Australia’s naval future and the role of space
17 Sep 2015|

ESA’s deep-space tracking station at New Norcia, Australia

The fascinating debate on the worth of Australia building the Future Frigates as part of SEA 5000 between Hugh White and James Goldrick (see here, here , here and here ) highlights the issue of surface ship survivability.

This is a vital question that all navies, not just the Royal Australian Navy, must face in a dawning era of supersonic and eventually hypersonic anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs). Added to this is the introduction of anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs), which appeared in China’s most recent military parade , including two systems—the DF-21D ASBM and the more advanced DF-26 antiship-capable Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile (IRBM).

Add to these threats the challenges from multi-axis swarming attacks by high speed missile craft like China’s Houbei vessels, more capable multirole combat aircraft which can carry advanced ASCMs, as well as ever quieter submarines equipped with advanced long-range supersonic ASCMs, and it’s no wonder that the survivability of naval surface forces is being questioned.

In considering the issue of naval surface ship survivability, James Goldrick is correct to highlight the importance of naval surface forces operating as a ‘system of systems’ within naval network-centric warfare, and he notes the importance of space as a critical element within this aspect of naval operations. He argues that proponents of the non-survivability of surface ships ignore ‘the actual working of the communications networks, computers, remote sensors—such as satellites—and data links that support modern warfare.’

Space indeed is becoming a centre of gravity for 21st Century information-led warfare. The striking power of Chinese missile capabilities, epitomised by their growing ASBM capability, is dependent on the maintenance and effective use of a kill-chain of sensors, satellites, command and control nodes, and the data-links that connect the sensors, shooters and decision-makers.

Likewise, the advanced ASCMs that are now appearing, such as the YJ-18 supersonic long-range ASCM which will be deployed on the PLAN’s new generation of naval surface ships and submarines, equally depend on effective and timely intelligence gathered by sensors in space such as China’s Hiayang Ocean surveillance satellites, of which eight are likely to be launched by 2020. China’s growing number of high altitude Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) are also likely to be employed against an opponent’s surface vessels in an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance role.

This diverse and increasingly potent range of anti-ship systems reinforces the argument that Hugh makes about the challenges confronting surface navies in the 21st Century. Conversely, as James makes clear, the defensive battle at sea will depend heavily on space-based communications including data-relays to link widely dispersed naval forces operating through a new operational concept of distributed lethality as a means of mitigating risk posed by anti-access/area denial systems like ASBM and advanced ASCMs.

The issue of surface ship survivability in the 21st Century rests primarily on which side wins the information battle at the outset of the conflict. This applies in both the air and maritime domains of operations and in both cases protecting critical C4ISR networks, including the ever-critical space-based information backplane for network-centric operations, is vital. If we lose space, we lose the ability to fight and win modern information-led warfare, with the commander of USAF Space Command testifying before the Congress’s US–China Economic and Security Review Commission that to lose US Space capabilities ‘would be almost a reversion back to industrial-based warfare.’

Therefore in thinking about the ADF’s future naval forces, it’s vital not to lose sight of the importance of assuring a knowledge edge against all likely opponents. Greater debate needs to occur on naval network-centric operations in the ADF, and whether our information networks can survive in the face of concerted information attack.

That will force Australia to confront the reality that it may be too dependent on vulnerable US space capabilities, and that it would be wise for Australia to look at ways and means to strengthen ADF space resilience. This could involve investment in lower cost, operationally responsive ‘small satellites’ based on commercial designs that could be deployed quickly using commercial launch systems to support ADF operations on an as-needed basis or to reconstitute ADF space capabilities in the event of counter-space operations by a capable adversary.

Greater investment in high-altitude long-endurance (HALE) UAVs that can support expeditionary naval forces and ‘backfill’ in the event of degraded space support may also be a way to ensure the resilience of naval network-centric operations that can then enhance surface ship survivability.

Finally, the ADF needs to look at new types of military technologies on the horizon that can counter advanced ASCMs and ASBMs more effectively than traditional anti-ship missile defence systems. James may despair of the influence of science fiction, but from imagination stems future reality.

Development of electromagnetic rail-guns and directed energy weapons are becoming reality with such systems beginning to be deployed or at least developed. Such capabilities could reshape the face of modern naval warfare in terms of speed, cost, and accuracy—and RAN’s Future Frigates need to be ready for the new revolution in naval warfare.