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What is in a name? Tier 2 surface combatants and the future of the RAN

Conjecture aside, there is an increasing expectation that the upcoming surface fleet review will formalise the need for a fleet of “smaller, more numerous” Tier 2 surface combatants, but the assertion that these vessels are smaller doesn’t hold true, especially globally.

Conjecture aside, there is an increasing expectation that the upcoming surface fleet review will formalise the need for a fleet of “smaller, more numerous” Tier 2 surface combatants, but the assertion that these vessels are smaller doesn’t hold true, especially globally.

I feel very much like a broken record, but that is to be expected given the wait we have had for the findings of the Albanese government’s independent review into the surface fleet which came as a key finding of the Defence Strategic Review.

As an island nation, utterly, or some might say, hopelessly dependent on the ocean for our economic, political, and strategic security, the findings and the government’s response will shape the future of the Royal Australian Navy in a major way for decades to come.

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This has only become more important since the COVID-era and the subsequent impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and ongoing conflict in the Middle East and Red Sea, which have seen global maritime lines of communication and supply chains come under direct assault.

Highlighting this, the Defence Strategic Review reinforced the 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.”

In order to deliver this, the DSR has emphasised a three-pronged approach, renewing and reinforcing the nation’s commitment to the AUKUS trilateral agreement and the nation’s pathway to delivering the SSN-AUKUS, nuclear-powered submarines, and, what is described as, “an enhanced lethality surface combatant fleet, that complements a conventionally armed, nuclear-powered submarine fleet, is now essential given our changed strategic circumstances”.

At the core of this strategic realignment is an emphasis on an enhanced surface fleet, broken into 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”.

Defence Minister Richard Marles pre-empted this shift at the launch of the Defence Strategic Review in April 2023, saying, “the Defence Strategic Review has observed that navies around the world are moving in the direction, to put it kind of crudely, of having a larger number of smaller vessels. Now, with those two ideas in mind, we are thinking about the long-term structure of our surface fleet”.

But how true is the assertion made by the Defence Minister, particularly in relation to the suitability of a corvette-sized Tier 2 surface combatant when compared to the decisions of other global navies.

True, but only up to a point

By some metrics, the assertions made by the Defence Minister are reinforced by contributors to the Defence Strategic Review, like the US Studies Centre’s Professor Peter Dean, about the increasing prevalence of smaller vessels among navies like in the US, the UK, Japan, and South Korea.

Indeed, Professor Dean, in a recent interview with Ben Packham for The Australian, stressed the need for the Royal Australian Navy to move away from large, expensive and “exquisite platforms” like the maligned Hunter Class frigate program, saying, “So the question has become: what can they do at the Tier 2 level?

“The key there is, does it have missiles on it? Is it cheaper? Is it easy to produce? Can you get more of them? Because, of course, it’s about quantity as well as quality. You need something that’s big enough to operate in that area that can protect itself and project some force. However, bigger is not always better, as we are seeing in contemporary conflicts,” he explained.

This has resulted in a number of proposals from a host of shipbuilders including Luerssen, Navantia, Babcock, TKMS, and Gibbs & Cox, each with their own unique pitch to enhance the lethality of the Royal Australian Navy’s surface combatant fleet.

The overwhelming number of proposals presenting “frigate”-sized vessels is in stark contrast to the corvette-sized vessel push; popular in the media.

But what about our international compatriots? How do their “Tier 2” vessels shape up?

Allied trends suggest something else...

As Minister Marles suggested and I eluded to, the growing number of “Tier 2” vessels in allied navies flies in the face of the proposals put forward by the pro-corvette crowd (no, not the Corvette Stingray fans).

In the case of the United States Navy, the new Constellation Class, an evolution of the Fincantieri FREMM frigate built for the Italian, French, Egyptian, Indonesian, and Moroccan navies, respectively, is broadly comparable in size, firepower and sensor suite to the Hobart Class destroyers.

Weighing in at 7,291 tonnes at full load, a range in excess of 6,000 nautical miles, 32 Mk41 VLS, a 57mm main gun, a Rolling Airframe Missile system for self-defence and up to 16 Naval Strike Missile cannisters, with a crew complement of 200 and incorporating the Aegis combat system, the Constellation Class is an independently capable surface combatant in its own right, designed to excel in task group operations as well.

The Royal Navy’s Type 31 or Inspiration Class frigates, designed by Babcock, is based on the highly capable and successful Arrowhead 140, albeit somewhat smaller, with a weight of 5,600 tonnes, a crew compliment of 107, and a total range of 7,500 nautical miles.

The Inspiration Class is also similarly armed to its American counterpart, sporting a 57mm main gun, 32 Mk41 VLS, and two 40mm Bofors for close-in defensive action.

In Japan’s case, the new Mogami Class frigates is similar in weight to the Royal Navy’s Type 31 frigate, weighing in at 5,500 tonnes at full-load but has a somewhat lighter armament, even though it is equipped with a traditional five-inch main gun. The missile complement includes eight anti-ship missile cannisters, a SeaRAM close-in weapons system and 16 Mk41 VLS cells supporting a smaller crew compliment of 90 personnel.

Finally, South Korea rounds out the comparable solution options, which are significantly smaller (closer in size to our existing Anzac Class frigates), weighing in at 4,300 tonnes at full load, a traditional five-inch main gun, a single close-in weapons system, eight land attack cruise missiles and 16 of the Korean-VLS systems.

While this isn’t a case of follow the leader, Australia’s unique operating requirements, coupled with the devolving tactical and strategic circumstances require more than what even a bespoke corvette solution can provide.

Equally, government is going to have to accept that defending the nation isn’t a cheap exercise and looking for a cost-cutting measure will only leave us with more costly conundrums down the track, so get it right the first time (well, we will treat this like the first time).

Final thoughts

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 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..

Stephen Kuper

Stephen Kuper

Steve has an extensive career across government, defence industry and advocacy, having previously worked for cabinet ministers at both Federal and State levels.

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