Imagining a Much Bigger Australian Surface Combatant Fleet

Setting sail: Australian sailors raise the colours aboard the HMAS Darwin and the HMAS Perth during an exercise in the Pacific. Image: 508 collection / Alamy

Australia’s latest defence review – addressing the renewal of the country’s navy – charts a vision for a larger fleet over the coming decades. But it will take time, and even the best laid plans can go awry.

The Australian government is gradually working through a series of defence reviews. The latest, released on 20 February, concerns renewing the Royal Australian Navy’s 11 ship surface combatant fleet. Driving this is the fact that the fleet’s core of eight Anzac-class frigates are at the end of their life. The class leader reached its planned withdrawal date this year with the last planned for 2032. However, the first of the Hunter-class replacement ships (an extensively modified Type 26 design) won’t enter service until 2032, with the last arriving in the 2040s. The Hunter project is also sharply escalating in cost; the estimate in 2018 was $23 billion for nine ships, but it is now $43 billion.

The Review’s High Points

Age and cost issues needed addressing, but last year’s Defence Strategic Review (DSR) also found that Australia’s geostrategic context is worsening, with a conflict between major powers in the region possible within the next 10 years. Accordingly, the government commissioned a review to be undertaken by external consultants led by a retired US Navy Admiral. Like the DSR, the actual report was not publicly released, only a summarised version compiled by the Defence Department. The government accepted almost all the review’s recommendations.

The review recommended building a two-tier fleet. The high-end Tier 1 will focus on air and missile defence, long-range anti-ship and land attack, presence and undersea warfare. This tier will consist of the three existing Hobart-class destroyers (modified Navantia F100s), six Hunter-class frigates (project cut by three) and – innovatively – six Large Optionally Crewed Surface Vessels (LOSVs) made to the US Navy’s Large Uncrewed Surface Vessel design.

Tier 2 will be ‘optimised’ for anti-submarine warfare and used to defend seaborne trade routes, protect Australia’s northern maritime approaches, and escort the Navy’s amphibious ships. The tier will comprise seven, ‘optimally’ 11, General Purpose Frigates; a type-down selection has apparently already been made to be either the Meko A-200, Mogami 30FFM, Daegu Class FFX Batch II/ III, or the Navantia ALFA3000.

Some Important Details

The review is being marketed as more than doubling Australia’s surface combatant fleet to 26, creating the largest fleet since the Second World War. Curiously, the six LOSVs are included in the numbers. However, given Anzac-class retirements, by 2026 the fleet will have dropped to only nine ships, returning to 11 in 2033 and eventually reaching 20 vessels in 2041. Fleet expansion will be a drawn-out process.

There is much ground for the Navy to make up before it can start to meet the crewing demands of both the new surface warship fleet and the new nuclear submarines that will start arriving in the 2030s

Interestingly, the review sees a shift away from the government’s initial emphasis on coming into office on ‘impactful projection’ – the application of strategically meaningful military power at great distance from Australia using long-range missiles. Against this, all but three of the new 20-ship fleet will now focus on anti-submarine warfare – a significant change.

The only nod to ‘impactful projection’ is the six LOSVs arriving in the mid-2030s. With their 32 Mk-41 missile cells, these will act both as remote, uncrewed magazines for Hobart- and Hunter-class ships to control, and address the two types’ inadequate numbers of missile cells. To be fair, Australia is buying 200 Tomahawk Block Vs, almost 300 air-launched long-range missiles and some 150 Naval Strike Missiles; the government’s impactful projection appetite may now be sated.

A central part of the new plan is ensuring continuous shipbuilding at two shipyards indefinitely into the future. Tier 1 ships will be built at Osborne in Adelaide, while Tier 2 and the LOSVs will be built at a revitalised Henderson shipyard in Perth. The government estimates some 3,700 jobs will be created as a direct result of this.

Stress has been placed on getting the General Purpose Frigates into service as quickly as possible. The first three will be built offshore at the shipyard of the builder whose frigate design wins the tender. Production will then shift to Perth, where the building of the remaining eight will form a major element in the continuous build concept. The government hopes this will ensure that the first new frigate enters service in late 2029, a seemingly rather ambitious goal given recent Australian ship acquisition project experiences.

A Few Concerns

The review raises a number of questions. Firstly, crewing is currently a vexed issue. The Navy is already about 900 people short, equivalent to about four Anzac ship crews, and is struggling to meet its recruitment goals. The Department of Defence considers that the problem is more retention than recruitment, and is taking steps to slow the personnel loss rate. However, there is much ground for the Navy to make up before it can start to meet the crewing demands of both the new surface warship fleet and the new nuclear submarines that will start arriving in the 2030s.

Australia’s new surface combatant plan goes out to the 2040s, but looks startlingly more 20th-century than 21st

Secondly, the Navy will now have three major ship and submarine projects underway. The new frigate programme will take considerable time; soak up scarce military, public service and shipbuilding workforce; and be expensive. The resource impact of this new major project across Defence will not be known until the federal government budget in May and the release of the latest Integrated Investment Program. Some planned projects may be cut, with others scaled back; the Army may be particularly vulnerable given the current focus on ships, submarines and missiles. To partly compensate for this, the government is adding some $8 billion of ‘new money’ spread across 10 years of the long-term financial plan.

Lastly, in Ukraine a new type of naval war is being waged using uncrewed air and sea systems to defeat Russia’s conventional Black Sea Fleet. Like the DSR, this review overlooks Ukraine experiences. This is somewhat surprising given the Navy’s interest in Australian companies developing such new technologies. This includes funding long-range robot submarines, experimenting with a semi-autonomous patrol boat and acquiring robotic sea surveillance craft.

There would undoubtedly be many issues in bringing what is referred to as the ‘small, low-cost and many’ robotic option to fruition. The review instead emphasises the traditional ‘large, high-cost, and few’ ship approach, suggestive of Russia’s sunk fleet. In contrast, the US Navy is now seizing the robotic future; maybe the review’s US admiral should have also. Australia’s new surface combatant plan goes out to the 2040s, but looks startlingly more 20th-century than 21st.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Dr Peter Layton

Associate Fellow

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