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Navigating tomorrow – the significance of Australia’s navy build-up

Australia has recently announced a plan to build the largest fleet since World War II. This move constitutes another step in Canberra's shift of defence strategy and commitment to adapt to the changing security environment.

Instytut Boyma 07.03.2024

Jeff Newman Flickr

Australia has recently announced a plan to build the largest fleet since World War II. This move constitutes another step in Canberra’s shift of defence strategy and commitment to adapt to the changing security environment.

 

In February 2024 the government of Prime Minister Albanese revealed its agenda to increase the number of major surface combatants from 11 to 26, which would entail the most significant navy build-up in 80 years. Canberra has equally pledged to allocate an additional A$11.1bn ($7.2bn) for investment in its naval capabilities, jointly totalling A$54bn over the next decade. The plan comes as a response to the observations and recommendations included in the independent analysis directed by the retired US Navy Vice-Admiral William Hilarides, delivered to the Australian top authorities last year.

 

The review underlines the findings of the 2023 Defence Strategic Review (DSR), which pinpointed the indispensability of increased lethality of Australia’s combatant fleet, and underscored the necessity of re-examination of the current approach in the maritime domain, given its inadequacy to the existing strategic environment. It lays the foundations for the development of surface naval power in conjunction with the future acquisition of conventionally-armed nuclear-powered submarines (SSNs). The report echoes the DSR in the calls for augmenting the capacities of the Australian Defence Force (AFD), which is at present ill-prepared to face the new strategic challenges. According to the review, the surface fleet – the oldest one Australia has ever had – lacks sufficient integrated air and missile defence, multi-domain strike and anti-submarine warfare capabilities.

 

The necessity for Australia to bolster its military posture has been exceedingly impacted by the changing strategic environment of the state, which in the last couple of decades concentrated on addressing issues caused by the surge of terrorism in the Middle East. Nevertheless, in recent years through its mounting assertiveness and expansionist behaviour, China has manifested itself as an actor craving for power and influence in the Indo-Pacific. Through its military build-up, ambitions to develop a blue-water navy and broader military activity in the region, Beijing seeks to challenge the balance of power and the rules-based order. The rise of China’s power alongside the growing Sino-American competition, in contrast to the Global War on Terror, are legitimate hazards in Australia’s closest surroundings and directly threaten Canberra’s core interests.

 

By undertaking the reforms energised by the review’s guidance, the Albanese government wants to increase the number of major surface combatants to 26 vessels while simultaneously modernising the warships already in service with new capacities and cutting-edge technology. Each type of vessel is to fulfil a different function and strengthen a different capability of the Australian naval forces. The surface combatant fleet comprising two “tiers” will therefore possess:

  • 3 Hobart-class air warfare destroyers (tier 1) with enhanced air defence and strike capabilities – the destroyers will have their Aegis combat system, designed for air and missile defence, upgraded to the newest version;
  • 6 Hunter-class frigates (tier 1), with a focus on undersea warfare and strike capabilities (the plan implies the reduction of the number of the Hunter-class frigates from previously-envisioned nine vessels);
  • 11 new general-purpose frigates (tier 2), for land and maritime strike, air defence and escort purposes (these frigates will replace the to-be-retired Anzac-class frigates);
  • 6 new Large Optionally Crewed Surface Vessels (LOSVs) (tier 2), crucial for the navy’s ability to conduct long-range strikes. The LOSVs are meant to support the tier 1 frigates and destroyers providing them with additional firepower. However, they can also operate autonomously, and the fact that they can be managed remotely makes this option a considerable advantage in wartime operations.

 

The expanded fleet should reach the 26-vessel size by the mid-2030s, though the government has not given a specific date. Additionally, the Royal Australian Navy will acquire 25 minor vessels, including six offshore patrol vessels.

 

The newly unveiled plan for navy build-up falls within the broader framework of Canberra’s major defence strategy overhaul heralded in the 2023 DSR. The overarching strategy of Australia’s defence policy has been the strategy of denial – a strategy that aims at dissuading the contender from attacking by denying the enemy the possibility to effectively project power and hence attain its objectives in a potential confrontation – strengthened through deterrence by distance. Geography plays a key role in Australia’s approach to security, and thus, with regard to oceanic expanses of the Indo-Pacific and geospatial conditions of Australia and China, Canberra’s denial and military capabilities need to be leveraged in the air and maritime domain. The Australian government’s approach requires obtaining long-range strike options, integrated air and missile defence system, undersea capabilities and a strong naval surface force.

 

Therefore, it can be argued that the decision to expand the surface fleet is a decisive and crucial move for the future of the ADF. Firstly, as demonstrated in the enumeration of the vessels, the enhanced fleet will provide the navy with more missile power, improved operability and flexibility, which are all valuable assets in deterrence and area denial. Secondly, the 26-vessel force will complement the construction of a robust, comprehensive naval power after the announcement in 2023 of the final plan for the procurement of SSNs to Canberra as part of the AUKUS deal between the USA, the UK and Australia. With the roadmap for Australia’s underwater capabilities already in place, the build-up of the major surface combatant fleet is the missing piece of the puzzle for meeting the strategic requirements of the security environment in the Indo-Pacific.

 

It is beyond doubt that the navy build-up – both the AUKUS package and the recent agenda – is a necessary measure, but it needs to be understood that it is a long-term commitment and a financial one, too. Although, according to Australia’s Defence Minister Richard Marles, owing to the plan, the procurement time of large surface combatants will be shortened, the acquisition of new vessels is not a matter of months but years. The first general-purpose frigate may be ready before 2030. However, the building of Hunter-class frigates has not commenced yet, and Australia will not get the first US Virginia-class SSNs until the early 2030s and the domestically-produced SSN-AUKUS submarines until the 2040s. Simultaneously, creating a fleet of 26 major surface combatants together with costly nuclear-powered submarines will necessitate substantial fiscal investments and determination. Solutions and responses to current threats and challenges are being conceived today, but they will become tangible only tomorrow.

Jakub Witczak

Project Coordinator at the Boym Institute. Student of international relations at the University of Warsaw. Member of the Forum of Young Diplomats and founder of the Student Association of Pacific Area States. Research areas include transatlantic security, international security in the Indo-Pacific, international military relations, security policy of Japan, Taiwan, Sino-American relations and history of Asia-Pacific.

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