The strategic circumstances that Australia faces are ever changing. With a raft of shipbuilding programs on the horizon, the biggest in living memory, what situation will they face when they put to sea?

It’s easy to get caught up on the technology and the platforms that the RAN has on deck and is planning for; after all, they are the most tangible example of sea power. But they are tools to achieve aims under the direction of their operators at the behest of government. More attention has been paid to the economic side of Defence capability in recent years, with more policy guidance around the nature of the relationship between Defence and industry. The balance between capability, economics and strategic policy is a tricky one with competing narratives.

Australia is not the first of the Five Eyes nations to adopt a two-shipyard approach for the building of minor and major surface combatants. There is a lot to be said for the economic rationalism of the approach and giving companies and workers certainty. Having said that, it has been over 25 years since the Productivity Commission looked into the issue in any meaningful way. The numbers being put out by various state governments and prime companies come with their own narrative around value for money and strategic outcomes.

The current debate over where Collins class full cycle dockings should be conducted into the future is a good example of this. South Australia will be home of major surface combatant shipbuilding for the next two generations; does it really have the room and the workforce to also conduct full cycle dockings for the Collins?

The SA government argues that it does but there is a strong case to move the program west before a substantial Collins life of type extension program gets underway. It may be a case of picking your battles; full-cycle dockings may not be worth fighting for, particularly if moving them frees up a skilled workforce in Adelaide for the building of the Attack-class submarines and the Hunter-class frigates. 

Such a split though blows apart the submarine enterprise that the Coles review put in place to remediate the then dismal performance of the Collins sustainment effort; ASC would be split across two sites and the relationship with the Attack class designer and builder in Naval Group is not accounted for at all.

Despite all the technology involved in submarines, it is the people behind them that make up the capability. Any substantial change to how full cycle dockings are managed will have to be done with all these relationships, new and old, front of mind.
Moving capital equipment is easy; people less so.

In the west
The west has seen a massive increase in naval activity, a timely offset to the ups and downs of the mining and oil/gas industries. The continuing sustainment and upgrade work on the Anzac class, the home porting of the submarine fleet and its associated training pipeline plus the 10 Arafura class patrol boats in due course.

The west has also been the site of the Guardian class patrol boat program, an important element of the Pacific Step Up to continue Australia’s program of regional engagement. The Pacific Patrol Boat Replacement (Sea 3036) Project is part of the Commonwealth’s Pacific Maritime Security Program (PMSP) that aims to enhance practical maritime security cooperation across the South Pacific.

The Pacific Patrol Boat Replacement Project broadens and further strengthens the region’s capability to respond to issues such fisheries protection, trans-national crime, and search and rescue through the provision of patrol boats to Pacific Island nations.

The Pacific Patrol Boat Replacement Program (PPBR) comprises 21 x 39.5m steel hull vessels designed and constructed by Austal for delivery to 12 Pacific Island nations and Timor-Leste from late 2018 to 2023. The fourth of these boats was delivered in August this year with the rest of the production schedule on track. The boats will also be supported out of Austal’s WA facility.

It is this regional engagement program, strategic hedging, that will shape the region more than anything that rolls out of a shipyard. Prime Minister Scott Morrison has announced a new maritime security agreement with Timor-Leste, which includes a deal for Australia to fund a new wharf at the Hera naval base and provide two Guardian-class patrol boats to the country.
The announcement was made during a visit by Morrison to Dili, where he declared a ‘new chapter’ in relations between Australia and Timor-Leste. The commitment bears similarities to the one in Papua New Guinea, where Australia and the US will help redevelop the Lombrum naval base on Manus Island.

Pacific Step Up
Speaking at the Australian National University’s State of the Pacific Conference on 10 September 2018, Foreign Minister Payne said “Stepping up in the Pacific is not an option for Australian foreign policy — it is an imperative”.

The Step-up responds to the significant long-term challenges faced by our partners in the Pacific, including: climate change and responding to natural disasters; sustaining economic growth and boosting education, developing skills and jobs for growing populations; pursuing gender equality and recognising the essential role of women in achieving better development outcomes; preventing major disease outbreak and tackling transnational crime. Australia’s Step-up in engagement builds on our development assistance to the region of $1.3 billion.

The recent Pacific Island Forum in August was a chance for Australia to show leadership on a number of these fronts. It did not do so, with many leaders criticising Australia in particular for its lack of action on climate change.

The military to military links with our Pacific neighbours is in better shape, with the likes of Indo-Pacific Endeavour this year (IPE19) providing a chance to combine military training and diplomatic missions across Defence, foreign affairs and the business communities on the multi-stop trip. HMA Ships Canberra, Success, Newcastle and Parramatta were joined by force elements from Army, Air Force and representatives from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

IPE19 aimed to strengthen relationships and promote security and stability with Australia’s key regional partners, including Sri Lanka, India, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore and Indonesia.

Military-to-military engagement develops shared understanding, trust and capacity to respond to a full spectrum of real-world incidents in the region. Once again, relationship building so that when trouble happens you know who to call.

Up north
The ADF regards northern Australia as strategically important, both for national defence and as a forward base for regional engagement. The ADF presence in northern Australia also directly contributes to the economic and social development of the region.

A substantial amount of new ADF assets will either be based or operate in the vicinity of northern Australia, requiring new or upgraded facilities. These include new strike and patrol aircraft as well as the Canberra class Landing Helicopter Docks alongside Border Force assets that also operate in the region. The increasing presence of US Marine rotations within northern Australia will also require additional infrastructure and base capacity.

However, future growth in the ADF’s northern Australia presence is constrained. Climate factors affect the ADF’s ability to operate in the region and maintain its infrastructure, while northern Australia’s distance from major population centres increases resource costs and can impede retention of personnel.

Accordingly, the most cost-effective improvements will likely come through more efficient defence sustainment provided by local northern Australian defence industries. The work being done by Thales on the Armidale sustainment contract is a good example of this, having recently won an Essington Lewis certificate for their work to turn the program around.

The mission
Navy has a lot on its plate at the moment. The force is all over the world, with a new deployment back into the Straits of Hormuz to the EEZ and SAR areas that are between 7-11 per cent of the earth’s ocean in terms of sheer coverage, there is a lot to do.

Managing a heavily tasked workforce and platform program alongside some of the biggest shipbuilding plans in the world at the moment, there are challenges and opportunities on the horizon.

There are known gaps on all these fronts that are being addressed but the unplanned is always around the corner. Call it a black swan or unknown unknown, more and more operations are happening in the grey zone where the lines between warfighting and posturing are blurring. Recent grey-zone activity in maritime Asia suggests an increase in hybrid warfare. The lines between military, economic, diplomatic, intelligence and criminal means of aggression are becoming increasingly unclear.

The grey-zone is a metaphorical state of being between war and peace, where an aggressor aims to reap either political or territorial gains associated with overt military aggression without crossing the threshold of open warfare with a powerful adversary, according to the Australian Institute of International Affairs.

The zone essentially represents an operating environment in which aggressors use ambiguity and leverage non-attribution to achieve strategic objectives while limiting counteractions by other nation states.

The leading purveyor of grey-zone tactics in maritime Asia is China’s irregular maritime militia, dubbed the ‘little blue men’. It seeks to assert and expand Chinese control over an increasingly large area of disputed and reclaimed islands and reefs in the strategically important South China Sea. The militia, comprising hundreds of fisher-folks in their motorboats as well as China’s paramilitary forces, operates mainly out of Chinese-held islands in the South China Sea and has been involved in buzzing US navy ships and those of neighbouring countries with rival territorial claims.

The idea behind Chinese militia operations is to exert authority over a maritime space using civilian craft and personnel, but to do it in a way that precludes open military confrontation. Grey zone operations are coercive and intended to achieve change, but they seek at the same time to limit an adversary’s ability to respond.

Fit for purpose
This is not a future scenario; this is right now, and it is happening across our region. Is the force design that we are putting in place able to answer this threat alongside the possibility of a total war concept against a near peer adversary? Are we training our military decision makers to fight at both ends of this spectrum with the right equipment behind them (see P48 for more on hypersonics)? Do we have the right industry and strategic policy settings in place to support the force we need to fulfil the tasks set by government? Have we mapped the human terrain of our region to the point where we have confidence in what is happening and why?

The RAN has had a lot of experience in fighting pirates/transnational crime and has had a Middle East rotation since 1990 (currently at rotation 67) at sea alongside deployments into the Middle East on land as well. Navy is relatively late to the unmanned air vehicle environment but has been operating unmanned underwater vehicles for the better part of two decades, mainly in the counter mine.

One can also assume that the Silent Service is also living up to its name. The oft cited factoid that more than half the world submarines will be operating in our region by 2035 is of course a factor.

While there are claims about the increasing vulnerability of submarines to detection, these must be balanced against the realities of the environment. The sea is not yet transparent.

The Indo-Pacific sea areas are generally extremely challenging for acoustic sensors, whether passive or active. The role they have to play in grey zone operations is less clear. I would argue that Navy has not done a great job of explaining the value proposition of doubling the submarine fleet to the taxpayer given the billions of dollars involved over the life of the program.

The next major capability decision will be around mine hunting/mine counter measures/ hydrography ships. The two new ships announced by Prime Minister Morrison to be built at Henderson are probably the easiest part of the answer.

He also outlined a plan to bring forward the replacement for the Huon class mine hunters from the 2030s to the mid-2020s, with over $1 billion allocated as part of the Defence Integrated Program's Maritime Mine Countermeasures program under Sea 1905 (Editor’s note: Sea 1905 in roman numerals is MCMV – mine counter measures vessels. There are some Navy people smiling every time they read that I suspect). It also flagged the fact that much of the mapping work currently done by Navy will be contracted out.

“The commercial surveying sector can do the routine tasks more cost-effectively, so it is better for Defence to focus on the difficult and dangerous hydrographic missions such as supporting submarine or amphibious operations in unfriendly waters,” according to ASPI’s Marcus Hellyer. “Making sure Defence retains sufficient critical mass in skilled personnel will be the challenge here, not building the ship.”

The role of autonomous systems will really come into their own under Sea 1905 too – see this month’s From the Source interview for more on this.

On balance, Navy is highly trained organisation of dedicated people and is actively investing in that training (see P36 for more on the Ship Zero concept). They are undergoing a massive transformation in the platforms they crew and support. The relationship between Navy and industry, like much of the ADF, has pockets of great relationships and some that are less than efficient. They have systems and processes in place that allow for varying levels of flexibility when engaging with industry; no process is ever perfect.

Overall, Navy is in a good position to fulfil the missions that government askes of it under current circumstances. Its resiliency would be put to the test if a black swan flew over the horizon of troubled waters.

This article first appeared in the October 2019 edition of ADM.

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