Australia’s navy is undergunned for denying long-range attackers
11 Oct 2019|

The Royal Australian Navy has neglected long-range naval surface-warfare capability for too long.

Its new Hobart-class air warfare destroyers represent Australia’s most advanced naval combatant introduced into operational service, but their main anti-ship and land-attack missile, the RGM-84 Harpoon Block II, has a range of only 124 kilometres, is subsonic and has an explosive payload of just 272 kilograms.

It carries just eight missiles in two quad launchers, which can’t be reloaded at sea. The Hunter-class frigate, based on the BAE Systems Type 26 design, will have the same quad launchers, though navy fact sheets simply mention an ‘advanced anti-ship missile’.

In terms of surface warfare, the navy remains undergunned going into a more challenging future maritime battlespace.

The AWDs and the future frigates are both superb choices for the navy’s development. They epitomise the sharp cutting edge of sensor and combat-management technology. The Hunter class incorporates the world-leading Australian CEAFAR2 Radar, as well as the US Aegis combat system and a combat interface developed by Saab Australia.

The Hobart guided-missile destroyer’s primary role will be naval air defence, while the Hunter class will be an anti-submarine warfare frigate, but both are required to undertake the full spectrum of operations in the joint maritime environment, and that includes surface warfare.

The challenge for the RAN, and for many Western navies, is that surface-warfare capabilities have not responded quickly enough to rapid changes in long-range adversary strike capabilities which are now emphasising supersonic—and ultimately hypersonic—speeds and much greater range.

Instead, an emphasis on defensive responses to these threats is evident. Modern naval surface combatants are being equipped with more capable sensors and sophisticated missiles that are launched from vertical launch systems, such as the Standard Missile-2 and Evolved Sea Sparrow missile that will be equipping the Hunter-class frigates.

The result is an imbalance in naval capability, with fleets optimised to go somewhere and defend against attacks, but with little ability to offensively project force decisively to deny such attacks from happening—‘shooting the archer before he releases his arrow’. An emphasis on defence surrenders the tactical initiative and is riskier, especially when an adversary can launch large numbers of long-range, high-speed anti-ship missiles—both ballistic and cruise—beyond the tactical range of defensive missile systems.

As we confront a growing Chinese naval capability, together with development of its broader anti-access/area-denial systems, it’s important that the RAN places more emphasis on long-range naval surface warfare, delivered either from naval assets or from long-range air platforms.

Two options could be acquired quickly, via off-the-shelf sales, from the US, which is developing a long-range anti-ship missile. The LRASM’s air- and ship-launched variants are a logical successor to the Harpoon, boast stealth technology and can conduct autonomous targeting. That would offer commonality with the RAAF’s joint air-to-surface standoff missile and provide a considerable range boost over the Harpoon, at 560 kilometres.

The latest version of the Tomahawk land-attack missile, the Block IV, also has an anti-ship mode, and offers a range of 1,600 kilometres. Such a capability would mean the navy could strike at land targets as part of a coalition, similar to the employment of Royal Navy and US Navy forces in strikes against Syria. Acquisition of such long-range weapons would boost the ability of the RAN to burden-share in complex scenarios.

An LRASM capability would also have the advantage that it could be air-delivered from the F/A-18F Super Hornet. That would then fill the gap in the air-delivered naval strike weapon, which initially had been designed to be employed from the F-35A, but which is now to be acquired without a specific launch platform in mind.

Looking further out on the horizon, there are other possible alternatives. Greater dependence on long-range unmanned combat air vehicles could open up options for either land-based or sea-based naval air strike for the RAN. The US development of the Northrop Grumman B-21 Raider bomber could see complementary long-range strike escort platforms that would support the B-21, which could include allied participation in the program.

Or Australia could look at the possibility of small surface combatants that can mount long-range strike weapons.

These would be corvette-sized, offer an interim level platform between the Arafura-class offshore patrol vessels and the Hobart-class and Hunter-class vessels, and would imply an expansion of the fleet beyond that planned for in the 2016 defence white paper. Such a move would contribute towards distributed architecture across more ships, rather than having all our eggs in a very few, very boutique platforms.