Peter Layton’s article on ‘The Navy We Need’ makes some interesting points, but puts the platform cart before the function horse, despite his interest in the US Navy’s ideas of ‘presence’. He also falls into the trap of confusing tactics (such as convoy) with the end to be achieved (protection of shipping), while his remarks about the historical experience only tell part of the story, ignoring the fact that the ‘small’ escorts of which he talks were themselves provided ‘cover’ by higher capability forces in order to undertake their direct defence tasks. As it happened, some of the ‘small’ escorts proved not up to the mission and had to be replaced by ‘larger’ vessels as soon as they could be built.
In fact I don’t find the words ‘small’ and ‘large’ particularly helpful in this context. Their recent use has continued my concern with so much of the commentary on the subject. Smaller ships do have roles to play, but the objections to larger hulls seem more emotional than reasoned, or are often just superficial, with not much idea of the cost drivers of modern combatants. ‘Small’ and ‘large’ are also irregular adjectives—their meaning depends on where you stand. They don’t mean the same thing to our Chief of Navy as they do to the US Chief of Naval Operations, or to the Chief of the Finnish Navy.
The LCS, for example, isn’t ‘small’ by medium navy standards (one version tops out at 3,354 tonnes full load displacement and the other at 2,841—in other words, it’s almost the same size as a conventional frigate). I’m not an enthusiast for the concept, which I think has sacrificed a number of other qualities for speed, and at great expense. One of the sacrifices, by the way, is endurance, not just at its top speed, but at its stated cruising speed of 14 knots. The LCS’s range is little more than half that of the modern conventional hull frigate (many of which have higher cruising speeds than 14 knots). So, in this sense, it is ‘small’ because lack of endurance is one of the key limitations of smaller platforms, one that presents real problems in a region (and a country) as vast as ours. Even when forward based (Peter Layton uses the term ‘hosted’).
It also needs to operate with cover. The LCS currently has the basic elements of a self-defence package, but that’s about it. The Americans aren’t going to operate such units in a threat environment without the backing of higher capability forces. This is where I get confused by some of what Layton is saying about being ‘strategy driven’. What the Americans seem to be doing is using presence to support their efforts at sea control and power projection, and these in turn support the American grand strategy to maintain regional and global stability.
Arguably (and supporting a much less ambitious but similarly intentioned national strategy), when not involved in border protection, our equivalent to what the Americans intend for the LCS is the Armidale class patrol boat. A lot of what the LCS does can be (and is, when not surged for border protection) done by the Armidales in the South West Pacific and South East Asia. I personally look forward to the day when the national border protection priority can be reduced and our maritime regional security effort increased commensurately.
The questions should be: what is it that you want done and what do you need to do it? If you want to have a measure of sea denial, some ability for sea control and any capacity for power projection, then you get back to the idea of a force with multiple capabilities. That force will require both ‘small’ and ‘large’ vessels, in different combinations and with different characteristics depending upon the environment and the threat. And, as I’ve said before, aviation (both land- and sea-borne) and other assets have to be considered a part of the whole, and if your power projection onto the land is to be more than simply kinetic, you need to have amphibious elements—which includes a land force that’s expert in the maritime environment. If there’s a platform size issue in all this, it has to be ‘will this platform be big enough to do what we need it to do’?, but we can only ask that question when we’ve worked out what we need to do.
Finally, let me express a view on Air Warfare Destroyers. The systems that they carry provide them, amongst other things, with the ability to manage the air defence of a maritime force. They don’t do this alone, and the combination with the Wedgetail Aerial Early Warning and Control aircraft is a particularly important part. But, uniquely in the RAN, they’ll provide the ‘on the sea’ node around which the networks of layered defences can be built. The SPY1 radar and the AEGIS system are the key sensor elements in this, with the SM 2 missile as the associated weapon. Given all the other force structure needs of the ADF and the Navy, I personally don’t see a fourth AWD as a high priority. I don’t see the additional Force Anti-Air Warfare capabilities (which are one of the biggest cost drivers) as being our highest priority. This is because the three ships (or, rather, the three AAW systems) should be enough to provide and maintain a ready air defence node if we need to put a task group to sea. Our future need for surface combatants focused on other warfare missions is another question entirely.
Rear Admiral (ret’d) James Goldrick is a fellow of the RAN’s Sea Power Centre and a visiting fellow at the Lowy Institute. Image courtesy of USN.