National defence and the RAN (part 2): tasking for deterrence by denial

Part 1 of this series examined how the Royal Australian Navy contributes to the new national defence strategy of deterrence by denial. This part analyses the primary tasks the RAN must be capable of. A third post will address the required primary force structure.

The 2023 defence strategic review (DSR) reinforced objectives in the 2020 defence strategic update to shape Australia’s strategic environment, deter actions against Australia’s interests, and respond with credible military force, when required. These are the navy’s primary tasks.

The RAN has long been a major contributor to shaping Australia’s strategic environment. Participation in international exercises of varying levels of sophistication at home and throughout the region have been a hallmark, as have regular, lengthy goodwill visits, sometimes involving half a dozen ships or more and submarines.

An important component of these activities in shaping regional perceptions—and contributing to a deterrent mindset—is that the RAN is seen as a highly professional fighting force that is well-equipped for sustained combat operations in the region, if necessary.

The navy plays a highly valued role supporting regional humanitarian operations. Australia’s gifts of patrol boats to Pacific island nations, with supporting RAN operational and technical advisers, have helped small nations become more self-reliant in sovereignty protection and law enforcement.

These activities demonstrate our national capability, capacity and willingness to respond, while helping build confidence that we pose no threat. All are vital in shaping perceptions that Australians consider themselves part of the region. Reinforcing this view is essential for our security as some neighbouring nations’ economies surpass our own.

Australia must also demonstrate its willingness to look after its own sovereignty, especially in its vast exclusive economic zone. Maritime patrol and response is always a major naval task, no matter the circumstances. This is why the RAN is equipped with small patrol boats that are relatively inexpensive to operate and well suited to assisting the Australian Border Force in operations. The navy has been forced occasionally to supplement the patrol boats with larger and more sophisticated ships, but this drives up the cost dramatically and contributes little to the navy’s combat efficiency and effectiveness.

As the DSR implies and this discussion shows, achieving deterrence by denial has many strands, some of which are more nuanced than delivering a warhead, but all are important to its accomplishment.

The nature of potential military operations in the region is hard to predict, but an Australian government will always look for options to respond. Whatever hard power Australia might have to counter, the DSR sets out a response that will be in mass, extremely lethal and swift.

The DSR notes that Australia may have little warning of a regional conflict. If our efforts to achieve deterrence have failed, the RAN’s contribution to denial combat operations and impactful projection must be in place already. Operations extending possibly from the Cocos (Keeling) Islands across northern Australia into the Coral Sea would necessarily be part of a very large Australian Defence Force effort to defend the nation.

Use of the advanced sea mine capability being sought would help close off southbound routes, and our submarines would help close off choke points north and south of Indonesia and eastwards. But the overwhelming effort of Australia’s firepower would be delivered against any adversary through precision guided missiles from all three services. For the navy, the main contributors would be its surface combatants and submarines.

Developments in long-range precision weapons mean surface combatants and submarines can play a wider role. The navy’s destroyers with Aegis combat systems can contribute to the air defence and the land campaign over considerably longer distances than a few decades ago.

Several other capabilities are highlighted in the DSR as critical for ADF success. They are networked sensing and targeting for long-range strike in all three dimensions, integrated air and missile defence, an upgraded operational logistics capability and appropriate theatre command and control. Strongly implied also was an expeditionary air operations capability and a ‘fully enabled, integrated amphibious-capable combined-arms land system’. It has to be assumed that these operations will not be against a strong opposing force, but the ADF will be required to undertake forward-deployed operations for which the RAN is a critical enabler. Its associated lift ships are very lightly armed, placing greater onus on escorting forces for protection.

Distributed maritime operations can avoid or reduce the effectiveness of an adversary’s surveillance and constrain its ability to neutralise our forces through massed attacks. But these concepts require sophisticated, resilient, high-capacity communication networks to coordinate our own attacks. This poses significant technical and doctrinal challenges. Well-armed, suitably equipped surface combatants and submarines capable of long endurance are needed in sufficient numbers to participate in networked missile attacks. All require communications for command, control and coordination—and they must be able to defend themselves. As the technologies mature, uncrewed surface, air and submersible vehicles may enhance the volume of lethality and extend the length of time a presence can be achieved.

Our navy exists to fight at sea if we must, with as good a chance of winning as we are willing to afford. Owning a navy that is consistently capable of winning is difficult, complex and expensive. An unfaltering national commitment is required. It demands consistent investment in equipment and its upkeep, constant training and renewal, assessment and evaluation of performance, research and development, experimentation and sometimes taking risks with untried technologies in search of a capability edge, perhaps asymmetric.

Most of all, a navy requires a motivated, skilled and dedicated national workforce comprising uniformed, public service and blue and white collar private sector people. The RAN must ensure Australians want to be part of that endeavour.

Large vessels axiomatically contribute greater endurance and larger magazines that provide the firepower for distant, higher-end operations. They are also generally better suited to the environmental conditions faced in this region.

Adoption of the DSR’s vaguely worded tiered typology for warships implying that more but smaller vessels should be acquired has not met with support from experienced practitioners. The review of the RAN’s surface combatant force, still to be made public, could reset its combat capability to meet its future needs. Public commentary suggests there’s scope for serious and long-lasting mistakes.

Protection of shipping is a major task of the navy and air force, and interruption of fuel, largely imported from Southeast Asia, would have a major impact on our economy and military operations. In 2010 the RAN concluded that shipping was best protected by creating a safe corridor and umbrella for selected ships carrying strategically important cargoes. Our submarines, large surface combatants, and air surveillance and air combat capabilities will have to create and keep those routes secure. Mine countermeasures forces would ensure the safe passage of shipping through or around potentially mined areas. Naval marine science ships would gather data to help evaluate risks on shipping routes and define areas in which ship sensor performance is enhanced or degraded. The quantity and geographic distribution of ships requiring protection implies that several concurrent dispersed and demanding operations would be required.

Creation of a plausible anti-access and area-denial capability for the ADF is essential to convince any potential adversary that Australia can inflict much damage on a force intending to strike our nation. All the peacetime efforts of the ADF must be applied to prevent hostilities—with the ability to immediately switch to combat operations if required to help force a return to diplomacy.

A RAN equipped with heavily armed ships and submarines, complemented by an effective logistic support force, with other capabilities in prospect for the ADF’s four other domains, will give Australia confidence in its ability to withstand coercion—and will give any adversary pause for thought.

Part 3 will propose what the primary force structure of the RAN should become.