The future of the RAN’s surface combatant force
14 Aug 2023|

Defence Minister Richard Marles will soon receive a report from Admiral William Hilarides on the future of the Royal Australian Navy’s surface fleet. The additional analysis was initiated by the authors of the defence strategic review. They recommended that the future surface combatant force be split into tiers, with Tier 2 comprising a larger number of smaller vessels than those in Tier 1. ‘Tiers’ defines nothing; it simply compares one to another in relative terms. Navies don’t fight in tiers; they fight in task groups where the combined capabilities of different ships and systems are integrated into a mutually supporting combat force.

As Rowan Moffitt has noted, Paul Dibb’s 1986 Review of Australia’s defence capabilities also adopted the tier terminology and our underarmed Anzac-class frigates became our Tier 2 ships. In 1986 terms, the Arafura offshore patrol vessels would have been Tier 3. Moffitt also remarked that our Hobart-class air warfare destroyers and future Hunter-class frigates, which the defence strategic review called Tier 1, would be Tier 2 in comparable regional navies.

Kim Beazley lamented that while he wanted 17 surface combatants in the 1987 defence white paper, the peace dividend intervened and he achieved eight. Peace dividends have long been ephemeral. If we had achieved 17 surface combatants in service, history shows that only four or five would have been on task continuously. Now, the RAN has 11 surface combatants.

We know the as yet unbuilt Hunter frigate program is not in the best of health. There are still important unanswered questions about how a rank outsider became the favoured choice even though the Department of Defence received clear warnings about the risk in the RAND study it contracted. It’s clear that the ship is seriously underarmed and underpowered for its size and therefore poorly suited to operations in our region. The Royal Navy, which owns the original design, may well be satisfied, but that’s not sufficient reason for Australia to persevere in constructing a ship already known to have many shortcomings in how we need to operate them.

There’s no shortage of free advice from those wanting to sell us ships. We’ve seen media commentary on Luerssen’s efforts, and previously Navantia’s. Salespeople help you solve a problem, if you acknowledge and understand what the problem is. Otherwise, you end up where we are now, with a frigate program we don’t really want and a fleet of lightly armed Anzac frigates that will be about 37 years old when they retire. That’s an extraordinary age.

In our part of the world, combat ships are still essential to attack the enemy while defending themselves and protecting the ships carrying the vast quantities of logistics a fight requires. Where we live, combat operations will be largely at sea whether we like it or not. That’s why all other navies in our region are muscling up, while we’re going the other way.

Whatever decision the minister makes will axiomatically provide the RAN with operational advantages or disadvantages, and therefore facilitate or constrain government options in future circumstances we must hedge against, but which are entirely unpredictable in time and scale.

Deciding on Australia going to war, what our strategic objectives are and what a future peace should be are always profound responsibilities held by the government. If Australia’s military lacks flexibility or balance, political options desired by the government may not exist.

What advice on surface combatants should the minister anticipate from the professionals to help him understand the implications of the choices he must put before government? Here are suggested questions:

  • What limitations with our current fleet must be overcome?
  • What is the concept for operations for the fleet as part of the joint (and coalition) force, or, in the extreme, on its own—all of the fleet or just some of it?
  • What current and future threats must we defeat and how will we be equipped to do that? Hiding at sea is becoming more difficult. We can expect to be found. How will we disrupt an adversary’s surveillance efforts?
  • What are our tactics to integrate targeting arrangements for our aircraft and ships for anti-ship and land-attack missile strikes?
  • Are the command and control capabilities in each type of ship we have, or might have, able to deal with gigabytes of intelligence and other information?
  • Can they be fully networked with our air and surface forces and compatible with coalition partners?
  • Can they all conduct cooperative missile engagements in both defence and attack? What is their real endurance—will their crew sizes and onboard supplies let them operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week for weeks on end?
  • How will they be replenished with fuel, ammunition and food while on long operations, potentially far from bases and alone?
  • Will all our ships be able to operate effectively in the sea states and climatic conditions we encounter? How survivable will they be against missile attack?
  • How does the proposed force structure stack up against what we already have in our Hobart-class frigates that we know are among the best? (Although they are not as heavily armed as US, Korean or Japanese ships.)
  • It’s a missile game, so why aren’t we looking for ships that carry more of them—for defence and attack?
  • Will they all be capable of the standards we currently achieve or better?
  • Will all these ships be credible in a potential coalition force conducting high-end operations in our vast area of military interest?
  • What operations will not be possible because our ships are not good enough?

Then there’s the people question. People are the critical difference between having a useable navy and something else. For many years, there’s been a pea and thimble trick going on with how many people the RAN needs to keep its ships at sea. Fortunately, for decades many ships have been unavailable while in major upgrade programs that have made the people problem manageable.

In the face of ill-conceived efficiency reviews, the navy has done very well with what it has had to contend with. The defence strategic review recognised current workforce challenges but didn’t see that the RAN had ceased to be sustainable long ago. That’s what happens when accountants treat trained and skilled people as an expense, and not as an asset.

The Hunters will use the Anzac crews, and the OPVs are taking crews from the Armidale patrol boats. The navy’s ships have crews with many different specialisations. They are only produced by the navy and each can only be in one place at a time.

Funding is tight. Having different classes of ships with different equipment is inevitably more expensive. Given that there seems little possibility of building Tier 1 Arleigh Burke destroyers, the most cost-effective solution is to redirect expenditure already planned for the Hunters and standardise on surface combatants already in the navy’s inventory—the Hobart class. The workforce, technical and other risks ought to be manageable, and this can be a basis for crucial continuous shipbuilding. In concert, the navy can start to put in place measures to minimise fleet ownership costs using Australian industry.

Adelaide’s shipbuilder might need assistance to change from the Hunter frigate to a different ship. But this is taxpayers’ money.

The RAN sits in the long shadow of its recent history where, since 1987, serious planning for its future has been missing. This must be fixed. A 30-year plan is necessary with real milestones and real outcomes in building ships appropriate for Australia.

Value for money includes combat power, which ought to be the most important discriminator, and that’s what Australia needs.