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New surface fleet will deter coercion and protect way of life, says Deputy PM

USS Halsey, JS Sazanami and HMAS Warramunga conduct a cooperative activity between Japan, the United States and Australia during a regional presence deployment. Photo: POIS Leo Baumgartner

The Royal Australian Navy surface fleet will maintain the Australian way of life and deter Chinese coercion, according to Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles.

The Royal Australian Navy surface fleet will maintain the Australian way of life and deter Chinese coercion, according to Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles.

The comments follow Defence Minister Marles and Defence Industry Minister Pat Conroy’s release of the federal government’s response to the independent review into the Royal Australian Navy’s surface fleet on 20 February.

Under the recommendations, the Royal Australian Navy’s surface fleet is expected to more than double in size to 26 major surface combatants.

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Newly announced acquisitions include three Hobart Class air warfare destroyers with upgraded air defence and strike capabilities, six Hunter Class frigates with undersea warfare and strike capabilities, 11 general purpose frigates, six new large optionally crewed surface vessels, and 25 minor war vessels consisting of six Arafura Class offshore patrol vessels, eight Evolved Cape Class patrol boats, and 11 ECCPBs for Australian Border Force.

The Navy will retain the six remaining Anzac Class frigates with the two oldest ships to be decommissioned as per their planned service life.

“Having made this decision, it is very important that the nation sticks to it. That we take our surface combatant fleet from 11, which is what it is today, up to 26,” Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defence Marles said during an ABC interview on 21 February.

“What we’re trying to do, in a strategic sense, is in the face of great power competition, where outcomes are uncertain, is making sure that we, over the course of the decade, become a much more capable nation which is able to maintain our way of life no matter what happens in terms of that great power competition.

“We do that by contributing to the collective security of the region in which we live, the maintenance of the rules-based order.

“That really does require an ability to project, which, of course, is why we’ve acquired nuclear-powered submarines, but why we also need a highly capable surface fleet, which we’ve announced.”

The surface fleet changes are being rapidly introduced to meet increasing expansion and modernisation of the People’s Republic of China’s military forces in the Indo-Pacific.

China’s navy has grown to become the largest of any country in East Asia and surpassed the US Navy in numbers of battle force ships between 2015 and 2020, according to information published by the US Congressional Research Service in January this year.

The country’s total naval fleet includes a battle force of more than 370 platforms including major surface combatants, submarines, ocean-going amphibious ships, mine warfare ships, aircraft carriers, and fleet auxiliaries. In addition, China also has in reserve 60 Type 22 Houbei Class patrol missile boats carrying anti-ship cruise missiles.

The Chinese navy is expected to further strengthen to 395 ships by 2025 and 435 ships by 2030, compared to the US Navy’s forecasted 290 ships in 2030, according to the report.

“It’s obviously difficult to predict that trajectory (of China’s military capacity), but we can obviously look over the past and see that what is happening is that China is engaged in the biggest conventional military build-up in the world since the end of the Second World War,” Minister Marles said during the 21 February interview.

“China (now has) a much greater ability to seek to shape the world around it, which is what it’s seeking to do. And it’s in those circumstances that we need to be making sure that we are as capable as possible.

“It’s not that anyone is imagining that Australia is going to be invaded. As we’ve said before, there’s a whole lot of damage that can be done to Australia before anyone would need to set foot upon our shores.

“But it is trying to ensure that no matter what potential threats there are of coercion, we are in a position to maintain our way of life, that we have the capability to deter coercion.”

The international community is also increasingly concerned about the looming possibility of a Chinese amphibious invasion or extended blockade of Taiwan in the Indo-Pacific.

The PRC remains adamant that the Republic of China (Taiwan) and its population of more than 23.5 million people, located 160 kilometres from south-east China, will return under Beijing’s control and has confirmed use of force is an option to achieve this core objective.

Taiwan itself maintains an entirely separate democracy with its own government and military after China’s former Kuomintang nationalist government, led by General Chiang Kai-shek, was driven from the mainland by Mao Zedong’s Communist Party forces at the Chinese Civil War in 1949.

A significant driving force behind the goal of reunification is the longstanding promise made by the Communist Party of China to restore that fractured history and this has been further revised into the CCP’s constitution as the most important objective during leader Xi Jinping’s third term until 2027.

“I wouldn’t want to construct the development of our Navy against any particular scenario (such as a Chinese invasion of Taiwan),” Minister Marles said.

“What we are thinking about is how we maintain our way of life around the way in which we are connected to the world and our region, and specifically, therefore, the importance of our sea lines of communication, of our economic connection to the world, which is manifested through those sea lines of communication, and the importance of being able to deter any coercive actions against Australia from any adversary. That is the strategic challenge that we are trying to address.

“We clearly have an eye to future technological capability. In all the combatants that we are looking at acquiring, there is room to evolve and to grow them. That’s part of how you conceive of this, so that the ship that you buy or that you put into service on day one, becomes quite a different ship towards the end of its life, so that you do have the capacity to put new technology on it. When you look at the Hunter Class frigates, they will represent the most cutting-edge, anti-submarine warfare technology that exists in the world today.”

Robert Dougherty

Robert Dougherty

Robert is a senior journalist who has previously worked for Seven West Media in Western Australia, as well as Fairfax Media and Australian Community Media in New South Wales. He has produced national headlines, photography and videography of emergency services, business, community, defence and government news across Australia. Robert graduated with a Bachelor of Arts, Majoring in Public Relations and Journalism at Curtin University, attended student exchange program with Fudan University and holds Tier 1 General Advice certification for Kaplan Professional. Reach out via email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or via LinkedIn.
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