The Future Fleet and the Australian National Project

Captain Michael McArthur, RAN
Director, Sea Power Centre - Australia

A fleet like never before
The RAN is in the midst of the most ambitious recapitalisation of its fleet since World War II. As sketched in the Defence White Paper (DWP) 2016, detailed in the Naval Shipbuilding Plan (NSP) 2017, and emphasised by Chief of Navy, Vice Admiral T. W. Barrett, AO, CSC, in his book The Navy and The Nation, Australia is building a regionally superior future naval force. This will include 12 long-range diesel-electric submarines, nine frigates with specialised anti-submarine warfare capabilities, and a fleet of 12 Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPVs). This ambitious shipbuilding plan comes on the back of the introduction of two highly capable Landing Helicopter Dock ships (LHDs) into the fleet, and the commissioning of the first of three Hobart Class Destroyers (DDGs). These new platforms will be complemented by the introduction of MH-60R Romeo naval combat and MRH-90 Taipan helicopters, as well as extensive upgrades to communications and information systems across the fleet and the redevelopment of major naval bases to accommodate new and enhanced platforms.

The scale and long-term nature of the investment of more than $89 billion on new naval ships and submarines as part of the NSP will make shipbuilding a truly national enterprise. With the final future frigate and submarine being delivered in the late 2030s and 2040s, respectively, the NSP is a multi-decade-long commitment to not just Australia's naval capability, but also its naval shipbuilding industry. Moreover, the identification of industry—both domestic and international—as a fundamental input to naval capability and the commitment to a continuous shipbuilding program will transform Australia into an international hub for naval shipbuilding and innovation. Combined with labour-intensive sustainment projects, the expanding Australian naval shipbuilding industry will create more than 15,000 jobs and spur economic growth in Adelaide, Perth, and other shipbuilding centres.

Fundamentally, though, the NSP is not driven by economic considerations. The NSP and the broader plans for the future fleet have rather been shaped by the core strategic challenges confronting Australia and the vision Australians have for their nation. Rather than simply a means of creating jobs and economic growth, the RAN force structure has been carefully designed to deliver the capabilities needed to safeguard Australia's borders and security and make tangible contributions to the preservation of peace and stability in foreign waters and lands. As Chief of Navy has noted, Australia's future fleet is a national project in the true sense of the term. As a means of national protection and as an expression of national aspirations, the RAN is for all Australians.

Defence of Australia and commitments abroad
Australia's strategic thinking has long been polarised between continentalist and expeditionary schools of thought. According to these contrasting views, Australia's defence strategy should be built around either protecting the Australian continent and the nation's air-sea gap or contributing to multilateral missions abroad. The first strategy would reorganise the RAN to overwhelmingly focus its assets on defence of Australia's maritime approaches, while the second would redesign the RAN to supplement US-led international coalitions and would force Australia to piggyback off US capabilities for its own defence. Clearly, neither of these alternative strategies is adequate for a thoroughly globalised and internationally engaged country like Australia. The Australian public's vision for the role of the ADF in general and the RAN in particular extends far beyond the roles stipulated by either a narrow continentalist or a narrow expeditionary defence strategy. Australians for good reason expect their defence forces and navy to be able to comfortably and independently control and defend the nation's air and sea approaches, while also making a meaningful contribution to missions to protect peace and stability abroad.

Australia's enmeshment with Asia and the global economy offers immense opportunities and creates acute vulnerabilities. Australia's export industries, import supply chains, and energy security depend on the smooth flow of the buzzing sea lanes of the Indo-Pacific and beyond. In addition to this massive economic stake in the security and freedom of the world's oceans and waterways, the Australian people recognise that there is a vital and growing need for an Australian fleet with the capability to control and defend the country's maritime approaches. The end of the relative strategic stability produced by the post-Cold War US unipolar moment has given way to a period of strategic competition. With military budgets and naval capabilities across the Indo-Pacific expanding rapidly and the globe's strategic landscape shifting, prudent defence planning demands that Australia mitigate strategic risk by developing a regionally superior navy with its own high-end warfighting capabilities.

The NSP along with the RAN's most recent platform acquisitions are carefully designed to equip Australia to both defend itself and protect its global interests in the security and freedom of the world's oceans and waterways. Programs like SEA5000, SEA4000, and SEA1000 will together give Australia nine frigates, three DDGs, and 12 submarines, respectively. These platforms alone will furnish Australia with the most potent defensive capabilities the nation has ever possessed. With the fully operationalised Task Group concept consisting of these and other high-end platforms like the LHDs, never before has Australia been so able to maintain control of its maritime approaches and deny any adversary's ability to launch an attack on the Australian continent. Equally, Australia's DDGs, future frigates, submarines, and the like will make Australia's contributions to multilateral operation among the most potent of any nation's. Australia's new naval platforms and their combined Task Group formation will give the RAN the unprecedented capability to project power abroad and continue to act as a powerful force for peace, security and freedom in the world's waterways and on land.

Border protection and other operations
Border protection and maritime security in Australia's northern approaches are acute ongoing strategic challenges. A sovereign state must be able to exercise effective control over its territory, airspace, and maritime domain. This would be a challenge for any state. Yet with the third largest Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in the world, this task becomes especially difficult in Australia's case. To ensure that the RAN is able to continue to fulfil the strategic and political imperative of exercising effective control over Australia's maritime borders, the RAN is renewing its fleet of patrol boats. The SEA1180 project will build a new fleet of 12 Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPVs) to execute constabulary operations in Australia's maritime approaches. This fleet of OPVs will be the primary ADF asset for maritime patrol and response duties, and will represent a marked improvement in capability from the current Armidale Class Patrol Boats (ACPBs). Although the long-term strategic intent of maintaining the integrity of Australia's maritime borders remains unchanged, the enhanced range and endurance of the OPVs increases the power of the tools available to achieve this policy goal.

With the motto "To fight and win at sea", the RAN's core functions are national defence, power projection abroad, and, when necessary, warfighting. Circumstances, nevertheless, demand that RAN platforms perform other functions like Human Assistance Disaster Relief (HADR) and Search And Rescue (SAR). Australia's neighbours in the South Pacific and Southeast Asia are among the countries most prone to natural disaster and will be among the countries most adversely affected by climate change in the coming decades. Meanwhile, at 53 million square kilometres—or approximately one-tenth of the world's surface—Australia's Search And Rescue Region (SARR) is among the world's largest. In operations like Philippines assist in 2013, Fiji assist in 2016, Queensland assist in 2017, and the search for MH370, the RAN provided essential logistical support and humanitarian assistance. With the full operationalisation of high-end capabilities like the massive LHDs and the agile MH-60R Romeo naval combat and MRH-90 Taipan helicopters, the RAN will be able to even more effectively assist both Australians and our regional neighbours at times of dire need. These new capabilities are timely and necessary. As extreme weather events become more commonplace with climate change and more vessels and aircraft enter Australia's SARR, the HADR and SAR demands placed on the RAN are only likely to grow.

A future navy for all Australians
Australians expect the RAN to serve both the national interest and the international common good. Whether in the case of surging naval capabilities in Australia's neighbourhood, a cyclone battering Fiji, a stranded yacht off the coast of Western Australia, or piracy in busy shipping lanes in the Gulf of Aden, Australians look to their navy to offset strategic risk, deliver emergency relief, provide essential rescue services, and protect international shipping lanes. These diverse functions performed in challenging operational environments demand a wide array of sophisticated capabilities. To meet these requirements, the RAN is currently in the midst of monumental platform and systems upgrades. Building and sustaining this future navy is a national endeavour. It is a national endeavour not just because it depends on involvement from Australian industry and all levels of government, and not just because it will be fuelled by the intellect and imagination of future generations of Australian engineers and strategists. Building the future navy is a national endeavour because this project is inseparable from the vision Australians have for their country. The future Australian navy will reflect the national commitment to not just safeguarding Australia's security and borders, but also upholding peace and stability abroad.