Once again battle has been joined on the shape of Australia’s next Navy. While this may appear as merely differing opinions on our future navy’s role, lurking barely submerged are the omnipresent (sea) battles over budgets and spending. In struggles over funding real ships, there are no shades of gray.
Hugh White has re-energised the debate with recent forays (here and here) about the push in Australia of having a small navy of big ships. He holds that the Navy seems to be building a fleet focused on protecting an amphibious force so it can deliver the Army on defended, foreign shores. Hugh bases his criticism on a belief that Australia would be best served by building a sea denial navy able to prevent hostile naval vessels from projecting power themselves. His preferred sea denial force structure comprises smaller less-capable ships, more numerous and better submarines and maritime strike aircraft.
Currently Hugh’s main protagonist is James Goldrick, who supports the small navy of big ships concept on sea control grounds (see also here). Much of Australia’s international trade travels by sea, and navies have always protected merchant ships and are therefore built big. James’s argument is interesting, as many earlier sea control advocates have pushed for a naval force structure of large numbers of small ships mostly optimised for anti-submarine warfare. Large numbers of more-affordable ships were seen as needed to protect multiple convoys of merchant ships. Having fewer big ships meant only a smaller number of convoys could be protected.
On James’s side are the power projection supporters like Jim Molan and the airpower-minded Williams Foundation who both argue—albeit from a different angle— that such large ship amphibious power projection is indeed what the ADF should be striving for. Taking a more carefully nuanced view is Thomas Lonergan, who cranks matters down a notch in stressing the two new big amphibious ships are not meant for high-end warfighting but lesser—if more likely—operations, a position with some supporters.
In sum, the naval debate in Australia seems to be across the three poles of sea denial, sea control and power projection. Such nautical debates are normally structured on such lines—nothing new here!
Across the Pacific however, the Chief of the US Navy is tacking in a different direction. Admiral Jonathan Greenert argues that the mission of the USN is presence, as far forward as possible. He says, provocatively: ‘We have to be where it matters. We need to be there when it matters’. For this, the Admiral advocates a large force of small ships like the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS), the Joint High Speed Vessel (JHSV) and the Mobile Landing Platform (MPL).
The USN currently has 24 LCSs, 11 JHSVs and 3 MPL variants under contract, with more sought. The Service has begun deploying LCSs to Singapore. Eight more will be sent to Bahrain possibly beginning next year. These smaller ships are seen to ‘closely resonate with some of the missions of the future’ where numbers matter such as counterpiracy, humanitarian operations and maritime security.
The focus on small ships provides more vessels. More importantly, when looking at this in strategic terms, such ships are easier for the host-country navy to work and exercise with and present fewer worries over basing. For an engagement strategy of the kind the Admiral advocates, smaller ships are simply more appropriate than big complex ones like Aegis cruisers or large amphibious ships. Big ships may be good for hosting cocktail parties but are hard to host.
Such a concept would present a startling picture if applied to Australia. We could potentially have warships deployed on a long-term basis across Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean, becoming truly and deeply engaged with neighbours and friends in ways never possible before. Small ships could help build good relationships as part of an engagement strategy and be on hand at all times, not just occasionally. Such a strategy-driven force structure is very different to the traditional sea denial, sea control and power projection operational concepts underpinning our contemporary nautical force structure debates.
As interesting as all this may seem, what does the new Minister think? The new Minister seems to be coming down on the sea control side, albeit with a big new twist: collective defence of the sea-lanes. The merchant ships that serve Australia are actually owned by others and so their defence is a shared problem. The Minister also seems to be moving towards a fourth big AWD as the political significance of sustaining the naval shipbuilding workforce increases and the budgetary difficulty of doing so declines.
In a curious twist of fate, the new small ships that Admiral Greenert talks of have strong linkages to Australian shipbuilding. WA’s Austal shipyards both designed, and is building, the USN’s new JHSVs and one of the two LCS types. If Australia has gone Spanish in building its small fleet of big ships, the USN has gone Australian in building its big fleet of small ships.
Is there room for some new thinking in Australia about naval force structure beyond the old constructs? A regional Indo-Pacific engagement strategy may suggest that some new ideas are worth considering. After all, a fourth AWD will cost some $2bn or about the same as four JHSVs and four LCSs. Maybe a more balanced strategy-driven debate is just what’s needed.
Perhaps the last word should be Minister Johnston’s. Speaking of the LCS he noted that ‘They are fast, cost effective and relatively easily built and very flexible and versatile. Our navy needs a suitable mix of high-end war-fighting capabilities, such as the Air Warfare Destroyers and smaller vessels…’
Peter Layton is undertaking a research PhD in grand strategy at UNSW, and has been an associate professor of national security strategy at the US National Defense University. Image courtesy of Department of Defence.