aftermath of the Defence Strategic Review.
Beazley explains the history of Australia’s existing surface fleet structure and the policy making that has formed the basis of this approach, stating, “As Australia awarded itself an ill-thought-out peace dividend at the end of the Cold War, the impact fell hardest on the Navy’s surface combatant fleet. Arguably no element was thought through more thoroughly for the 1987 defence white paper than the fleet. Having decided not to acquire an aircraft carrier, the surface combatants were recognised as central to our maritime defence.
“The white paper called for a force of three guided missile destroyers (DDGs) and six guided missile frigates (FFGs). With them, though still to be selected, were eight Anzac Class frigates which entered service between 1994 and 2005. That made a force of 17 surface combatants,” Beazley explained.
Explaining the reasoning, Beazley stressed that the analysis that resulted in this figure of a minimum of 17 surface combatants for “peace time” Australia was based on having sufficient surface vessels to effectively defend any chokepoint across Australia’s immediate region, without the additional support and power projection of indigenous fleet airpower following the retirement of Australia’s last aircraft carrier, the HMAS Melbourne in the 1980s.
Equally, Beazley stated that the proposed force structure wasn’t based on the broader reality of the Cold War, rather it was dictated by the geographic realities (which haven’t changed by the way) and the realistic tactical and strategic circumstances over the medium term.
“This was not an ad hoc decision. It was a calculation of the force needed to work in the various points of entry through the archipelago to Australia’s north. Studies suggested we needed 20 ships but there was not the money. It was hoped New Zealand would acquire four frigates and that might fill the gap. Critically, as the white paper mentioned repeatedly, the whole force structure was not Cold War related. It was about the character of our region in the medium term. The paper argued that we should relieve the US of the burden of interposing its own forces in the defence of our approaches. Our maritime defence was central to that self-reliance,” Beazley explained.
Importantly, Beazley’s last point remains as critical, if not more so than when the planning for the 17 major surface combatants was originally proposed, particularly given the rise of China and its increasing antagonism towards the established world order in the Indo-Pacific.
Our peace dividend wasn’t justified
Despite the hope and optimism that characterised the immediate post-Cold War world, for Beazley, the challenges we face today have their genesis in the decisions made in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War.
“What has gone wrong over 30 years? Clearly reduction of financial resources stands at the top. It suggests that commitment to self-reliance was skin deep. We took a post-Cold War peace dividend like all our allies. In our case it was not justified, at least against the 1987 strategic underpinning of our defence,” Beazley stated, perhaps rather concerningly, seeming at least to imply that at a cultural level, Australia’s sense of “national self-preservation” is highly shallow and contingent largely on societal and political amnesia.
Fair, the world was vastly different to the one we face today, nevertheless, Australia has always had an insecure relationship with the region and its equally been a two-way relationship, with many regional nations having an insecure and at times tense relationship with Australia.
Yet, as was recently highlighted by Jennifer Parker, the Australian National University’s National Security College senior adviser, in her new report for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), titled, An Australian Maritime Strategy: Resourcing the Royal Australian Navy, in which Parker explained, “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?
Yet we have failed to adjust or indeed respond to the rapid deterioration of our regional dynamics, despite the rhetoric made by both sides of Australian politics, which is only further compounded by an Australian public largely disconnected from the reality we face.
Equally we have seen an emphasis on taking the easiest and cheapest route to immediate maritime security by seeking to shift emphasis on “smaller, more numerous” “tier 2” surface combatants, with a reduced number of the higher cost, more complex and more capable “tier 1” combatants, deferring major strategic capabilities to what I have stated before, “wunder waffe“, namely, our future nuclear submarine fleet and the broader capability of the United States Navy among other regional allies like Japan, South Korea or even India.
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 unpacks the rationale behind this figure, stating, “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 explained further.
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 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 at