(Or how I learned to stop worrying about naval power and to love the corvette.)
Naval capability decisions start with maritime strategy. So I think we should get one. That’s deliberately provocative, but I struggle for a pithy answer to the fundamental question ‘what’s the Navy for’? It’s easy to respond with abstractions such as ‘protecting sea lines of communication’ or ‘securing Australia’s trade’, but I think both of those are problematic.
In fact, ‘what’s the Navy for?’ isn’t an easy question for most countries. Paul Kennedy’s book The rise and fall of British naval mastery describes a time when Britannia really did rule the waves, and British maritime strategy was easy to formulate and enunciate: the Royal Navy will overmatch the combat power of any two other nations combined. When you’re the supreme world power, it’s really that easy. Over time, as Britain’s circumstances changed, the strategy was modified to ‘the RN will overmatch the combat power of France and Germany combined’. Now the days of British maritime domination are well behind us, and British maritime strategy is much less ambitious, and much harder to describe in a sentence.
Perhaps paradoxically, it’s harder to explain the role of small forces than large ones. The USN is today’s pre-eminent maritime power, and its mission statement is correspondingly straightforward:
The mission of the Navy is to maintain, train and equip combat-ready naval forces capable of winning wars, deterring aggression and maintaining freedom of the seas.
It’s harder for us middle powers. We’ve no aspiration to global power, but want to do our bit for the international order. We want to be combat ready. We want our armed forces able to fight and win and we want to deter aggression—but not ‘against all comers’. So we find ourselves formulating strategy in more nuanced ways.
For a long time after WWII, we didn’t have much to worry about. We had to do some lifting in Korea and Vietnam, but only in a support role. Then President Nixon made things even easier by giving us what Mark Thomson calls a ‘get out of jail free’ card in the Guam doctrine. Defence of Australia was the result, which wasn’t too challenging given the capability of regional forces. We came up with a local version of Britain’s earlier global strategy by overmatching Southeast Asian forces. We maintained a ‘capability edge’ over the neighbours and didn’t have to think or spend too much—a dozen surface combatants and half a dozen submarines were fine.
But that was then, this is now. I’ve come to suspect that the American rebalance to the Asia Pacific has quietly unwritten the Guam doctrine. There’s an implicit—and sometimes explicit—expectation from Washington that allies and partners out here ought to do more. So we need to start thinking explicitly about the implications of the alliance for force structuring.
That impacts the capability requirements of the future fleet; going upmarket means going up the unit cost curve as well. If we want to be able take part in warfighting at a distance in hotly contested spaces, we’ll need ships large enough to have high endurance and carry all of the defensive systems that make them survivable in that space and enough offensive weapon systems to make them worth having in a fight.
At the same time we’ll still need capability to do constabulary work, and to be able to put together a task group if we need to ‘do a Timor’ again. The US isn’t as invested in our local region as us and we can’t count on other security partners such as Japan. New Zealand is willing, but the force structure is weak. So we need to be able to go alone in our own backyard, all within the available budget.
That’s starting to sound to me like a ‘two tier Navy’ which that has serious combat power to provide in an alliance framework, while operating a lighter force closer to home. I have a mission statement for it:
The mission of the Royal Australian Navy is to raise, train and sustain combat-ready naval forces capable of helping our allies to win wars, deter aggression and maintain freedom of the seas, while maintaining the independent capability to locally maintain order and support other ADF force elements.
The bones of that force are already in the defence capability plan; the upmarket Future Frigate and Submarine projects and the Offshore Patrol Vessels in SEA 1180. If we’re smart, that’ll produce exactly the Navy I’ve described. But I think that there’s a significant risk that the top end requirements will cost so much that the OPVs will end up ‘taking one for the team’, leaving us short at the lower end.
This is an abridged version of a talk given at ASPI’s Future Surface Fleet Conference 2015.