A Modern Fleet to Deter and Defend

On Tuesday, the Albanese Government released its blueprint for ‘a larger and more lethal surface combatant fleet’ for the Royal Australian Navy. The blueprint comes in response to recommendations made by the Independent Analysis of Navy’s Surface Combatant Fleet. Australia’s economy relies on free access to the sea, and as such, relies on a naval fleet that can safeguard the necessary access. Envisioned, is a navy that is more than doubled in size and constitutes the largest number of surface combatants since the Second World War.

In an increasingly uncertain future, Australia needs a navy that can conduct diplomacy, deter adversaries, and if required, defend the Australia and its regional allies. Concerningly, the independent analysis confirmed that Australia’s current naval fleet is the ‘oldest fleet [Australia] has operated in its history’. Moreover, considering changed strategic circumstances, the Defence Strategic Review (DSR) found that Australia’s current fleet is ‘not fit for purpose’.

In line with recommendations, the Navy’s enhanced combatant fleet will be comprised of 26 major surface vessels by the late 2040s (fig. 1). Additionally, 25 minor war vessels will contribute to civil maritime security operations, which includes six Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPVs). In terms of missiles, the reshaped fleet will have more than 702 missile cells (an increase of 63%).

Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defence, the Hon Richard Marles MP, stated that the overhaul will constitute ‘the largest surface combatant force we’ve operated in generations. It will also be, in time, the most lethal’.

Figure 1: Composition of the Enhanced Fleet 
(A Larger & More Lethan Australian Navy – factsheet)

Of note, the government rejected a recommendation from the review team to upgrade the ageing Anzac-class frigates. Instead, the oldest frigate will be retired this year, and the second oldest likely to retire in 2026. With this, the fleet will not grow in absolute terms until 2031, and the number of navy’s major warships will shrink in the short term. Moreover, the government will need to address Australia’s longstanding challenges around recruitment and retention of uniformed and civilian personnel. At present, there are ships unable to be deployed due to a lack of staff.

The Government is set to invest an additional $11.1 billion over the coming decade and support over 3,700 jobs to build and sustain this ‘larger and more lethal’ fleet of vessels. Shipbuilding investment will be largely concentrated in South Australia and Western Australia, with construction of the Hunter class frigates to occur at the Osborne shipyard (SA). This addition brings the total acquisition and sustainment funding for the future fleet to $54.2 billion over the next decade. Notably, by the end of the decade defence spending will reach the equivalent of 2.4% of the economy.

24 February 2024 | Authored by Connor Andreatidis, Consultant, Precision Public Affairs

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