We need a Navy able to fight when it does not choose the terms
Stone the crows, not only is the Navy spending a bomb on building submarines it is also investing in ways to sink them!
While everyone is arguing about the replacement of the Collins class submarines another huge capital programme is setting sail without much discussion – the anti-submarine frigate programme. [i] This upsets Hugh White, who wants a debate on whether replacing the existing ANZAC class with what he calls “a very costly set of big new frigates” is “the best way ahead for the navy or the strategic challenges Australia faces.” [ii]
He isn’t going to get it. The Future Frigates were in the Labor Government’s 2013 defence white paper. [iii]And Defence Minister Kevin Andrews makes it clear they are in this year’s. Mr Andrews says they will be bigger than the ANZACs class, reflecting the international trend to larger frigates and that they will need to be able to operate everywhere from Australia’s approaches to the Indian-Pacific and beyond. However they will have a particular focus on anti-submarine warfare, because there will be 300 submarines in our region in 15 years. [iv]
Rather than a blue water navy projecting power far from Australia Professor White argues we need the ability to stop an enemy dominating our sea-lanes and this, sea denial, “is much easier to achieve than sea control.” [v]
Instead of big, well big-ish surface ships to do it, we need aircraft and a “lot more” submarines. [vi] It’s why Professor White also questions the strategic sense of the air warfare destroyer programme for regional missions the Navy will undertake
This is the fundamental issue – the frigates are more than we need to stop an enemy controlling Australia’s sea lanes but nowhere near enough for the RAN to control them against an enemy. “To justify investing in forces for sea control, we need to establish not just that sea control is desirable, but that the forces we plan to build will deliver it where and when we need it. If the Navy can make a compelling argument that the kind of fleet it has in mind would achieve the sea control required to keep Australia supplied in a major war, I would very strongly support building it. I’ve never seen that argument made, or even attempted.” [vii]
In essence we are building ships with a bigger capacity for the task they will be needed to do, except in a full-scale war, when they will have no hope of controlling the ocean – which means we are wasting the defence budget. “The first law of defence policy is that every dollar can only be spent once. Every dollar we spend on capabilities that don’t contribute cost-effectively to the missions we need to be able to do detracts from our capacity to do the ones we do need to do, and weakens Australia’s security,” Professor White argues. [viii]
This all makes a great deal of sense, as long as Australia gets to choose the nature of the next air-sea war we are in. It may include stopping an enemy blocking oil imports. [ix] Or it may involve RAN integrating with the US Navy, with the RAN’s airwarfare destroys keeping the skies clear and the frigates hunting submarines, while our own subs sink Chinese warships in the South China Sea. [x]
Or it may require the Navy to fight in unexpected, perhaps now unanticipated circumstances. Imagine if the RAN had to so support the army in the Pacific in the face of a hostile navy and without US support. The point surely is that just because we lack the resources to prepare for all eventualities on our own does not mean we will never face them.
In any case, while the proposed frigates will be fit for purpose this does not mean they have will have more antisubmarine warfare capacity than needed; active towed-array sonar, maritime-based land-attack cruise missile capability, and space for combat helicopters and UAVs.[xi]
As James Goldrick points out; “credibility depends on capability.” [xii]And for a maritime power capability surely requires capacity to prepare to respond with a range of threats with all the resources we can afford.
[ii] John Kerin, “British connection seals arms buyers fate,” Australian Financial Review, April 8
[vi] Hugh White, “Australia can assert maritime power without spending millions on huge vessels,” The Age, October 29 2013
[ix] James Goldrick, “As long as we use ships to move cargo, the navy will need to control the sea,” Sydney Morning Herald, October 29 2013
[x] Brendan Nicholson, “Navy prepares for a conflict more likely than we think,” The Australian August 11 2012