Australia pushes to double its surface combatant fleet

Australia pushes to double its surface combatant fleet


20 | 02 | 2024


The long-awaited fleet structure design comes amid the growing challenges faced by the RAN in the Indo-Pacific

In the image

Three RAN vessels conducting a replenishment at sea [Australian Department of Defence]

The Australian Government has finally unveiled the new fleet structure design for the Royal Australian Navy (RAN), several months after the 2023 Defense Strategic Review initially addressed the need for “an enhanced lethality surface combatant fleet, that complements a conventionally-armed, nuclear-powered submarine fleet.”

The long-awaited fleet structure design comes amid the growing challenges and constraints faced by the RAN, including the need to replace its ageing Anzac-class frigates and build the overall size of the Australian fleet, while minimizing as much as possible the huge economic costs derived from new naval procurement programs and addressing the acute workforce shortages both in the Navy and the national shipbuilding industry.

Indeed, the new fleet designed has garnered huge expectations among Australian and international naval analysts over the past months (including yours truly), and while it may still be too early to jump into solid conclusions, it is worth reviewing its background in the 2023 Defense Strategic Review (DSR) and the main efforts described in the recently published document. In the words of Australian naval expert Jennifer Parker, “it is a historic day when the government has finally agreed to support an enhanced surface combatant fleet capability for the Royal Australian Navy.”

Undoubtedly, the new fleet structure design unveiled by the Albanese Government is significantly better than many would have initially expected—at least on paper. It fulfills the need of a much-need desired fleet expansion beyond the traditional ceiling of 20 surface combatants, although details on the specific capabilities for many of them are yet to be further specified. Moving forward, workforce shortfalls and economic costs associated to the procurement of new classes of vessels will remain the main obstacles for Australia.

2023 Defense Strategic Review

Reflecting upon the numerous changes their strategic environment has been experiencing—and will keep experiencing—the 116-page document had a clear focus on the growing Chinese military threat across the Indo-Pacific region; to such extent that it didn’t even mention the Russian Pacific Fleet, whose force of nuclear—and conventionally—powered submarines remains a force to be reckoned with. At the same time, it acknowledged the fact that Australia is no longer isolated from strategic competition in that same region. On the contrary, its role has become more relevant than ever, and requires urgent action to design the necessary defense capabilities.

As I argued back in July, the DSR is a comprehensive document, published at a crucial time for the Australian Defense Forces (ADF). It highlights the challenging nature of their strategic environment, as well as the imminent need to react against all growing threats and risks found within it. Although the maritime section was certainly not as extensive as expected, the review offered several key ideas for the future of Australian capabilities at sea. With China as the main concern for both national and regional security, the review recommended the adoption of a defense strategy based on denial:

“For Australia, this strategy of denial must be focused on the primary area of military interest […] The development of a strategy of denial for the ADF is key in our ability to deny an adversary freedom of action to militarily coerce Australia and to operate against Australia without being held at risk.”

The region of main military interest, as defined later in the document, is based on a line of forward deployment that encompasses a network of bases and ports stretching “from Cocos Islands in the northwest, through RAAF bases Learmonth, Curtin, Darwin, Tindal, Scherger and Townsville”. Immediate upgrades and development of them are also recommended, so that they make it possible for this line encompassing half of the Australian coast, to provide with strategic depth for the ADF. Through the coordination of these bases, which extend across the northern half of their national coasts, Australia expects to enhance its ability to monitor the waters adjacent to it and strengthen their denial strategy against any unwanted presence.

Yet, in spite of its great ambitions, the DSR did not provide a definitive version on how the new fleet structure would be designed to meet the strategic requirements of the review. As ascertained back then by professor Jennifer Parker,

“The structure of the surface fleet remains a quandary, and a surprising one for the DSR team to delay solving given the urgency of the strategic situation it describes […] The DSR team (at least in the unclassified version of its report) avoided recommending specific capabilities as it did for the land and air domains.”

Those capabilities have now been defined and published in the new Independent Analysis into Navy’s Surface Combat Fleet.

A new fleet structure for the RAN

As part of the long-awaited response to a surface fleet review, the recently published analysis pushes for a fleet size growth from 11 to 26 surface combatants. The analysis for the surface combatant review has been led by US Navy Vice Admiral (Ret.) William Hilarides, with the assistance of former Secretary of the Australian Department of Finance Rosemary Huxtable and former Commander of the Australian Fleet Vice Admiral Stuart Mayer. Their work, resulting in a classified document “containing extensive capability and operational analysis and includes 18 recommendations to government.”

The general purpose of the analysis, as detailed in the document itself, “was to develop a recommended fleet design that delivers the optimum mix of Tier 1 and Tier 2 surface combatants to meet the strategic circumstances outlined in the DSR and that complements a conventionally armed, nuclear-powered submarine capability.” Under its guidance, the RAN will push for an order of battle of 26 surface combatants and 25 “minor war vessels” consisting of:

Three Hobart-class air warfare destroyers with upgraded air defense and strike capabilities.

Six Hunter-class frigates to boost Navy’s undersea warfare and strike capabilities.

11 new general-purpose frigates that will provide maritime and land strike, air defense and escort capabilities.

Six new Large Optionally Crewed Surface Vessels (LOSVs) that will significantly increase Navy’s long-range strike capacity.

25 minor war vessels, consisting of Navy’s requirement for six Arafura class Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPVs) and eight Evolved Cape class patrol boats (ECCPBs), and 11 ECCPBs for Australian Border Force (ABF).

They are divided, as recommended in the DSR, in two different groups: Tier-1 and Tier-2 (a terminology merely adopted to distinguish the two groups in terms of size, with the Tier 1 ships being bigger than those in the Tier 2).

Tier 1 combatants have been finally reduced from 12 to nine, after only six of the planned nine Hunter-class frigates will be acquired; configured for anti-submarine warfare. Their delivery will presumably be extended longer than initially envisaged, with the last of the six units delivered around 2043.

In spite of this, however, the combination of naval strike capabilities between both Tiers suggests a total amount of 528 VLS cells; 144 cells across the three Hobart class air warfare destroyers (AWDs), 192 across the six Hunter class future frigates, and a further 192 across six planned LOSVs). This implies close to a hundred cells more as compared to the 432 which would have been the total number under the original plan for 12 Tier 1 combatants.

The 17 new Tier 2 combatants able to perform air-defense, land strike and escort missions. For the procurement of the new general-purpose frigates, which represent the big change for the RAN, four major contenders are listed as potential candidates: the German Meko A-200, the Japanese Mogami 30FFM, the South Korean Daegu class FFX Batch II and III, and Spain’s Navantia ALFA3000. They will be the ones to replace the ageing Anzac frigates as they approach the end of their service life, with a potential displacement ranging from the 3,500 tons of the Anzac-class up to the 5,000-6,000 tons (which would allow for more and better missile capability).

In the shorter term, the two oldest Anzac class frigates will be decommissioned early: HMAS ‘Anzac’ this year and HMAS ‘Arunta’ in 2026. Adding to the long list of naval uncrewed vessels terminology, the review suggests the acquisition of six LOSVs, to be developed jointly with the US Navy (already with extensive experience in the design and procurement of large unmanned surface vessels) each of which will be fitted with 32 VLS cells.

Also significant is the decision to scale down the procurement of Arafura-class Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPVs), which has been cut from 12 to only six vessels.[i] With two already launched and four more to come, some have argued that, in light of the troubles created by a program to cost close to $2.5 billion, perhaps it would have been a wiser decision to swap them for additional general-purpose frigates: “The review advises looking for other uses for the remaining six OPVs, but perhaps this money could be better spent building up actual combat capability.”

Moving forward

In terms of budget and funding, the implementation of the fleet structure review “will see the Albanese Government inject an additional $1.7 billion over the Forward Estimates and $11.1 billion over the next decade in Defense for an accelerated delivery of Navy’s future surface combatant fleet and to expand Australia’s shipbuilding industry.”

While the review sounds really good on paper, the RAN will face significant challenges in the quest to transform the vision recommended in the analysis into reality. One of the main obstacles will be workforce levels. As highlighted by Ben Felton,

“Workforce challenges, both in the defense industry and RAN, have the potential to derail the government’s plans for the new fleet before it even gets off the ground. In Western Australia, where eight of the new ‘Tier 2’ small warships will be built, military shipbuilders have struggled to attract and retain talent in the face of tough competition from the state’s mining industry, which has led to a litany of delays across multiple programs according to the Australian National Audit Office.”

These shortages also extend, as has been previously noted, to the shipbuilding industry, a challenge common to many other Australian allies (including the US), which needs to be addressed if the current plan is to be achieved over the next years. As said the Hon. Pat Conroy, Minister for Defense Industry, “this significant advancement in Navy capability that will be delivered under this plan requires a strong, sovereign defense industry.” The review recommends “that Tier 1 vessels be built, maintained, upgraded and sustained at the shipyard in Osborne,” while the LOSVs and the rest of Tier 2 combatants would be constructed in Henderson.

In general terms, while it may still be to early to jump into solid conclusions, the new fleet structure designed unveiled by the Albanese Government is certainly better than many would have initially expected. It fulfills the need of a much-need desired fleet expansion beyond the traditional ceiling of 20 surface combatants, although details on the specific capabilities for many of them are yet to be further specified—and those in the Tier 2 will have limited naval strike capabilities.

Crucial however, to turn the vision of the document into reality, will be the role of the shipbuilding industry and the retention of uniformed and civilian personnel. Australia, as many of its allies, is in serious need for higher level of workforce size; it doesn’t matter how many ships you build if you are not going to be able to operate them with proper crew requirements. Much work remains to be done, adding to the already exorbitant costs and efforts derived from the AUKUS submarine program.

The case of Australia signifies the growing importance of sea power in modern international politics, in what many have already dubbed “the maritime century,” and will likely set an example for many other European allies (including Spain) which will also need to strengthen their naval capabilities and fleet sizes to meet current and future strategic challenges.

[i] Originally, the Arafura-class program was envisioned to replace four different classes of coastal vessels with a total of 20 units: the Armidale-class patrol boats, the Huon-class minehunters, the Leeuwin-class survey vessels, and the Paluma-class survey motor launches.