Eighteen months ago, I wrote in The Australian that “there are very dark clouds on the capability horizon. We are facing the strategic risk of both of the Navy’s core combat fleets ageing out before replacements arrive”.
At a time of growing regional threats, the Royal Australian Navy would not receive the first Hunter-class frigate until the early 2030s. And while the Morrison government had cancelled the Attack-class submarine program that was meant to deliver its first boat around 2032 in favour of nuclear- powered submarines (SSNs), the plan to deliver those SSNs had not been determined.
The Navy was facing block obsolescence and irrelevance. Moreover, despite the planned investment of $575bn in defence over the 2020s, the Department of Defence had no plan to get any more frontline warships with missile launch cells or torpedo tubes to sea until the 2030s.
It was a remarkable situation considering the urgent tone set in the Morrison government’s public statements about our strategic environment.
The key question is, during the past 18 months, has the situation improved or has the Navy’s strategic capability risk increased under the new government?
In that period it has released the “optimal” SSN pathway and the public version of the Defence Strategic Review (DSR). In the first we now at least have the broad outlines of the way forward for submarines, but by no means does the plan retire the strategic risks. The initial AUKUS honeymoon has been replaced by an AUKUS hangover as we grasp what must be done to make SSNs a reality.
For every advocate for the program, there is one nervously eyeing the obstacles that need to be overcome. These include the $368bn opportunity cost that could distort not just the Navy but the entire defence force and the thorny issue of how the US Navy will be able to provide three to five Virginia-class submarines in the 2030s without impacting its own submarine numbers.
If the plan goes to schedule – a big “if” – it won’t deliver the first boat until 2032 and the eighth until the 2050s, which is no better than the cancelled Attack class.
Meanwhile, the Collins-class submarine life of type extension program, the main mitigator against a capability gap in the submarine transition, is looking wobbly with Defence finally admitting to the scale of the risk involved in doing a major upgrade to an ageing platform.
At least with submarines, the government has set out its way forward. In contrast, the DSR was silent on surface ships other than recommending the government commission a further review that examines what the surface fleet should look like now we are getting SSNs.
One might argue that any plan for the surface fleet that simply assumes SSNs will be delivered as set out in the optimal pathway is compounding strategic risk. Would it not be more prudent to regard the future surface fleet plan as a hedge against under delivery of the submarine fleet, and vice versa? Nevertheless, that review has been completed but the government has said we’ll have to wait until next year to know what’s in it. Until then, the review hangs like a sword of Damocles over the Hunter-class frigate program, leaving industry – both those supporting the Hunter and those proposing to rapidly deliver alternatives – in continuing limbo.
While the Hunter itself doesn’t appear to have suffered from further schedule delays in the past year, neither has its schedule recovered, which means under the government’s current capability plans we are still around a decade away from getting any more vertical launch cells or anti-submarine vessels to sea. Overall the program is looking a lot like the Attack class was before it was cancelled and there is plenty of whispering that it could suffer the same fate, or at least be drastically curtailed.
And the third plank of the shipbuilding enterprise, the Arafura-class offshore patrol vessel, won’t be able to provide warfighting capability. The previous government had initially agreed to remove the missiles and helicopter capability from the original design. Now it’s getting an even smaller gun, plus the surveillance drones it was to carry have been cancelled due to budget pressures.
It’s about the most inoffensive warship imaginable.
On top of that, the OPV has missed schedule milestones and been placed on the projects of concern list, so it’s not clear when the Navy will get even this harmless vessel. As with the Hunter, there are whispers that the knives are out for it to free up funds for something more lethal.
In summary, the situation has not improved in the past 18 months. If anything, it’s gotten worse as risks have become realised.
What’s to be done? We must acknowledge that the search for perfection has gotten us into this sorry state. The DSR may not have set out the pathway forward for the fleet, but it did clearly state a philosophy, namely acquiring minimum viable capability in the shortest possible time.
In place of the ADF’s pursuit of ever-greater complexity, it needs to grasp simplicity. In the maritime space this will mean moving away from ever larger, more complex vessels that attempt to do everything but create exponentially greater cost, schedule and risk. Instead, capabilities will need to be disaggregated and spread across a mix of smaller, simpler vessels, both crewed and uncrewed, each of which will have fewer systems than the “perfect” warship.
We were recently presented with a striking example of this philosophy in action when US Navy’s Ghost Fleet, consisting of a mix of uncrewed vessels, arrived in Sydney Harbour. One of them is the Ranger, which has already autonomously launched the SM-6 extended range missile.
In contrast the RAN is still years away from putting SM-6 on any of its ships.
This alternate approach will certainly be difficult. But we need to pursue it as it will be an essential part of the future force, regardless of when our SSNs arrive. Or we can continue to sit and watch more major risks eventuate as we continue the journey to obsolescence and irrelevance.
Dr Marcus Hellyer is Head of Research at SAA. This article was first published in The Australian.