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With the surface fleet review locked in, what about the rest of the Navy fleet?

Our Navy is more than just our destroyers, frigates and OPVs, yet the recent surface fleet review has left some serious questions about the rest of the Navy’s surface fleet.

Our Navy is more than just our destroyers, frigates and OPVs, yet the recent surface fleet review has left some serious questions about the rest of the Navy’s surface fleet.

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”.

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This “tyranny of distance” is rapidly being replaced by a “predicament of proximity” given the nation’s geographic location at the crossroads of the Pacific and Indian Oceans and the economic, political, ideological, and strategic competition of the 21st century.

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.

In recognition of these mounting challenges, the Albanese government’s Independent Analysis into Navy’s Surface Combatant Fleet, colloquially known as the “Surface Fleet Review” has heralded a once-in-a- generation transformation of the Royal Australian Navy’s surface combatant fleet.

This detailed analysis and its findings, spearheaded by US Navy Vice Admiral (Ret’d) William Hilarides is designed to deliver, as the Defence Strategic Review summarised, “an enhanced lethality surface combatant fleet, that complements a conventionally armed, nuclear-powered submarine fleet, is now essential given our changed strategic circumstances”.

As part of this, we now know that the surface combatant fleet will grow from the current fleet of 11 to 26, with some minor tinkering around the edges of the fleet (because let’s be honest, that is all it is), by far the largest decision of which is a fleet of between seven and 11 general purpose frigates.

Many of the capabilities like our fleet auxiliary oilers serve as the connective tissue enabling the Navy to maintain operations abroad, while our amphibious warfare ships provide important tactical and strategic mobility for the Army, or the Navy’s ageing fleet of minehunters that ensure the safety of deployed warships in hostile waters.

Yet as with any navy, the surface fleet is more than our destroyers, frigates and offshore patrol vessels, yet the review into our surface fleet has been very light on the details about the future of many major capabilities essential for sustained naval operations throughout the Indo-Pacific. So what gives?

Amphibious warfare, sealift and afloat support

With the growth of the Navy now seemingly locked in, there remains significant questions about the rest of the fleet.

While it is clear we are still a long way from seeing a return to fixed-wing naval aviation from Australia’s Canberra Class amphibious warfare ships, what are the upgrade plans for these large vessels? Will they be getting more potent self-defence capabilities like the SeaRAM variant of the Rolling Airframe Missile system?

Equally, what is the planned replacement strategy for these vessels even though they are only a decade old, given Australia’s tendency to drag out procurement programs, it seems prudent we begin now, right?

Moving to the other arm of Australia’s amphibious warfare/sealift capability, the HMAS Choules is scheduled to be replaced by two sealift ships in the 16,000-tonne range under the $3–4 billion SEA 2200 program first announced in 2020 as part of the Defence Strategic Update (DSU) and supporting Force Structure Plan (FSP).

Where are our plans for this replacement capability? Or will this be absorbed under LAND 8710 Phases 1 and 2 or the Littoral Manouvre Vessels of both the “Medium” and “Heavy” category? Because it isn’t clear that those proposals would be able to meet the intent established in the 2020 FSP, namely: “Design, development and acquisition of two Australian-built multi-role sealift and replenishment vessels to replace HMAS Choules. This will greatly extend Navy’s ability to project and sustain the joint force.”

When it comes to at-sea replenishment capacity, Australia’s two Supply Class tankers are now finding their sea legs (no pun intended) despite some teething issues, yet for an island continent that has committed to doubling its surface combatant fleet, two tankers seem hardly capable of supporting sustained naval operations.

Now yes, some have suggested that Australia would be able to call on New Zealand’s tanker, the HMNZS Aotearoa if needs be, but that is a band-aid solution at a time when Australia’s Navy will require greater capacity to conduct concurrent operations across the Indo-Pacific.

All of this combines to leave significant questions that are yet to be answered, with even the 2023 Defence Strategic Review being light on the details, where the DSR stated, “LAND 8710 Phases 1-2 – Army Littoral Manoeuvre Vessels (Landing Craft Medium and Heavy) should be accelerated and expanded.”

While we may get further details in the upcoming biennial National Defence Strategy planned for release later this year, this doesn’t exactly engender any sense of confidence in the current approach.

Minehunting, hydrographic survey and salvage support

Our amphibious sealift and at-sea support capabilities aren’t the only question mark about the future of the Navy’s surface fleet, with Australia’s ageing Huon Class minehunter fleet and Leeuwin hydrographic survey ships, the two major classes that were earmarked for replacement in the 2020 DSU and FSP, respectively.

The 2020 FSP articulated this plan, stating that both the Huon and Leeuwin Class would be subject to, “Enhancements to mine countermeasures and hydrographic capabilities through the acquisition of up to eight additional vessels, built in Australia – potentially based on the Arafura Class offshore patrol vessel design.”

Additionally, this would be supported by the acquisition of advanced sea mines to protect Australia’s critical maritime sealines of communication and northern approaches, while also leveraging the development of advanced uncrewed underwater systems and sensors to de-risk counter mine operations for the human operators.

Building on this, the 2020 FSP articulated the acquisition and/or development of advanced undersea systems, where the "Government will also invest in an integrated undersea surveillance system (including exploration of optionally crewed and/or uncrewed surface systems and uncrewed undersea systems), an undersea signature management range, and expanded undersea warfare facilities and infrastructure” to operate in conjunction with and compliment to the growing surface fleet.

Finally, the 2020 FSP also called for the acquisition of a “support and salvage vessel to enable the recovery and at-sea repair of large warships” which also goes unaccounted for in the government’s surface fleet review.

The people and money questions

Now all of this comes at a cost and a significant one at that, yet we have only seen a marginal increase in the funding allocated by the government over the forward estimates and out at the end of the decade, with an additional $1.7 billion allocated in the forward estimates period.

This funding will be supported by an additional $11.1 billion of extra funding over the next decade, but that is only to account for the surface fleet expansion announced in the government’s independent review, none of the other capabilities and platforms mentioned above.

So it is becoming clear that Australia’s much-celebrated surface fleet review only goes a fraction of the way to confronting the maritime security challenges facing the nation and requires more considered planning in terms of appropriately financing the significant expansion of naval capability.

Equally, we know that the Navy faces mounting crewing challenges across the fleet, which will only be further compounded by the necessary expansion of the connecting tissues that are our sealift, amphibious warfare, auxiliary warfare and at-sea replenishment capabilities that will ensure the fleet can fight and win at sea.

Final thoughts

While it is fair and justified to state that the government’s Independent Analysis into Navy’s Surface Combatant Fleet emphasised the “major fleet units” that would be at the frontline of naval combat in our region, the Navy’s combatant fleet is significantly larger than what was focused upon.

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.

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..

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