Building out Australian Maritime Capabilities: A Priority on a Whole of Nation Approach


By Robbin Laird

At the Williams Foundation Seminar held on September 28, 2002, the new Chief of Navy, Vice Admiral Mark Hammond, underscored that Australia faced a significant range of challenges to the nation associated with threats emanating from the Indo-Pacific region.

As he put it: Australia is a paradox. The geography which makes it difficult to invade and conquer Australia also makes Australia dependent upon seaborne trade. In other words, Australia might not be vulnerable to invasion, but the hostile power does not need to invade Australia to defeat Australia.”

Unpacking an understanding of the evolving relationship between the nation and the ADF is at the heart of reworking the defence of the nation in the years to come. The defence capabilities which have enabled the ADF to deliver significant but targeted warfighting capability will now be adapted and refocused on Australia’s direct defence and role in its region.

After the seminar, I had a chance to talk with VADM (Retired) Barrett about the changes required for the Royal Australian Navy to operate in the new strategic environment and to be able to provide for the kind of whole of nation approach required for Australian defence. He noted that the changes already put in motion by the 2016 strategic review needed to be accelerated but that the threat envelope had expanded rapidly in the region which has significant impacts on how to build, operate and sustain the fleet.

The key shift has been from the Middle East to the Indo-Pacific region. Barrett noted: By the time of the 2016 defence white paper, we had already assessed that our time in the Middle East was coming to an end. We’d had almost a continuous presence in that region for several decades, and that needed to change to a focus on the Indo-Pacific region.”

But it is not simply about taking the assets that were deployed to the Middle East region and redeploying them to Australia’s region. It is about the need as well to focus on the whole of nation defense approach. This is how Barrett put it: “The whole of nation appeal is not just about the navy itself. It’s about the broad concept of providing a secure and assured supply chain to Australia, some of which will be to build the sovereign military capability, but a lot of it will be to sustain and defend the national economy.”

We discussed a number of key aspects of shaping a way ahead for Australian maritime capabilities seen in terms of the national approach to defence, in terms of integration with the joint force and in terms of working with allies.

We discussed two key aspects of shaping a national approach to defence.

The first is the question of the build out of the Royal Australian Navy on Australian soil.

How will Australia build out naval bases going forward?

Will they co-locate sustainment locations with bases?

How will they work forward sustainment efforts in the region and how will that correlate with sustainment and repair facilities within Australia itself?

How will the approach to building out of Australian naval bases intersect with allied operations?

These issues obviously are a key part of the coming of the nuclear submarine capability to be deployed from Australia itself, but equally apply to the question of having the kind of basing infrastructure which credibly intersects with the challenge of staffing and quality of life that is crucial to attract the civilian workforce which is necessary for the kind of support the RAN needs for operations.

And as Australia builds parts of its fleet, how will those capabilities intersect with sustainment and repair for the fleet including with regard to allied combat ships as well?

The second is the question of building Australian merchant marine capabilities.

Barrett noted that “there are just 14 ships that are flagged on the Australian Register, and that number is going to decline over the next couple of years. The significance of flagging them under our register is that you have legal means by which you can requisition those ships to be able to take steps to secure fuel, to secure medical supplies, to secure fertilizers, whatever it may well be that you need in a crisis. You cannot do that if they’re not on our register.

“Importantly, it also builds a level of trained workforce that will operate those ships in times of emergency, because we have a diminishing pool of competent mariners in Australia, some of whom need to be retained for a growing navy force, but we also need to retain them to fill merchant marine positions. But they’re also the same people who manage ports and harbors, who manage all the ancillary facilities that are needed to supply a regular maritime industry.”

By contrast, China has built a powerful commercial maritime enterprise which it has leveraged for its naval combat fleet as well.

According to VADM (Retired) Barrett: “China produces more merchant ships per year than South Korea and Japan combined. It’s been an overt practice, and they have not just a maritime fleet that exceeds all others, but their ownership of the entire integrated maritime industry has them owning more containers than others, has them managing more container ports around the world than others, has them managing a far greater level of maritime industry financing. If they don’t own the ship, they probably own the financing behind why others own it, so therefore can influence behavior.

“And the quality of their warships that are being built now reflects their efforts in the commercial shipbuilding area as well.”

We then discussed the way ahead with regard to the Australian combat fleet.

VADM (retired) Barrett, when he was chief of navy, focused on the importance of integrated combat systems across the fleet. Such an approach also allows for enhanced integratability with allied fleets and with the joint force.

Notably, in the first ship to be built under the new continuous shipbuilding approach, the Arafura-class offshore patrol vessel, the combat systems are designed to operate modular capabilities onboard the ship and to integrate across the fleet. As Australia builds out its maritime autonomous systems capabilities, ships like the new class OPV can become mother ships delivering capabilities for the joint or allied forces.

The approach for the RAN in Barrett’s view is as follows:

“The ability of managing the combat system across the fleet means that you can vary what the hull or what the ship class can do for you and where it’s likely to operate, but still retain that ability to connect and operate under a single combat plan. If you make that combat system interchangeable with your key allies, the U.S. in this region in particular, then it allows you to offer government far more creative options depending on what the threat is in the region.

“You don’t necessarily put your air warfare destroyers or high value frigates to an area where you might be served by an OPV, which has a good combat system and a capability to modularize the weapons that it might be carrying.

“It can do work in that area to be able to demonstrate presence, particularly to the island nations, but also work from a deterrence point of view against someone who might seek to displace Australian interest in those areas.

“In other words, we’re building a fleet that has more adaptability and that allows us to be more flexible in our operational responses, both from a national sovereignty point of view or an allied operational point of view.”

“You can’t do that with a fleet that’s designed around single platform, single class types, proprietary combat systems and weapon systems that don’t contribute to an overall arsenal that belongs to a modular task force.

“It’s a philosophy as much as anything else, and I’d call it the Aegis lifestyle. You need to be able to operate in a way that you are a contributor to the overall modular task group. You all have the same ability to plug, play and contribute to the fight.”