2015 is the year that saw Government announce that Continuous Shipbuilding will be a permanent feature in the nation’s industrial landscape – surely, this is not an outlandish notion for a maritime nation.
To understand why that decision marks the beginning of a new maritime and naval era, I want to briefly look back over the century of the RAN’s existence.
Let me start by reflecting on the writing of my learned colleague Rear-Admiral James Goldrick.
In a speech to the Australian Naval Institute in 2011, he spoke of the Australian Navy and the way that its capabilities have developed.
He suggested that the last century saw the progressive evolution of four generations of Australian ‘fleet units’. Each fleet unit was designed to meet fundamental changes in both the strategic environment and in the contemporary technology of naval warfare.
He opined that we were now at the start of a fifth generation of national naval capability. This assessment, though fundamentally simple and obvious, is of profound importance. Four years on, I contend we are well advanced in the move to this new, fifth ‘fleet unit’.
The leap in capability that we are currently making can be compared to that achieved with the first unit of 1913—centred on the battle cruiser Australia but including two of the new long range submarines—and also the third Fleet unit of 1948 which included the light carrier Sydney.
But I would argue that this fifth ‘fleet unit’ is an even greater advance, both relatively and absolutely, because it affects so many areas of warfighting and operations—and because it will be integrated and networked with the Air Force and Army and with other Defence assets to a much greater degree than ever before.
Let me emphasise here that this is very much a joint effort, indeed it is an endeavour ‘beyond joint’, because its achievement involves very much more than just the three combat services. Getting the enablers of intelligence, communications and logistics right will be core to achieving our ambitions—a view that I know is fully shared by my fellow Chiefs of Service, the Vice Chief and the CDF.
That said, you have only to look at the ships that form the vanguard of our change to understand the magnitude of what is being done, and not just by Navy.
Ships Canberra and Adelaide will allow the Australian Defence Force—a term I use deliberately in this context—to deploy and project both hard and soft power around our maritime region (and around our own coasts) in many ways and in many different contingencies, to a degree and with a level of confidence we have never before enjoyed.
We have already achieved a level of capability with the company strength Amphibious Ready Element which will provide us with a more robust and sustainable amphibious response than at any time in the ADF’s peacetime history, a capability which will have real utility in humanitarian assistance and evacuation operations.
The amphibious exercises off Cowley Beach in August this year with HMAS Canberra exceeded our expectations. Just yesterday I declared her to be at Initial Operating Capability. We will commission her sister ship Adelaide next month and with that will continue the certification process of the ADF amphibious capability.
With the full battalion based battle group, that is the core of the Amphibious Ready Group, we will have the potential, at relatively little notice, to deploy substantial combat power from the sea, something which has already repeatedly proved so important in the stabilisation operations which we have conducted in the region.
In terms of maritime combat power, we already have more than a taste of what is to come in the modernised Anzac class frigates. Their new CEA radars (very locally produced) and combat systems are world leading technology that will allow our surface forces to operate with a much greater degree of confidence against the airborne anti-ship threat.
This is not just idle speculation. HMAS Perth’s performance at the Pacific Missile Range facility last year proved the worth of the recent modernization and demonstrated the ANZAC’s capability as an escort for the LHD. That said ANZACs are approaching the limits of development margins and the government’s commitment to the future frigate is timely.
As an aviator I am well pleased with the introduction of the MH 60 Romeo helicopter. It is now at sea in the Anzac class and is a leap in anti-submarine capability—a tremendous asset which the most modern submarines will find very difficult to counter. It also provides new elements of anti-surface capability in its sensor fit and Hellfire missiles
It could not be more timely. As I speak here we have a major fleet concentration period happening off the east coast, where a number of our submarines are involved in rebuilding our latent Fleet ASW skills.
And I eagerly await the arrival of the new Air Warfare Destroyers. I have made my point before about the delays in this project and will not repeat them here.
But this cabability is critical is we are to meet the demands government has on us in the region. The DDG will provide a capability to dominate the maritime battlespace through their AEGIS system and their SM-2 missiles in a way that we have never had before.
But importantly this will also be a capability that will complement, and be complemented by, the Air Force’s Wedgetail.
The ability to share sensor and tracking data that these two major platforms bring to the battlespace will allow them to capitalise on the full capabilities of the long range SM-2 missile and its successors to an unprecedented degree. No longer will our anti-air weapon range be confined to the radar horizons of our surface ships. A cooperative engagement capability is essential across the ADF and indeed across our Allies.
This is an important point. I have talked elsewhere of our need to focus on the lethality of our systems because it is lethality which creates combat power and true deterrent effect.
And it is not about the vulnerability of individual platforms to individual weapons. It is a about a systemic approach to collective defence and offence. A force centred on an Air Warfare Destroyer and our other seaborne elements, supported by Wedgetail and other airborne systems such as the JSF, Super Hornet, Growler and the P8 maritime patrol aircraft will have the ability to dominate an area in which it operates.
The Collins class submarines, now providing a far greater availability than they did 3-4 years ago, and their successor will have an equally significant part to play, whether operating independently to attack and destroy the adversary’s capabilities, or in support.
What we are developing, in sum, is a maritime capability which will be able to operate as a coherent national task force, or as a major element—often a leading one—within a coalition. It will be a collective capability that will be able to deal heavy blows to an adversary and at very long distances.
Defence budgets in our region are rising in relative and absolute terms and new ships and submarines are being launched every month. The precautionary principle requires that Australia has a fleet that keeps pace with those in the region because we cannot know where, and under what circumstances, our ships will be operating in the 2020s and beyond.
That is not going to be easy but the alternative is a slow withering on the vine of our maritime capability.
It is my view that continuous shipbuilding now provides us, for the first time, an opportunity for ‘evolution’ to become an underpinning factor in the strategic calculus for our fleet’s design and delivery. In this vein, the fleet unit can continuously evolve in a managed, deliberate and affordable manner.