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Ahead of the curve or still just treading water? A closer look at the ‘real’ figures behind the surface fleet review (Part 2)

HMAS Stuart (FFH 153) preparing to depart for a a Pacific deployment as part of the Australian Defence Force’s ongoing program of Indo-Pacific regional presence deployments (Source: Defence)

The Indo-Pacific is undergoing one of the largest and most transformative military build-ups in history, with the region’s navies rapidly transforming into powerful defenders of their respective national interests, leaving major questions about Australia’s own planned naval “expansion”.

The Indo-Pacific is undergoing one of the largest and most transformative military build-ups in history, with the region’s navies rapidly transforming into powerful defenders of their respective national interests, leaving major questions about Australia’s own planned naval “expansion”.

Given the economic and political rise of the Indo-Pacific over the last three decades, it makes sense that these emerging powers would invest in the mechanisms for securing their future growth and prosperity.

Rising superpowers like China and India have been at the forefront of these major developments, with Beijing’s extensive military build-up firmly responsible for the corresponding military build-up sweeping the region.


These developments have seen formerly developing nations begin to emerge as economic, political and military powerhouses in their own right, with many nations across the region, ranging from Indonesia to Vietnam, Thailand to the Philippines developing a comprehensive suite of surface and subsurface capabilities once reserved for the world’s more established powers.

Highlighting these challenges is Senior Fellow for Naval Forces and Maritime Security, International Institute for Strategic Studies, Nick Childs, as part of a detailed analysis titled, Asia-Pacific Naval and Maritime Capabilities: The new operational dynamics, where he stated: “A new phase of naval and maritime competition is underway in the Asia-Pacific ... it is in the Asia-Pacific that inter-state frictions seem more likely than ever since 1945 to flare up in the naval and maritime domain. Therefore, the regional naval balance and how it unfolds are of growing importance ...

“Since the turn of the century, the Asia-Pacific has been through two distinct phases of naval development. It has now entered a third. The first phase saw a striking rise in naval investment and capability development, particularly by China, and a decided shift in the global centre of gravity of naval power towards Asia, fuelled in no small part by the pendulum swing of economic power in the same direction.”

While Australia has in many ways been the biggest beneficiary of this economic “pendulum swing”, as described by Childs, the corresponding military build-up transforming the region’s militaries and navies, in particular, presents a significant challenge for the future.

In the first part of this series, we took a closer look at the “heavy hitters” as it were, focusing on the build-up and modernisation programs transforming the navies of China, India, Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia over the coming decade.

These nations are not alone in the transformation of their military capabilities, as the likes of Thailand, Vietnam, and the Philippines are actively seeking to expand the capability of their navies, in particular, are of particular focus in the aftermath of the release of Australia’s Independent Analysis into Navy’s Surface Combatant Fleet.

The welterweights

Much like Australia, the Philippines is inescapably a maritime nation, although there are some differences, the main being the archipelagic nature of the country. Nevertheless, the maritime-centric operating environment remains the core tactical and strategic factor for both nations.

The Philippines has, like many nations across the Indo-Pacific, closely followed the military build of China with caution, particularly given the overlapping territorial and economic claims in the South China Sea, which have resulted in increasing hostilities and confrontations between the two nations.

In response, the rising regional power (yes, it is one; there is no getting around it) has launched a series of successive programs to enhance the nation’s naval firepower to better protect itself from Chinese aggression and the broader regional dynamics as they continue to deteriorate.

Working closely with South Korea, the Philippines has recently welcomed two Jose Rizal Class frigates, based on the South Korean Navy’s Incheon Class frigates, which, in turn, are supported by the first of two Conrado Yap Class corvettes transferred from the South Korean Navy following a series of extensive modernisations to emphasis anti-submarine warfare capabilities.

In addition to these, the US Coast Guard transferred three Hamilton Class cutters as part of the US Military Assistance Program, with the three vessels undergoing a suite of modernisation and upgrades, including the introduction of a new combat management system, electronic counter-measures and a hull-mounted sonar suite across all three vessels.

Meanwhile, the older Jacinto and Malvar Class offshore patrol vessels are slated to be replaced with a series of modern offshore patrol vessels, again, to be provided by South Korea, with at least six to be built. The Philippines has also ordered improved variants of the Rizal Class provided by South Korea, and are expected to be in service in the 2025–2026 time frame.

Not to be left out of the regional submarines arms race, the Philippines has also announced that it will be acquiring a submarine capability, with France’s Scorpene Class conventional submarines the firm favourite for at least two submarines, marking a major capability enhancement for the Philippine Navy at time when its immediate environment is becoming more challenging.

This seismic shift in the Philippines’ posture and approach to its maritime security was highlighted by Chester Cabalza, founder of the Manila-based think tank International Development and Security Cooperation, who explained: “The Philippines is finally breaking from its shell to become a maritime power to watch for in the region.”

Across the South China Sea lies Vietnam, not a nation traditionally associated with being a maritime power, especially in modern history, but one that has been quietly building its naval capability to secure its own maritime interests and push back against mounting Chinese antagonism in the South China Sea that have occasionally brought the two communist nations to blows.

Vietnam has taken a markedly different approach to building its naval capabilities, focusing on a powerful fleet of Russian-designed and built Kilo Class diesel-electric attack submarines commissioned between 2014–2017 and armed with supersonic Kalibr anti-ship cruise missiles providing Vietnam with a potent, survivable asymmetrical subsea deterrence capability.

As part of a broader modernisation program, Vietnam acquired four Russian-built Gepard 3.9 guided-missile frigates, with the first vessels laid down in 2006 and the second batch laid down in 2011. In light of recent regional developments, Vietnam has, according to Russia’s Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation (FSMTC), expressed interest in “at least two more (Gepard) frigates”.

These larger surface vessels are supported by a fleet of 22 guided-missile corvettes and fast missile attack boats, enhancing the asymmetric deterrence capability of the Vietnamese Navy’s Kilo Class submarine fleet.

Rounding out Vietnam’s naval modernisation, the emerging regional economic power has moved to acquire the supersonic, BrahMos anti-ship and land attack cruise missile from India in addition to four offshore patrol vessels to be built in India following a US$100 million (AU$152 million) agreement in late-2014.

This all serves to establish a larger coordinated emphasis on enhancing Vietnam’s naval security and deterrence capabilities with eyes firmly focused on the powder keg that is the South China Sea and China’s increasing antagonism in the area.

Highlighting this, a visiting research fellow at the Global Affairs Research Center in Kyoto, Bich Tran, stated: “By the time Vietnam had commissioned the last of the six submarines in January 2017, it possessed the most modern submarine fleet in south-east Asia. Hanoi also equipped its Kilos with Russian anti-ship and land attack 3M-14E Klub supersonic cruise missiles, potentially capable of hitting the Chinese mainland.

“Since then, naval power has been the priority focus of Vietnam’s military modernisation program. During the CPV’s 11th National Congress in 2011, the leaders pledged to ensure armed forces were gradually equipped with modern equipment, ‘first of all for navy, air defense, air force, security forces and intelligence’. Between 2011 and 2015, Hanoi added to its arsenal two frigates, four patrol craft, four air search systems, 30 air search radars, 12 FGA aircraft, five more SAM systems, and 30 anti-ship missiles, among other acquisitions.”

The wild card welterweight – Thailand

Finally, we have Thailand in the “welterweight” class, a nation that has had an interesting history of neutrality, particularly throughout the centuries of European colonisation; that doesn’t, however, mean that it is uninterested or unengaged in the current evolution and deterioration of regional dynamics.

Thailand differs in two major ways: first, it has a proud and established history as a regional military power, and second, its oscillation between being a Western ally and working more closely with Beijing in its efforts and designs for south-east Asia and the broader Indo-Pacific following the Obama administration mean it is a bit of a wild card.

Despite this position as a regional wild card, Thailand has embarked on a series of modernisation programs for the Royal Thai Navy designed to replace a suite of ageing platforms, expand deterrence capacity and secure the nation’s maritime trading interests in key parts of the region, namely the Andaman Sea, Bay of Bengal and South China Sea.

Highlighting the strategic rationale for this naval modernisation, Thai-based independent analyst Tita Sanglee explained: “The Andaman Coast facing the Indian Ocean is Thailand’s strategic priority, with major infrastructure upgrades underway. The objectives are twofold: to fortify defences against potential aggression and to facilitate economic expansion.

“Despite being a gateway to a crucial supply route (for oil imports, above all), Thailand’s Andaman Coast remains vulnerable without a proper shipyard. And, because of Thailand’s geographical constraints, vessels requiring repairs in the Gulf of Thailand would need to travel a long way via the Malacca Strait, which is obviously very costly, especially in times of conflict.”

To protect these interests, Thailand acquired the first of two South Korean-designed and built Bhumibol Adulyadej Class frigates in 2019. The second of which has, for the time being, been postponed as the core of the new Thai surface fleet, the first of these new frigates is supported by two Chinese-built Naresuan (Type 053) frigates and four Chao Phraya (Type 053HT) Class frigates.

Thailand’s frigate fleet is supported by a fleet of five older corvettes, with the US-built Ratanakosin and Tapi Class vessels, and three Thai-built Khamrosin Class corvettes all designed and built during the 1980s and 1990s.

In an effort to replace these ageing vessels, Thailand has engaged global shipbuilders to acquire a large, more consolidated and capable surface fleet, seeking submissions from Babcock, China State Shipbuilding Corporation (CSSC), Damen, Hanwha Ocean and ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems (TKMS) to meet the surface fleet’s requirements.

In order to expand Thailand’s maritime deterrence capabilities, the nation has embarked on the acquisition of up to two Chinese-designed and built Type S26T submarines, first announced in 2017 as part of a US$383 million (AU$579.3 million), with China delivering the first submarine in 2023, marking yet another regional power entering the submarine arms race transforming the tactical and strategic Indo-Pacific.

With eyes on the future, Thailand released its own version of the surface fleet review with the 2023 Royal Thai Navy White Paper, which outlines the Thai push towards developing a “focused force” in a similar manner to the “15 to 5” approach to fleet rationalisation and consolidation strategy embraced by the Royal Malaysian Navy.

In the third and final part of this short series, we will take a closer look at the emerging capabilities transforming Japan and South Korea before turning our focus to Australia’s planned naval expansion to assess whether it is truly putting us ahead of the pack, or if we are, in fact, just treading water.

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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