Navy Chief Tim Barrett has warned that Australia’s new surface warship and submarine force must be powerful enough to strike blows to deter a distant enemy from attacking Australia.
In his address to ASPI’s annual White Ensign Dinner, Vice Admiral Barrett said that by 2025, it is expected that almost half of the world’s economic output will come from the Asia–Pacific region. It lies at the centre of the massive economic trading artery running from the Middle East, across the Indian Ocean, through the South China Sea, past Japan and on to North America.
Four of the world’s top defence spenders—the United States, China, Russia and India—are active in the region, Barrett said. “Many of the global challenges will increasingly be played out in our region.”
The navy chief said traditional challenges like state-on-state coercion and competition are on the rise and non-traditional threats are making their presence felt in profound ways.
“Global terrorist networks are taking root in Southeast Asia, and Australia and its neighbours are all looking to work together to strengthen regional counterterrorism capacity. We will also need to respond to the effects of climate change and natural disasters”, Barrett said.
“I expect that we will face challenges to our border security of increasing complexity and scale, whether they be from coordinated illegal fishing enterprises or from international criminal syndicates seeking to smuggle illegal migrants. And we will face these challenges in a faster paced environment, a more complex environment, and possibly against near peer competitors”, he said.
“Advanced intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance systems will become more prevalent, ultimately reducing the effectiveness of stealth capabilities. We will face increased offensive cyber and space-based challenges which may be able to disable or degrade our infrastructure and operational networks.”
There will be more autonomous systems, such as unmanned combat vehicles, above and below the oceans, on land and in the air.
A balanced, connected and integrated force
Barrett said that over the next two decades, other technological advances such as quantum computing, innovative manufacturing, hypersonics, and directed energy weapons are likely to bring weapons and systems into the region.
“There has never before been a time when threats distant from our shores, whether they be from the sea, land or air, can so quickly affect our direct interests. Australia will need to be able to bring together a balanced, connected and integrated force that combines different land, air, sea, intelligence, electronic warfare, cyber and space capabilities so that we can apply more force, more rapidly and more effectively”, he said.
“We need a balanced, connected and integrated force that can deliver lethality when required. Lethality is the key to our ability to wage war and, subsequently, the key to how we deter an attack on our interests.”
That’s why the navy, and the ADF as a whole, are being rebuilt and expanded, he said. The navy is moving back to being task-group oriented to make it more agile and responsive.
“As the navy is expanded, we must be cognisant that we maintain our focus on core capabilities that will enable the navy in the future to apply decisive lethal force at the adversary’s point of maximum vulnerability, where the application of that lethal force makes the greatest strategic sense.”
Core capabilities are the ability to project, from a distance, power from the sea; the ability to impose unacceptable costs on an adversary; the ability to deliver targeted and decisive lethality; the ability to take decisions quickly and manoeuvre naval force with speed and flexibility; the ability to enhance survivability by ensuring that personnel are able to adapt doctrine and tactics to meet the needs of the moment; the ability to exploit and manipulate our strategic advantages deriving from our capacity to project power from the sea; “and finally, the ability to ensure, as a part of a coherent national force or an allied–coalition force, that we have the mass and the flexibility to deter and, if necessary, to dominate our adversary at sea.”
The future submarine project will a potent part of that mix. The navy chief rejected suggestions that the French project to build Australia’s 12 big new conventional submarines is set to fail. He said that, “contrary to recent commentary, the project appears to me to be meeting its milestones.”
He was referring to a report in which a team of former senior public servants, businessmen and defence analysts headed by ANU professor and defence specialist Hugh White warned that the navy could be left without a submarine force for “a decade or two” because the plan to design and build the new submarines was wildly ambitious. Naval Group of France, formerly DCNS, is the international partner to design the boats.
“We have formal government-to-government agreements in place, a functioning design centre has been built in Cherbourg (by Australian tradespeople with Australian materials) and the Australian project team is filling it rapidly. The construction site in Osbourne is being secured and yard design is in progress”, Barrett said.
New vessels underway
He said work has begun on the navy’s two new tankers and the first is expected to be delivered in 2019 and the second in 2020.
The evaluation of the tender for 12 offshore patrol vessels is complete and a decision is expected from the government later this year, Barrett said. “We are on track, with the construction of the first vessel to begin in 2018.”
Tenders for the navy’s nine new frigates are being evaluated and the process is on schedule for construction to commence in Adelaide in 2020.
The two giant assault ships, or landing helicopter docks, are in service, “and have already fought their first battles (but these were mainly reputational ones and were with the media)”, Barrett said. An early problem identified with their propulsion pods was managed in a deliberate, disciplined and seaworthy manner and both ships are proving their utility, he said. “We have demonstrated that we are able to deploy task groups equipped with a wide range of capabilities from high-end warfighting to humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.”
One of the LHDs, HMAS Adelaide, is leading the six-ship Joint Task Group, Indo-Pacific Endeavour 2017, on visits to Asian nations. Adelaide has army and air force elements on board. “This deployment will be Australia’s biggest coordinated task group operation since the early 1980s.”
Barrett said the six Collins-class submarines are performing very well, with four available at a time.
And just over a week ago, the navy’s most sophisticated warship, the air warfare destroyer HMAS Hobart, was commissioned.
“Amid the complexity of all that is this ambitious shipbuilding plan, with all the challenges that big decisions bring, and with the ferocious debate that accompanies such potentially high-risk endeavours—the evidence is, we are getting on with things”, Barrett said.
“So while there remains some uncertainty in how the final plan will unfold, and certainly there is some public criticism of what has been referred to as the veil of probity associated with ongoing commercial negotiations, there are, I believe, some clear indications of progress being made and there is clarity emerging around the future vision of the national shipbuilding enterprise”, he said.
“We need to understand and remain vigilant to the fact that this shipbuilding stuff will be a medium- to high-risk venture for the next 30 years, until the full mantle of continuous shipbuilding is secured. It will require vision and resolve. And to sustain it will require a different approach to every problem.
“But I believe it is not beyond us. I base this on the evidence of what has already occurred. And changes in behaviours of those involved.”
“There has to be a closer relationship between Defence and industry”
Barrett said that it is critical to unite the navy and the nation in a national endeavour to ensure success. It has to be recognised that the navy is an intrinsic national capability, intimately connected to the social, economic, industrial and educational drivers of national wellbeing—”not just something you bring out in times of trouble”.
“And if we are to harness the benefits and opportunities of the Defence White Paper and the national shipbuilding plan, there must be a fundamental shift in thinking about what the navy actually is, where it fits into our national architecture and how it relates to the national economic infrastructure.”
To have a naval force that is available, sustainable and affordable as well as lethal, there has to be a closer relationship between Defence and industry.
“I think the actions we have taken over the past few years with regard to industry engagement have set a good foundation for making this recapitalisation a success over the decades to come”, Barrett said. “But it will require constant resolve towards an enterprise behaviour.”
The navy is already reaping benefits. “I have seen improvements in the way we (navy and industry together) manage not only the seaworthiness of our vessels, but the seaworthiness of our entire enterprise from the top down with the implementation of the Defence Seaworthiness Management System”, Barrett said.
Brendan Nicholson is defence editor of The Strategist.