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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 3)

Royal Australian Navy Anzac class frigate HMAS Warramunga underway in rough sea state (Source: Defence)

As an Indo-Pacific nation committed to and invested in maintaining the post-Second World War status quo, Australia will be called upon to play an increasingly prominent and active role in regional security. Accordingly, striking the right balance in planning our naval power will prove pivotal.

As an Indo-Pacific nation committed to and invested in maintaining the post-Second World War status quo, Australia will be called upon to play an increasingly prominent and active role in regional security. Accordingly, striking the right balance in planning our naval power will prove pivotal.

Since the Defence of Australia white paper of 1987, Australia has, at its highest levels, accepted that we have to take a more engaged role in our region in order to, as the 2020 Defence Strategic Update established, “Shape, Deter, Respond” to the evolving geostrategic environment.

The 2023 Defence Strategic Review and its key findings formalised the military aspect of this approach via concepts like “impactful projection” as championed by Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Richard Marles.


While we are not alone in seeking to “Shape, Deter, Respond” to the evolving and deteriorating geostrategic environment of the Indo-Pacific, as each of our neighbours, whether friend, neutral or potential foe, is responding to the global and regional shift in power dynamics.

As a predominately maritime region, naval power has been at the forefront of how nations across the Indo-Pacific have sought to engage with and shape their surroundings to capitalise on the emerging multipolarity of global affairs.

In part one of this short series, we took a closer look at the existing and planned expansion of naval capabilities of major regional and emerging global powers like China, India, and Indonesia, each of which have their own designs and ambitions for the Indo-Pacific.

Meanwhile, in part two of the series, we deep dived into the emerging capabilities of emerging regional powers like Vietnam, the Philippines, and Thailand, each of which are responding to and seeking to carve out their own claims.

This growing explosion of military capability, coupled with mounting tensions across the region, presents major challenges for the established powers of the region, namely Japan, South Korea and of course, Australia.

How we respond to developments of both friend and foe alike will shape Australia’s future national security and prosperity at a time when the nation can ill afford to be asleep at the wheel.

Return of the ‘Rising Sun’

Despite the limitations imposed upon Japan via its pacifist constitution in the aftermath of the Second World War, the rapid deterioration of the regional and global balance of power built upon the seemingly inexhaustible might of the United States, coupled with Beijing’s increased adventurism into the South China Sea and around the Senkaku Islands, combined with Taiwan, have prompted a major rethink in Japan’s posture.

At the core of Japan’s “normalisation” of military capabilities and naval power, in particular, is the need to respond to Beijing’s rapid acquisition of an array of advanced surface and subsurface combatants, beginning with the growing Chinese aircraft carrier fleet.

In response, Japan has rapidly overhauled its 2 Izumo Class “helicopter destroyers”, enabling them to become capable of hosting and deploying F-35B fifth-generation fighters, of which Japan currently has 42 on order. This development marks the first time since the end of the Second World War that Japan has operated an aircraft carrier in the traditional “fixed-wing” sense and a major departure from the pacifist constitution and culture.

These two ships are supported by the two Hyuga Class helicopter carriers, similar in configuration and role to Australia’s Canberra Class amphibious warfare ships, with the Cold War-era three Osumi Class landing ships rounding out Japan’s amphibious warfare capabilities and providing the Japanese Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade with much needed tactical and strategic mobility.

Japan’s major surface combatants, led by their destroyer fleet, is among the largest in the world, with 36 destroyer-sized vessels with eight across the Maya (2), Atago (2) and Kongo (4) Class, respectively, all built on the Aegis-combat system. These modern destroyers are supported by 28 other destroyers across the Asahi (2), Akizuki (4), Takanami (5), Murasame (9), and the Cold War-era Asagiri (8) Class destroyers, respectively.

Building on this impressive surface fleet, Japan is also working to deliver a modern multi-purpose frigate fleet at breakneck speed, with four of a total 22 Mogami Class guided missile frigates delivered, with the deficit to be delivered by 2032 replacing the ageing Abukuma Class of destroyer escorts built in the late-1980s and early-1990s.

Japan’s naval surface fleet modernisation and expansion doesn’t stop there, with a proposed fleet of 12 new modular and autonomous-focused offshore patrol vessels to be delivered at the latest by the mid-2030s. Meanwhile, the nation is seeking a single large-deck, amphibious assault ship to further reinforce the amphibious capabilities, while replacing older vessels currently in service and providing an additional F-35B base.

By far, the most potent new surface combatant planned by Japan is the future pair of “Aegis system equipped vessels” (ASEV) which when completed, will be among the largest and most heavily armed surface combatants in the world, weighing in at an expected 12,000 tonnes and armed with 128 vertical launch systems and a host of anti-ship cruise missiles and, of course, the Tomahawk-series of cruise missiles.

Japan has long been a submarine power, with the nation’s submarine fleet providing a powerful deterrence and asymmetric warfare capability, with the nation taking an evolutionary approach to their submarine design and construction process as opposed to a revolutionary one, resulting in one of the largest and most modern and lethal conventional submarine forces in the world.

This begins with the first two of a planned seven Taigei Class submarines, themselves evolutions of the preceding Soryu Class submarines of which the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force operates a fleet of 12, which are supported by a fleet of nine (originally 11, but two have been converted to training vessels) of the Oyashio Class submarines which have undergone an extensive modernisation process extending their lives and enhancing their capabilities.

Detailing the impact of Japan’s growing naval capabilities on the regional balance of power, Toshi Yoshihara of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, stated, “Japan’s swift displacement as a leading maritime power bodes ill for the Indo-Pacific. Japanese sea power remains a critical pillar of the postwar regional architecture. Japan’s maritime service helps deter aggression and keep the seas open to all, an essential condition for free trade and global prosperity...

“China eclipsing Japan in naval power could thus introduce unwelcome strategic trends. It could fuel an even more intense competition between Tokyo and Beijing, two seafaring rivals that regard each other with deep suspicion. It could increase the probability of deterrence failure in times of crisis,” Yoshihara explained.

South Korea’s emerging power

As one of the world’s great industrialised nations built on the back of a vibrant technology, manufacturing and export sectors, South Korea has an active and vested interest in maintaining the security and openness of the global maritime commons from rival nations, particularly through the economically sensitive waterways of our region.

This security imperative is only further reinforced by the increasingly unpredictable nature of its northern neighbour and the potential for nuclear and conventional decimation has necessitated the development of a robust, pseudo-great power naval capability to protect Korean interests at home and increasingly abroad in the Indo-Pacific.

Accordingly, South Korea has a technologically advanced and highly capable naval capability and is growing from strength to strength as it shifts into one of the Indo-Pacific’s anchor nations.

Much like Japan, South Korea has invested in big deck amphibious assault ships, with two Dokdo Class amphibious assault ships forming the core of the South Korean Navy’s evolution into a true, “blue water” naval force. The highly capable ships are designed, much like their Japanese and Australian counterparts, to fill roles ranging from sealift, power projection and humanitarian relief, with Korea futureproofing the design, opening the way to the future integration of their own F-35B fleet providing a potent naval aviation capability.

Building on these capable ships, Korea also has plans to develop and field an indigenous light aircraft carrier by 2033, with two vessels planned in total, with a number of changing design solutions proposed, ranging from a dual island, ski-jump configuration to a more traditional catapult launched and arrested recovery configuration fielding both the F-35B and potentially Korea’s own 4.5–5th generation fighter aircraft, the KF-21N.

Korea’s escort fleet is also rapidly growing, with a range of powerful destroyers and frigates in service and under development, leveraging the vast commercial shipbuilding expertise of the country to maximise invaluable cost, workforce and build efficiencies across the fleet.

Beginning with the three existing Sejong the Great Class of Aegis destroyers of which Korea currently plans to build an additional three vessels, which are some of the largest and most powerful surface combatants in the world at 10,600 tonnes with 128 vertical launch cells, these powerful vessels are supported by the six modern Chungmugong Yi Sun-sin Class of guided missile destroyers.

Not content with this impressive surface combatant fleet, Korea is actively developing a successor for the Chungmugong Yi Sun-sin Class with the currently in-development KDDX program to deliver a fleet of at least 8, 8,000-tonne replacement destroyers by 2030. Rounding out Korea’s destroyer fleet and perhaps entering the frigate domain is the fleet of three Gwanggaeto the Great Class destroyers, supported by a growing fleet of increasingly advanced and specialised guided missile frigates.

This frigate fleet begins with six of the Incheon Class frigates, part of the FFX program of evolutionary design and construction process in a similar manner to the methodology embraced by Japan, with the Incheon Class evolving into the eight Daegu Class frigates currently in service as part of the FFX Batch-II program and the first six of the Chungnam Class, also in the early construction phase as part of the FFX Batch-III.

South Korea’s submarine arm is equally impressive with a range of modern designs leveraging foreign, in this case German, design pedigree acquired under licence to iteratively evolve their submarine designs for both domestic use and broader export, under the ambitious Korean Attack Submarine program which aims to deliver 27 submarines for the Korean Navy between 1994–2029, beginning with the first three of an expected nine hull run of the Dosan Ahn Changho Class of conventional attack submarines capable of launching submarine launched ballistic missiles in a major escalation in capability for the Korean Armed Forces and their deterrence capability against both North Korea and China in the event of hostilities.

This impressive fleet of submarines builds on the success of the nine Sohn Won-Yil Class of submarines based on the German Type 214 submarines currently in service, and finally, the Jang Bogo Class of submarines, all nine of which are currently undergoing extensive upgrades to extend both their life and increase their tactical and strategy capability in the hotly contested waters surrounding Korea.

After all of that over the past three days, we finally come to Australia.

Australia’s central question – treading water or keeping pace?

In recent months, the future of the Royal Australian Navy has been front and centre following the release of the government’s response to the Independent Analysis into Navy’s Surface Combatant Fleet and the following announcement about the selection of BAE Systems as Australia’s design and build partner for the future fleet of nuclear-powered, conventionally armed submarines to be delivered as part of AUKUS Pillar 1.

As a quick refresher, the surface fleet review called for an expansion of the Navy’s major surface combatants, with nine “Tier 1” surface combatants split between three upgraded Hobart Class guided missile destroyers and six Hunter Class guided missile frigates in their current specialised anti-submarine warfare configuration, resulting in a reduction from 12 “Tier 1” surface combatants as previously outlined.

The rationale for this is identified in the government’s response, which stated, “The reduction in Tier 1 surface combatants from 12 to nine necessitates the acceleration of the replacement Destroyer to ensure continuous naval shipbuilding at the Osborne Naval Shipyard in South Australia.”

These “Tier 1” surface combatants will be supported by a fleet of six yet-to-be-developed large optionally crewed surface vessels (LOSVs), each centred around the Aegis combat system and armed with 32 vertical launch cells, a similar missile payload to the Hunter Class frigates – don’t worry nothing to see here!

Adding much needed “mass” to the Navy is a fleet of “at least seven, and optimally 11, Tier 2 ships” designed to prioritise undersea warfare, long-range, independent operations, land attack and anti-surface warfare, replacing the ageing Anzac Class frigates and serving a critical role “to secure maritime trade routes, northern approaches and escort military assets”.

This “new look” tiered surface combatant fleet will be supported by a fleet of 25 “minor war vessels”, read the six Arafura and 19 Evolved Cape Class to perform maritime security, regional presence and border patrol operations, all supported by our two Supply Class fleet replenishment vessels.

Questions also still remain about the future of Australia’s amphibious warfare fleet, spearheaded by the Canberra Class amphibious assault ships, the ageing HMAS Choules and questions about the Army Landing Craft with multi-billion-dollar programs like SEA 2200 in a state of suspended animation. Similar questions remain around the future of Australia’s hydrographic and mine counter measures fleet.

Yet, never fear! Australia’s maritime security, sea control, naval power projection and deterrence problems will be solved by our future fleet of eight conventionally-armed, nuclear-powered submarines scheduled to be in Australian service from the “early-2030s”, serving alongside our Collins Class fleet before they are ultimately phased out for a purely nuclear-powered submarine fleet.

All of this seems pretty reasonable, right? But I would ask, when you consider the developments transforming the naval capabilities across the Indo-Pacific, is it enough, and are we striking the right balance?

Unfortunately, with clear eyes, the answer can only be a resounding no.

Final thoughts

There is no escaping that the Indo-Pacific is at the epicentre of great and middle power competition that is accelerating at breakneck speed, with nations across the region investing in increasingly capable military forces, particularly their navies requiring Australia to step-up its own game, and quickly.

Importantly, the real work begins right now.

As part of this interrogation, we have to ask, have we got the balance right? Have we got the fleet disposition right? Or are there better alternatives for us to consider to maximise the efficacy and lethality of the Navy and broader Australian Defence Force as part of delivering “Impactful Projection” as articulated by the Deputy Prime Minister?

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.

In the maritime domain, this is of paramount importance as identified by David Uren, writing for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, that “two-thirds of Australia’s exports by value and a little over 40 per cent of its imports by value travelling through the Indonesian archipelago. About 6 per cent of exports go east across the Pacific Ocean to New Zealand, the Pacific islands and North or South America, while about 13 per cent of imports come from the east.

Uren added, “Only about 4 per cent of Australia’s maritime trade travels west across the Indian Ocean without going through Indonesian waters, bound for India, the Middle East or the Suez Canal. Of the Australian exports that enter Indonesian waters, about 73 per cent are headed for North Asia (principally iron ore and LNG), while 17 per cent have destinations in Southeast Asia, and 10 per cent are en route for India, the Middle East or Europe. Among the imports coming through the Indonesian straits, about 11 per cent come from North Asia, and a little over 40 per cent from each of Southeast Asia and Europe.”

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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