The surface fleet: the question of numbers
12 Feb 2015|

A question of numbersLate last month, Ben Schreer introduced ASPI’s upcoming international conference on Australia’s Future Surface Fleet. In doing so, he observed that many factors—strategic, operational, international and industrial—will shape decisions about the Navy’s future surface fleet. He could also have added politics to the mix—as the recent extraordinary machinations surrounding the role of ASC in the submarine program clearly demonstrate.

It’s a fact of life that domestic politics will play a role in shaping the backbone of the surface fleet through the future frigate program. Not just by making it highly likely that the vessels will be built in Australia, but possibly also by expanding the size of the program to facilitate the ‘continuous build’ of vessels (with a fleet of only 11 surface combatants, a continuous-build program would result in either a wastefully truncated life-of-type or an inefficiently slow rate of production).

A fleet of 20 surface combatants would plausibly support a continuous-build program; one vessel could be built every 18 months and retained for 30 years. But do we really need 20 surface combatants? For that matter, do we need 12 submarines? It’s one of the classic questions of defence planning; how much is enough?

Ask Defence about planned fleet sizes and you’ll be told that periodic Force Structure Reviews use sophisticated analytic techniques to determine vessel numbers based upon their utility in specified scenarios (which are, naturally, classified). Sounds reasonable, but where do the scenarios come from? They’re derived from an overarching classified document called the Defence Planning Guide which is updated annually and approved by government. An outline of Defence’s labyrinthine internal planning processes can be found here and here.

Importantly, while the scenarios are almost certainly informed by the latest intelligence analysis, they’re not independently produced ‘intelligence products’ as such. Rather, they’re policy constructs generated via Defence’s internal risk-assessment process. That means Defence’s planners live in a closed loop where they ultimately set their own goalposts. If you control the scenarios, and the scenario testing is deterministic, you control the outcome in terms of platform numbers. There’s even a pertinent term-of-art within the military for getting the answer you want via analysis, it’s called ‘situating the appreciation’.

In case I’m not being clear, I contend that there’s precious little real analysis underpinning the size of the ADF—apart from the balancing of complementary parts of the force that rely upon each other to be effective. I expect, for example, that we sensibly plan on having enough support vessels to sustain the deployment of the remainder of the surface fleet. But as to the size of the surface fleet, it’s more an artefact of replacing what we’ve got and living within financial constraints—or taking advantage of extra money when it becomes available—than objective strategic analysis.

As critical as what I’ve said might sound, I don’t have a better proposal. In principle, we could take the formulation of scenarios out of the hands of the policy wonks and give it to the Defence Intelligence Organisation to produce free of policy influence. But that would be as flawed as the present arrangement; the implicit assignment of priorities to prospective contingencies is inherently a policy rather than intelligence function. If I were to suggest any changes to the present regime, it’d be to save some money by simplifying the bureaucratic busy-work that does little more than the old magician’s trick of telling us the number we first thought of.

There’s no way around the underlying problem. The scale of the ADF is arbitrary because we don’t have a concrete threat to plan against in terms of our stated core goal of ‘defending Australia’. With nobody on the horizon to play the role of invader, we can’t scale ourselves against the task. There are worse problems to have.

Of course, there are a range of credible but lesser contingencies that we have to worry about; deployments to the Middle East for example, or support to US maritime forces in the Pacific. But in each case, we’re inevitably going to be but a small part of a larger effort where our military impact is not decisive. The sorts of contributions we’ve made to recent coalition missions, and those we’re likely to make in the future, aren’t large enough to provide a scale for the ADF.

So where does that leave us when it comes to the size of the future surface fleet? My conclusion is this: while we need to ensure harmony between the complementary elements of the force, it’s an illusion to think that the numbers of platforms we have today, or might be planning for tomorrow, are sacred.

Mark Thomson is senior analyst for defence economics at ASPI. Image courtesy of Flickr user Korry Benneth.