Labor’s long-term advocacy for a shipbuilding plan for the Australian Navy (together with Customs, CSIRO and to support the Australian Antarctic Territory) is built on two foundations. The first is that a rational shipbuilding plan can deliver the warships Australia needs at world-class standards in terms of price, quality and productivity. The second is that Australia does indeed have an enduring requirement for capable warships.
The future of Australian shipbuilding can be informed by both our successes and failures. We know that a boom-and-bust approach to naval construction has undermined performance, investment, skills development and workforce retention. We know that privately-owned shipyards perform better than government-owned shipyards. We know that restarting ship construction at a dormant facility—or even a greenfield site—imposes additional costs and risks.
We know these significant challenges can be overcome by Government announcing a rational, long-term shipbuilding plan, by insisting on robust project and contract management (learning the lessons of AWD). That’s why Labor has argued for just that with respect to both the Future Frigate (SEA 5000) and Future Submarine (SEA 1000) projects.
The Australian naval shipbuilding task over the coming decades has the scale (with Frigates AND Subs) to enable our shipyards to reduce the cost of labour for successive builds of the same ship type, and reduce the set-up costs for building new designs. The scale also means the tempo of construction should be such that it maximises efficiencies.
The success of the ANZAC Frigate Program in the 1990s—delivering 10 warships on price and on schedule—should give Australia the confidence that the shipbuilding task can be undertaken here, to the benefit of our economy, and achieve best value for taxpayers.
And there’s the potential to export vessels too. Austal has shown the way, building 15% of the US Navy and constructing warships in WA for export to the Middle East. It can be done. It is being done.
But does Australia even need warships?
Commentators like Hugh White are correct in asserting that the expansion of what we call today A2/AD (anti-access/area denial) zones will continue, facilitated by technologies such as satellites, sensors, precision guided missiles and munitions, and long-range intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) strike platforms.
Where such commentators err, however, is in imagining a future where sea control is no longer possible or even desirable for Australia.
Australia is determined to deter any adversary from conducting attacks upon us or attempting coercion. To accomplish this, Australia has adopted a ‘maritime strategy’—a strategy that recognises that our air and sea approaches are vital for the survival of our national economy. It isn’t possible for the island of Australia to sustain our export trade and prosperity without defending our sea and air lines of communication (and undersea economic infrastructure) with the rest of the world. The exemplar of this challenge is Australia’s reliance upon imported liquid fuels. It’s a globalised world with a globalised economy. We can’t just sit on the beach armed with A2/AD capabilities and wait out a military crisis. That’s nonsense strategically and economically.
A key component of our maritime strategy is that Australia is resolved to deny any adversary forces access to forward operating bases or the freedom to conduct strikes against Australia from beyond our maritime approaches. This may require the Australian Defence Force to achieve and maintain sea control (the maritime component of battlespace dominance).
Achieving sea control would allow the ADF the freedom of action to use an area of sea (including the airspace above and the water mass and seabed below) for a period of time. Sea control is a means to an end. Sea control may enable economic sanctions, anti-piracy operations, evacuations of our citizens, blockades, or, at its most intense, maritime power projection: the delivery of seaborne land and air forces for raids or amphibious operations.
Hence, future Australian warships will continue to be required as key ADF force elements that enable sea control. And they’ll need to be more capable than the ships they replace, so that they can survive and dominate the future battlespace.
Larger warships are sensible investments because they are designed with an open architecture that enables enhanced sensors, electronics, weapons, and other payloads to be upgraded quickly.
The modern challenge to warships and sea control are anti-ship missiles. Missiles rely for their effectiveness on a system to provide cueing, targeting and navigation. The future will witness a contest to degrade the opposing system to the extent that it fails.
It’s wrong to suggest that warships have no future. The future role of warships will evolve (as ever), but not vanish. Future warships will need to stand-off at longer distances, and increasingly deploy unmanned subsystems into contested spaces. Since modern scouting and strike systems can operate over much greater distances, and a robust A2/AD defensive network could extend hundreds of miles from the shore, this will affect a wide range of maritime missions, to include sea control and denial, strike, presence, commerce raiding and defence, and blockade and counter-blockade.
Yet this isn’t the end of warships. The fleet’s ability to conduct these operations will require highly capable ships, with the required range and stealth of its strike systems, active air and missile defences, its counter command, control, communications, computer, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (counter-C4ISR) capabilities, and its survivability (armour and damage control). In the fight for maritime supremacy, winning the ‘hider–finder’ competition will prove crucial to establishing a maritime balance that enables the Australian Navy to enjoy greater freedom of manoeuvre at sea while being able to bring more of its scouting and strike forces to bear for the purpose of defeating the adversaries A2/AD forces. In this way, capable warships are critical to the ADF securing sea control, and being able to accomplish key missions at and from the sea.
Advanced, capable warships will be key components of an ADF that is designed to fight a maritime strategy in defence of Australia. Our requirement for warships is enduring.
Further, Australia as an open, maritime, trading nation and medium power should possess the capability to build, repair and sustain those warships in Australian shipyards. It’s a strategic industry that, if supported by a rational shipbuilding plan, can achieve the price, schedule, productivity and quality that Australian taxpayers require.