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Prokhor Tebin

PhD in Political Science, RIAC expert

With naval power as a key tool of its foreign and security policies, Australia is striving to strengthen its leadership in the South Pacific, which is making the modernization of the Royal Australian Navy a matter of particular attention. This issue is especially important because the regional balance of power appears to be changing.

With naval power as a key tool of its foreign and security policies, Australia is striving to strengthen its leadership in the South Pacific, which is making the modernization of the Royal Australian Navy a matter of particular attention. This issue is especially important because the regional balance of power appears to be changing.

Australia's national security is directly linked to its naval power and freedom of navigation, since its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) currently exceeds eight million square kilometers and 75 percent of the country’s trade is completed by sea. No wonder that naval strategy is a major concern even for the Army Chief of Staff.

One of the key aspects of Australia’s overall force and naval development is the establishment of an optimal naval structure and a balancing of high and low intensity operations under nonmilitary missions. At first glance, the country does not appear to be facing any threats of outright aggression and can always count on U.S. assistance if such a situation arises. However, this is not quite true.

Firstly, American power and military dominance in the Asia-Pacific Region seems to be on a downward spiral. Secondly, Washington tends to shift some of the responsibility for maintaining stability and security in the world, especially in Asia-Pacific, to its allies in an attempt to diminish the unilaterality of its defense and security coverage. In order to be able to rely on U.S. assistance in case of a military threat, an ally should now also contribute his part to the best of their abilities. Thirdly, there is always a danger that Washington fails to view the threat either properly or timely enough to respond even in the case of direct aggression against an ally, especially if the scale and political aims of the enemy’s action are limited.

Various forms of conflict or restrictions placed on the influence of China or Indonesia on Australia's foreign policy may easily happen over the next 20-30 years.

Australia strives for good relations with its neighbors, while continuing to worry about the dramatic changes in the regional balance of power, primarily about the military rise and greater foreign policy appetites of China and the economic growth of Indonesia, the latter which has surpassed Australia in GDP when measured by PPP. Relations with Indonesia are the key factor for the security of Australian sea lanes, while Jakarta retains the right to make the political decision of turning the country into a major military power. Should Indonesia increase its defense spending from the current level of under one percent of GDP to the world average mark of 2.5 percent, its military power would receive an immense boost.

So far, there have been no glaring contradictions within the Australia-Indonesia-China triangle. Moreover, Canberra and Jakarta are closely cooperating in the area of defense. However, various forms of conflict or restrictions placed on the influence of China or Indonesia on Australia's foreign policy may easily happen over the next 20-30 years.

Prokhor Tebin: The Koala between the Dragon
and the Eagle

In the absence of a capable system of defending itself, Australia will have difficulties implementing an independent foreign policy in the South Pacific and keeping its medium-size power status.

Hence, developing a proper defense structure is a must, with the Navy being assigned numerous peacetime missions, among them humanitarian assistance, emergency and disaster relief operations (for example, assistance to the Philippines in the aftermath of typhoon Haiyan), peacekeeping and stabilization operations (similar to that done on the East Timor and Solomon Islands), neutralization of nonmilitary threats, protection of the EEZ, etc. Such operations not only help maintain regional stability and a benign environment, but also bolster Australia's image as a responsible Southern Pacific leader. In order to carry out such operations and promptly respond to local crises, the Australian Navy requires advanced expeditionary assets.

Therefore, Australia requires a balanced and diverse Navy capable of responding to varied challenges and threats, although its resources for achieving this aim are rather limited in view of its military budget, defense industry capacity and skilled personnel.

Australian Shipbuilding

Australia's long-term plans envision an all-out renovation of its Navy. While the integrated shipbuilding program is titled Force 2030, some of its components may be completed as soon as the 2010s, with others extended into the 2040s. Total fleet strength will remain unchanged at somewhat over 50 ships from the main classes. At the same time, total displacement is intended grow by 50 percent from about 144,000 to 238,000 tons, with a substantial rise in other qualitative parameters.

Photo: Aus DoD
Australian Collins submarine

As far as naval development is concerned, Australia is working to localize the design and manufacture of all its national defense assets. Although this often means higher production costs and longer completion periods, Canberra prefers to have a shipbuilding sector of its own. Australia's key partners in shipbuilding are the United States and Spain.

Upon implementation of the Anzac Class frigate and Collins Class submarine programs, in the 2000s, Australian shipbuilders ran into a terrible shortage of orders, suffering fallout in both skills and personnel. The situation changed in late 2009 when the advanced destroyer program was launched. Another success story has also definitely been the Australian company Austal, whose American branch is building Independence Class littoral ships and high-speed JHSV vessels for the U.S. Navy.

Australia's main shipbuilders are ASC in Adelaide, BAE Systems Australia in Melbourne, Austal in Henderson and Forgacs in Newcastle. With its potential restored in late 2000s thanks to these new programs, these four shipyards now employ about 4,400 workers.

In the absence of a capable system of defending itself, Australia will have difficulties implementing an independent foreign policy in the South Pacific and keeping its medium-size power status.

Major programs encourage healthy development of Australian shipbuilding, although since 2013 the sector has been worried about the irregularity of contracts. As a result, the workforce engaged in the Navy contracts by 2017 is expected to drop from the current 3,000 to almost zero and soar to over 4,000 by 2021 and exceed 6,000 by 2027. Such instability might seriously hamper the management of human resources and affect both program costs and terms of completion.

The problem might be solved by transferring some contracts to foreign corporations, but that would contradict the current force development policy and is seen by Australians as a last resort. If the Force 2030 shipbuilding programs are to be carried out by Australian firms, upon their completion, the country will have to find ways to preserve its advanced shipbuilding capabilities, for example by continuing to build ships for its Navy during the next 20-30 years or become an exporter of naval assets.

In the past, Australia sold small amphibious and patrol ships, while through its current advanced surface and subsurface shipbuilding programs, the country could fill a niche in the global naval engineering market, following the example of South Korea which began producing German Type 209 submarines for later sale to Indonesia.


Australia's most ambitious shipbuilding program specifies the construction of 12 new conventional submarines to replace its six outdated Collins Class submarines that are currently part of the Royal Australian Navy. According to experts, submarines offer the best means for defending the maritime approaches to Australia because there is nothing more effective for challenging enemy surface and subsurface ships in areas beyond the reach of land-based aviation and in the absence of deck-based aircraft.

Photo: U-216 Conventional Submarine

Notably, Australian plans for doubling the submarine fleet are quite far-reaching, although in the near future, its strength will remain unchanged. Based on the Västergötland design of Swedish company Kockums, six Collins submarines were built in Australia and put into service in 1996-2003.

From the very beginning, Collins submarines have experienced numerous troubles including defects, high operation costs and lengthy repairs). However, the Australian Department of Defense dismisses much of the criticism over the submarines, while manufacturers claim that most technical problems have already been tackled. The submarines are currently being upgraded within Project SEA 1439, including seeing the installation of the ISCMMS control system, communication and electronic warfare assets, and the Scylla sonar.

Future submarines to be built under Project SEA 1000 must be fit for extended deployment far away from the Australian coastline and with a low level of dependence on bases and supply ships. They also must be capable of striking surface, subsurface and onshore targets. Hence, they will feature impressive displacement, a sizeable crew, long range operations and long capabilities for operating at sea.

Construction of the first new-generation submarine should begin in 2017 so that the submarine could be put into service in 2025-2027. The sixth piece will be commissioned around 2033. The Collins Class service life had been set at 28 years, which means they should be discarded in 2024-2031 creating a threat of reductions in the undersea fleet in late 2020s. The Australian Department of Defense often refers to the 2012 study, which found that overhaul and modernization could extend the submarines' service life by seven years. At the same time, due to various defects, they could be decommissioned even before the 28-year service life expires. Hence, if the Australians fail to extend the Collins service life, all the more if it is shortened, the country will have to either put up with the lower numbers or buy some more subs abroad.

While the integrated shipbuilding program is titled Force 2030, some of its components may be completed as soon as the 2010s, with others extended into the 2040s.

At a tentative cost of 36-40 billion dollars, Project SEA 1000 should result in not only submarines but also a stable submarine building sector and relevant operational infrastructure.

In May 2012, the government allocated 214 million dollars for carrying out pre-design R&D for the new-generation submarine and invited the DCNS of France, Navantia of Spain and German HDW. The Australians are also cooperating with U.S. corporations, since the pre-design R&D uses the AN/BYG-1 tactical control system and Mk48 Mod 7 torpedoes.

In May 2013, Canberra decided to suspend off-the-shelf designs and select either an evolved Collins or an absolutely new design because the existing models have failed to meet its requirements for future submarines.

At the same time, two revolutionary ways for implementing Project SEA 1000 were also announced, i.e. the purchase of either Japanese Soryu Class or the American Virginia Class nuclear submarines, which suits the Australian Navy’s objective of possessing nuclear submarines instead of conventional ones. The planned outlays could make nuclear subs a reality, but the scenario seems unlikely, mainly because Australia would like to build its ships at its own shipyards.

Although Australia is unlikely to buy Japanese submarines, Canberra and Tokyo are developing cooperation in submarine construction. Among other things, Australians would be quite happy to obtain the Soryu power plant.

Photo: J.R. Montero
Hull of Canberra Class LHD. La Coruna

Canberra will mostly likely adopt a European design. Despite long-lasting successful cooperation in naval engineering, the chances of Navantia joining the program appear poor, in no small measure because of grave problems associated with the construction of Spanish leading submarine S-80, the first submarine class designed by the Spanish without external assistance. The DCNS also appears an unlikely choice, mainly due to troubles during the construction of the Scorpene submarine for India.

Germany's position appears the strongest. Its modern submarines feature small displacement and are adapted to littoral operations, but the HDW is developing the new Class 216 conventional submarine with about 4,000 tons displacement, which best meets the SEA 1000 requirements. In addition, the Kockums, the designer of the Collins Class, is part of the Thyssen Krupp Marine Systems (parent company of the HDW). In spite of all the Collins difficulties, in June 2013 Australia and Sweden signed an agreement on cooperation in submarine construction.

Notably, not all Australians support the construction of submarines using foreign blueprints, with many people in the defense sector convinced that the country must not only build but also design its own advanced underwater ships. At the same time, Australia appears unlikely to see Project SEA 1000 successfully completed, as evidence by problems faced during the construction and operation of the Collins Class, the overall complexity of the building process, the design features of modern undersea vessels, and the extremely significant requirements for fully building out their features. The Royal Australian Navy is already getting into difficulties with manpower, which makes the aim of doubling employment in the future an even more complicated task.

Amphibious Forces

Australia's key partners in shipbuilding are the United States and Spain.

Project JP 2048 is another way to fortify Australia's sea power by strengthening amphibious and expeditionary assets, submitting them to a deep modernization of all relevant components in order to raise naval capabilities to substantially higher level. This program aims to almost triple the aggregate displacement of all amphibious ships and boats (from 27,100 to 79,300 tons) and increase the total amphibious lift by 2.3 times (from 1,115 to 2,600 men).

The construction of two Canberra Class 28,000-tons amphibious assault ships (based on Spanish Juan Carlos I Class) is underway under Phase 4 of Project JP 2048. Total costs being about three billion dollars, the ships are being built jointly by Navantia and BAE Systems Australia and are planned for commissioning in 2104 and 2016. In 2011, Australia also signed a contract with Navantia for 12 LCM-1E landing craft for the new assault ships.

Many deem it feasible to use the Canberra Class as a light aircraft carrier through the addition of F-35B fighters. However, there is no data to prove that Australia is considering this possibility, while the preservation of the takeoff ramp available on the Juan Carlos 1 Class seems to indicate excessive re-design costs.

F-35B Aircraft, BAE Systems Australia

The advanced modernization of Australian amphibious forces was triggered by the 2010 troubles encountered by two Kanimbla Class assault ships decommissioned that next year. At first, Australians intended to repair the HMAS Kanimbla and keep it in the Navy, but a unique opportunity turned up that Canberra promptly seized. Due to budget limitations, in 2010, the British Royal Navy decided to get rid of its amphibious landing dock ship Largs Bay, which were put into service in 2006 and worth 238 million dollars in 2007 prices. Australia bought this practically new ship at just 103 million dollars and soon put it into service under the name HMAS Choules, thus acquiring a more than viable alternative to repairing the shabby Kanimbla. Besides, Canberra spent 130 million dollars to purchase ADV Ocean Shield for humanitarian operations, which will be transferred to the Customs and Border Protection Service in 2016, after the assault ship is commissioned.

Phase 5 of Project JP 2048 provides for the replacement of three obsolete Balikpapan heavy landing craft with six new LCH vessels to be deployed in coastal waters in order to provide support to assault ships and the landing dock ship, and participate in operations when the use of large ships is impractical. Australia also plans to build two new multipurpose supply ships to replace the HMAS Success (currently under repairs, with its functions performed by Spanish SPA Cantabria) and the tanker HMAS Sirius.

Surface Forces

Australia's surface fleet includes four outdated Adelaide Class guided missile frigates (4,000 tons displacement; the oldest at almost 31 years and the youngest at 20 years of service; its design is based on the U.S. frigate Oliver Hazard Perry) and eight fairly modern Anzac Class frigates (about 3,600 tons displacement; the oldest at 17 years and the youngest at seven years of service).

The Adelaide Class frigates and the already decommissioned Perth Class destroyers are to be replaced by three 7,000-tons Hobart Class air warfare destroyers worth about eight billion dollars and equipped with the Aegis combat system, which are being built under Project SEA 4000. Their design is based on Navantia's Alvaro de Bazan frigates which present a diminished version of American Arleigh Burke destroyers.

Hobart Class destroyers are built mainly in Australia by the AWD alliance consortium which incorporates the ASC and the Australian branch of Raytheon and Defense Materiel Organization; BAE Systems Australia and Forgacs also participate in the program.

The leading destroyer had been planned for commissioning in 2014 and two follow ships in 2016-2017 but the deadlines were extended to respectively 2016, 2017 and 2019 due to the difficulties experienced by BAE Systems Australia, budget cuts and the desire to protect the industry from a difficult time gap between the construction of destroyers and advanced submarines.

The Royal Australian Navy Adelaide-class frigate
HMAS Newcastle (FFG 06) and the Anzac-class
HMAS Parramatta (FFH 154) are moored pier
side at Naval Station Pearl Harbor

Initially, the Hobart Class contract included an option of a fourth ship, quite a popular idea in the defense sector but criticized by some experts and even representatives of the Royal Australian Navy.

Proponents of the fourth ship emphasize the much better price, the possible adjustment of the ship to air defense missions and the abovementioned need to eliminate the time gap in the implementation of naval programs hurt by a loss of skilled labor and technology and damage done to shipbuilders. Opponents insist that the likeliest conflict scenarios requiring Australian naval participation would not involve sophisticated air attacks, and there is no need for an additional destroyer in the absence of clashes with China or Indonesia. According to some experts, advanced air warfare destroyers are absolutely excessive in view of Australia's current threats, and Australia's amphibious operations are unlikely to face fairly intensive counter attacks by an enemy air force. For such scenarios, an emphasis should be placed on land-based aviation, i.e. fifth-generation fighters, tanker aircraft and AEW and control aircraft.

However, the Australian army has no air defenses except for MANPADs. So, in the absence of land-based aviation coverage, ships become the only provider of air defenses, especially during expeditionary operations. This means that the Hobart Class destroyers may be indispensible.

In the future, Australia is planning to replace the Anzac Class frigates with eight ASW frigates under Project SEA 5000. There have been innovative proposals to have them built on the basis of Spanish Alvaro de Bazan frigates, which is not a likely scenario because the design process would be excessively time-consuming and the resultant ships turning out unreasonably costly. At the same time, Navantia may have a role in the project.

While the new-generation frigates only seem a matter of time, Australia is implementing a 650-million-dollar project to upgrade all its existing Anzac frigates by 2017. The frigates will be equipped with active phased array radars CEAFAR and CEAMOUNT and ESSM missiles.

Australia is strengthening its naval air force by purchasing 24 powerful American MH-60R helicopters at a price of three billion dollars within Phase 9 of Project AIR 9000 to ensure the availability of a helicopter simultaneously on eight frigates and destroyers. Other helicopters will be grounded for repairs and crew training. The first two helicopters will be delivered later this year.

Finally, in the long term, Canberra wants to build 20 multipurpose offshore combatant vessels (OCV) with 2,000-tons displacement (Project SEA 1180) to replace six Huon Class mine hunters, 14 Armidale Class patrol boats, four Paluma Class and two Leewin Class survey vessels. In the near future, Australians would like to buy several new patrol ships and extend the life of mine hunters and survey ships. The first OCV Class ship is expected to be commissioned in 2018-2021.

The Royal Australian Navy is rapidly advancing the development of its national defenses during wartime and its ability to carry out peacetime missions. If the key components of the Force 2030 program are successfully completed, the Navy will grow significantly and become a powerful foreign policy instrument that could be also used along with Japanese forces to support U.S. naval operations. In the longer term, Australia may also export various naval engineering products. Although the aims seem reasonably viable, the successful completion of all objectives is an unlikely scenario.

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