4 October 2023

Defence Minister receives Navy surface combatant review, now we wait six more months

| Andrew McLaughlin
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HMAS Brisbane

An additional build run of Hobart class destroyers as proposed by Navantia may be considered. Photo: ADF.

An independent review into the Royal Australian Navy’s planned surface combatant fleet has been completed and handed to Defence Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles.

The review – authored by retired US Navy Vice-Admiral William Hilarides, former Secretary of the Department of Finance Rosemary Huxtable, and former Commander Australian Fleet Vice Admiral Stuart Mayer – was commissioned as a result of a recommendation made in the Defence Strategic Review (DSR), the public version of which was released in April this year.

But it has been reported the “necessary time to consider” the review will not see any decisions made on the Navy’s shipbuilding programs until February next year at the earliest.

A ministerial release states the review team “engaged a range of government officials, Australian Defence Force personnel, industry experts and partners to assess the capability requirements needed to meet our strategic circumstances”.

The review team considered more than 63 submissions and held more than 20 one-on-one sessions with industry and state and territory government representatives. Representatives from 83 companies and state and territory governments also attended an industry briefing day in June.

Described as a “short, sharp analysis”, the review was commissioned to determine whether the planned size, structure and composition of the Royal Australian Navy’s surface combatants will complement those capabilities provided by the planned nuclear-powered submarines being acquired under the AUKUS construct.

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“The independent analysis into Navy’s surface combatant fleet capability will help ensure our Navy’s surface combatant fleet is fit for purpose and appropriate for our strategic circumstances,” Mr Marles said in a statement.

“We will take the necessary time to consider this analysis to ensure we have an appropriately balanced surface fleet that contributes to a fully integrated and more capable Defence Force.”

Minister for Defence Industry Pat Conroy said the Independent Analysis Team took into account advice and data from Australian industry as well as experts around the world in the development of the report.

“The analysis and its recommendations will contribute to a robust and capable defence and shipbuilding industry,” Minister Conroy said.

That timeframe seems to fly in the face of the supposed urgency of the regional threat as has been repeatedly touted by politicians on both sides in recent years, and highlighted in the DSR.

That the government now needs another six months to consider the review suggests that rather than recommend a ‘steady as she goes’ approach, some big changes to the Navy’s current plans may be being considered.

READ ALSO UK government awards first major contracts for design of SSN-AUKUS submarines

The Navy’s current shipbuilding plan sees nine Hunter class frigates replacing the eight current ANZAC class frigates from 2030 to 2040, and 12 or more Arafura class lightly armed offshore patrol vessels (OPV) replacing the Armidale class and Cape class patrol boats from 2024 to 2030. Derivates of the Arafura class may also be pressed into secondary duties including marine survey, mine warfare, and as parent vessels for autonomous aerial and underwater vehicles.

The Navy also has three Hobart class destroyers in service. These will soon undergo an upgrade that will see major improvements to their weapons and combat systems.

Navy ships

The amphibious Canberra class LHDs (far left) may receive some upgrades, but HMAS Choules (right) will soon need to be replaced. Photo: Navy.

The two large Canberra class Landing helicopter Dock (LHD) amphibious vessels aren’t due for replacement anytime soon but the single former-UK Royal Fleet Auxiliary amphibious ship HMAS Choules is. The Navy’s two Supply class auxiliary oiler replenishment (AOR) vessels are new.

Possible recommendations could see changes to the Hunter class and Arafura class buy profiles and schedules, the acquisition of additional Hobart class destroyers or, as has been suggested, a smaller corvette-size class, a recommendation for a replacement for HMAS Choules, the introduction of additional AORs, and possible improvements to the Canberra class.

The original designer of the Hobart class, Spain’s Navantia has reportedly proposed to build additional vessels which can be completed quickly and economically at its Ferrol shipyard in Spain. Likewise, the Arafura class’s designer, Luerssen has proposed an improved version of its OPV design which would be close to a corvette in size and capability.

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Ahh I do hope that the big four EY Partner Stuart Mayer provided some “solid independent advice” to the Minister on this one.

Thanks to Christopher Pyne and his “sovereign shipbuilding” agenda of wasting millions and lining his lobbying firm retainers, the Navy has the capability gap you see today!

Australia needs a strong Navy to secure our sea lanes to ensure our imports and exports remain open or watch the economy crash .

A decision means Marles has less money for his private jet travel on RAAF aircraft, so expect 12 months or more before it is announced

HiddenDragon7:30 pm 07 Oct 23

With America First isolationist sentiment on the rise, and quite possibly back in power in the White House and/or the Congress in fifteen months time, there needs to be a Plan B in the event that the hoped-for submarines are significantly delayed or indefinitely deferred.

Part of such a plan might be much more effort and money going into the development and acquisition of area denial deterrence in the form of seriously long-range ground launch missiles – not plentiful in the inventories of our closest allies, but friendly nations such as South Korea know a thing or two about those sorts of weapons.

Tom Worthington9:20 am 06 Oct 23

The Defence minister shouldn’t rush into decisions about surface combatants, as the Ukrainian war, & technological developments, are revolutionizing how wars a fought. This is similar to the change from battleships with guns, to aircraft carriers with aircraft, in WWII. Ships will platforms for launching drones, as well as missiles. Like aircraft carriers, all that will matter is how much space they have to carry the maximum number of drones. Australian shipbuilders Incat and Austal build ships for the US military, which would be ideal as drone carriers, but unfortunately the Australian government refuses to buy their designs.

William Teach1:23 am 07 Oct 23

The army needs littoral combat ships for fire support if they’re going to be doing any forward defence to our north, even aside from any expeditionary missions.

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