OPINION | With delay of fleet review, RAN must be prepared to fight with what it has now

The future offshore patrol vessel HMAS Arafura being launched into the water for the first time at the Osborne Naval Shipyard in South Australia, December 16, 2021 (Photo: Australian Department of Defence/LAC Stewart Gould)
The future offshore patrol vessel HMAS Arafura being launched into the water for the first time at the Osborne Naval Shipyard in South Australia, December 16, 2021 (Photo: Australian Department of Defence/LAC Stewart Gould)

Defence Minister Richard Marles has announced that decisions on the surface combatant fleet review will not be made public until 2024. This analysis was an outcome of the defence strategic review, which recommended that the government direct "an independent analysis of navy's surface combatant fleet capability to ensure the fleet's size, structure and composition complement the capabilities provided by the forthcoming conventionally-armed, nuclear-powered submarine".

As I have written, it's difficult to understand how Australia's acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines changes the surface combatant fleet structure requirements. However, the Royal Australian Navy's surface fleet, including its combatants, has deep issues in an era of little to no strategic warning time of a major conflict in the Indo-Pacific. The review is essential but its scope should extend far beyond the make-up of the surface combatant fleet.

Because Australia is a maritime nation, many of our vulnerabilities manifest in that domain. It will be argued that this review of the backbone of the Australian Defence Force's maritime operations is one of the most significant in recent years. So how did we get here? What are the key considerations? And what does the delayed decision mean?

Many a naval officer or maritime strategist laments that Australia has long failed to understand and insure against its maritime vulnerabilities through investment in an adequately sized and armed RAN. The current surface combatant fleet consists of eight Anzac-class frigates and three Hobart-class destroyers. The Anzacs comprise over 70 per cent of the surface combatants but they are rapidly ageing. HMAS Anzac was commissioned in 1996 and has been in service for nearly 30 years. It was to be withdrawn in 2024–25 but, with its sister ships, it's now expected to be in service for an additional nine years because of delays in building its replacement, the Hunter-class frigates.

Ageing frigates are expensive to sustain at the best of times, but it's likely that the Anzacs are in an even worse state with sustainment having a significant impact on the navy's capability budget. A 2019 performance audit of the frigates by the Australia National Audit Office found that the Anzacs have "experienced degradation of the ships' hulls and sub-systems, with successive reviews and performance information highlighting the link between lack of conformance to operating intent/requirement, reduced platform life and reduced sustainment efficiency."

The frigates are intended to be upgraded through the transition capability assurance program, but they've had hard lives and there's a question mark over whether all eight can be extended for an additional nine years. Not only must the review urgently address the state and age of the Anzacs, it must also grapple with the cost blowouts, delays, and limited missile capability of the replacement Hunter class.

"Perhaps more significant is the question of whether the Hunter-class frigate is adequate for Australia's geopolitical circumstances."

The second challenge is what to do with the navy's Arafura-class offshore patrol vessels (OPVs). The RAN currently shares the burden of constabulary operations with the Australian Border Force. Many have advocated that duties such as fisheries and border protection patrols should be given to a coastguard, but in the near to medium term, these constabulary operations will remain with the RAN.

The OPV was designed to replace the much smaller Armidale-class patrol boat. The 2009 defence white paper stated that:

The future Offshore Combatant Vessel will be able to undertake offshore and littoral warfighting roles, border protection tasks, long-range counter-terrorism and counter-piracy operations, support to special forces, and missions in support of security and stability in the immediate neighbourhood. This increased capability will also ensure that major surface combatants are free for more demanding operations [emphasis added].

If the OPV is purely to undertake constabulary tasks, then the size of the vessels and associated crewing burden is too large. If it's intended to "ensure major surface combatants are free for more demanding operations," then its armament and survivability are too low.

The reality is that the review doesn't need to look at the surface combatant fleet structure because of the acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines, but as the result of an ageing and inadequately structured surface combatant fleet.

The first issue is what to do with the ageing Anzacs. There are clear challenges in sustaining them despite the planned upgrades. With the Hunter class due in the 2030s, it's fair to question if all eight Anzacs can last that long given the ANAO's assessment of their condition—and can the Hunter class be delivered on time and at a reasonable cost? Perhaps more significant is the question of whether the Hunter is adequate for our geopolitical circumstances.

The ANAO audit likely hammered a nail into the coffin of the target number of nine Hunters, and the government's decision to delay the release of the review until 2024 may indicate that this project will be reduced in size or abandoned. The first Hunter is scheduled for delivery in mid-2032. If the program is abandoned or reduced in number, and if all the Anzacs can't be sustained until the early 2030s, how will the gap be filled? What replaces those nine planned frigates is crucial.

"The delay in announcing the surface combatant decision may also mean that the Arafura-class patrol vessel project will be reduced or ceased."

The answers are not easy or readily apparent, but I would suspect the front runner may be the US Constellation-class frigate, which is based on the Italian Fincanteri FREMM design. When Australia opted for the Hunter class, the US had decommissioned its Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates (also operated by Australia) and was seemingly out of the frigate game. However, the challenges associated with its littoral combat ship program resulted in the US Navy returning to frigates as an important capability—hence the Constellation program. The FREMM was an early contender for Australia's future frigate before the Hunter was selected.

The Constellation class has a 32-cell vertical launch system for missiles. The Hunter-class has been criticised for having the same number. But the US is considering adding Tomahawk cruise missiles to the Constellation-class. At 7,300 tonnes, the FREMM displaces 2,700 tonnes less than the Hunter design, with scope for capability growth.

The argument that the RAN needs the firepower of more destroyers has been well made by numerous commentators.

The delay in announcing the surface combatant decision may also mean that the Arafura project will be reduced or ceased. The challenge here is that the project is well into production. The first ship is due to be commissioned in 2024, the second vessel is being fitted out, and the keel has been laid for the fifth. Could they be produced with greater armament, or sold to regional navies? Both are possibilities.

But that would raise the question of what would replace the OPVs on constabulary operations. The Armidale patrol boats are already being decommissioned.

Perhaps the answer is the Cape-class patrol boat, which the RAN rushed into service following issues with the sustainability of the Armidales. An expansion of the Cape fleet would require half the workforce of the Arafuras. The Capes would be purely used on constabulary operations, rather than the 2009 white paper's aspiration for OPVs to supplement the major surface combatants.

And so, we wait. The review's recommendation's will be known next year and will likely be aligned with the release of the national defence strategy. There are significant decisions to grapple with, and it's likely that none will come without requiring additional funding.

As time creeps on in an era of no strategic warning time, and as capability reviews continue, the sobering thought is that the ADF and RAN must be prepared to fight tonight with the fleet they have now.

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