Talking to the chiefs: Tim Barrett (part 2)

Australia’s surface warships and submarines will, in future, be much more closely linked to allied vessels to provide a collective defence against increasingly lethal threats, Royal Australian Navy chief Tim Barrett tells The Strategist.

Discussing options and capabilities the revitalised fleet will bring, Vice Admiral Barrett says surface warships provide a meaningful visible presence in, for instance, protecting trade routes. ‘A navy must be able to demonstrate presence but also be capable of engaging and operating with others in the region—not just those you might consider to be future adversaries, but all others.’

Barrett says the issue then is to ensure vessels can operate freely against the sorts of threats being developed. Weapons being designed to attack surface ships are driving the shape, numbers, size and design of naval forces and, more importantly, the way the fleet will operate.

‘So I still think there’s a role for surface ships. While we still have trade routes around the world and the requirement for a surface ship to be able to support, engage and demonstrate an intent to allow that free flow of trade, I think the visible presence will still be there.’

The US naval concept of ‘distributed lethality’ is intended to deal with emerging threats to the fleet by arming and connecting every vessel in it to allow them to operate in contested waters as a much more lethal force, says Barrett. That will concentrate the mind of an adversary who may wish to attack a carrier group but who has to contend with the fact that all of the ships in a fleet could pose a lethal threat, making targeting much more difficult.

‘Each ship becomes more lethal,’ Barrett says. Distributed lethality could involve ships from various nations using their Aegis air defence systems to protect the fleet from every direction. ‘If we’re to design a fleet in this day and age, and if we acknowledge our alliance, we would certainly need to consider those elements, otherwise we’d be an orphan sitting in one part of the region and not being able to provide a meaningful contribution.’

Barrett says that even before the navy’s future frigate has been selected, a lot of work is already being done to establish infrastructure for its construction. ‘That’s being done knowing we haven’t finalised the selection of a particular type but there are certain aspects that will be generic in terms of design.

The government provided a very ambitious program—to cut steel by 2020, the navy chief says. ‘Doing a number of things in parallel provides an increased risk that must be managed. It’s a challenge but we knew that as soon as the date was set. But at the moment those things we told government we would do, are being done.’

From time to time it’s suggested that the short take-off and vertical landing version of the new joint strike fighter, the F-35B, could be bought to operate from the navy’s giant landing ships, or landing delicopter docks. The Spanish version of the LHD does operate British Harriers, so how feasible would it be for the RAN to do something similar?

The government’s been very clear in saying it would not do that, Barrett says. ‘If you ask me in practical terms what would it take, Britain had to modify its carriers to take the JSFs. I’d envisage that we’d have to do that as well so there would be a cost beyond the airframes. That’s just to operate them on deck.’

Barrett says it would be possible to fly the JSFs off the RAN’s landing ships if technical issues could be resolved. ‘But in practical terms, it’s a relatively small deck that we’ve got, with six spots for helicopters. And you would need to consider broadly what you were seeking to achieve with that number of aircraft.’

The RAAF plans to use its conventional take-off and landing F-35As as part of a networked force with tankers and the Wedgetail command and control aircraft. Barrett says it’s not clear what strategic advantage having jets aboard ships would bring to the navy.

‘As an aviator I’d say that would be nice to have. But as chief of the navy I’d ask you to explain what you are trying to achieve here.’ Having a relatively small number of jets would mean fewer helicopters to carry troops ashore. ‘If you turn the LHD into a fixed-wing carrier, then you’re completely changing the effect you’re trying to deliver and the nature of how you operate and defend that ship changes as well,’ Barrett says.

‘So could we put them in? We’d find a way. Should we put them in? I would like to see all of the strategic logic before I could then consider the advice I’d provide to government.’

Asked if the navy’s confident of finding, recruiting and training enough people to run its new ships, Barrett responds, ‘If we do what we’ve always done, the answer is, no.’ Drawing a capable workforce will require coordination from government, industry and the education system as a whole of nation project, he says.

‘There’s a good opportunity for us all to reconstruct how we recruit from school, how we educate, and develop the skills which will allow me to dip into a bigger pool to have people to go to sea. I envisage a lot more people moving from navy to industry and back to navy through their lives. I also see closer engagement with education departments to put purpose behind why people should be studying certain things.’ And an increasing number of naval ships are being manned by civilian crews, Barrett says.

Might Australia in the future employ unmanned surface warships? That’s possible, says Barrett, along with unmanned submarines and aircraft, but they’d be likely to work with manned vessels on specific tasks.