DEFENCE II: by Graham HarrisNews Weekly
Contemplating the RAN's next 100 years
, July 9, 2011
In the one hundred years of its existence the Royal Australian Navy has achieved much of which it can be proud. In September 1914, the then new navy conducted the successful campaign against the German Pacific colonies. This campaign was followed in November 1914 with the sinking by HMAS Sydney of the German cruiser SMS Emden — all this, it might be pointed out, was many months before the Australian army first set foot on Gallipoli.
The RAN has since September 1914 contributed to virtually every subsequent campaign in which Australian forces have been involved.
While a centenary is an appropriate moment to reflect on the past, it is also an opportune time to contemplate the future. What about the next 100 years? Perhaps 100 years is too great a period about which to make sensible predictions, but we can make some assessment of the next 20, 30 or 40 years.
Forecasting events external to Australia over a 40-year time-frame is no easy task. What can be said is that to face an unknown future the RAN needs to be a well-balanced force, capable of handling a variety of contingencies.
Both the former Liberal and the successor Labor federal governments have to date provided consistent support for defence. Funding has been provided or promised in a way that has made it possible to develop plans for the future RAN.
At the same time, there has been an acceptance of the need for a maritime strategy. It was significant that the keynote address at the RAN’s Seapower Conference in 2010 was given jointly by the chief of navy, the chief of army and the chief of air force. They spoke as one in support of Australia’s maritime strategy. Our wide brown land is an island-nation.
The outcome can be seen in the proposals in the Defence White Paper. The size and shape of the navy for years ahead is set out. Given that it will take a decade or more to acquire some of the planned ships and submarines, and given that they will have a service life of several decades thereafter, the White Paper provides a view of the RAN well into the 21st century.
The naval proposals in the White Paper are significant. The RAN is to receive three air warfare destroyers, with the possibility of a fourth; eight new larger frigates; and twenty 2,000-tonne offshore combatant vessels, much larger than those they will replace and, importantly, with the potential to embark helicopters or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). The navy will also receive some 30 new helicopters.
The amphibious force will be much stronger with the acquisition of two large (28,000-tonne) landing helicopter dock (LHD) ships, plus a large strategic sealift ship and six new landing craft with improved ocean-going capabilities.
The proposal to acquire 12 submarines has gained much attention. These new submarines are expected to have long transits and “need to be able to undertake prolonged covert patrols over the full distance of our strategic approaches and operational areas”. The submarines, the air warfare destroyers and the new frigates are to be fitted with long-range land-attack missiles.
The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) is to receive eight new maritime patrol aircraft and up to seven large high-altitude, long-endurance, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). The Hornet and Super Hornet will be equipped with Harpoon maritime strike missiles. When it arrives, the Joint Strike Fighter is also to be equipped with a maritime strike missile.
The proposals in the White Paper present a picture which suggests that the RAN can face its second century with considerable optimism. Should it all come to pass, Australia will have a significant maritime force.
However, at this early stage it would be unwise to assume that all that is promised will be delivered. The proposals run to 2030 — that is, some seven or eight elections away and probably two or three changes of government. Such a time frame is also likely to cover several economic cycles.
It is instructive to consider what happened to the UK Strategic Defence White Paper of 1998. It was generally acclaimed. It proposed much that was welcomed. In the event, however, delays, cancellations and cuts have resulted in a reduced defence force and, in particular, a diminished Royal Navy. It is unwise to assume too much with programs that extend far into the future.
There have already been some suggestions of reductions in defence expenditure.
So far as the navy is concerned, the real risk to its plans may be in the acquisition process. Past problems with obtaining equipment on time and on budget are well known, the most widely publicised instance of course being the Collins-class submarine.
The Collins history will undoubtedly affect the new 12-submarime project. These submarines will be of a design unique to Australia, and are to be built here. The project cost is put at $36 billion. The argument for an “off-the-shelf” purchase from an overseas builder is now regularly appearing in the media.
The navy will undoubtedly receive new submarines. Whether it gets 12 and whether they are built in Australia, are as yet unanswered questions. The White Paper contains a one-sentence rejection of the possibility of nuclear propulsion.
The air warfare destroyers are being built in Australia, but problems have arisen, and the project is behind time and over budget. The Government has recently made changes to the building program. The navy will get three destroyers. However, problems such as this must put the fourth in doubt.
There have been some positive announcements. Thanks to further British defence cuts, Australia has taken the opportunity to purchase the landing ship dock of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary, RFA Largs Bay, for just $100 million. This means that the large strategic sealift ship listed in the Defence White Paper has been obtained ahead of schedule and at a very good price. In addition, the Defence Minister has just announced the purchase of 24 helicopters for the RAN.
The first of the large amphibious ships being built in Spain will arrive in Melbourne in 2012.
It may be of significance that both the Largs Bay and the helicopters represent “off-the-shelf” purchases.
Despite potential difficulties over acquisitions, the future for the Royal Australian Navy seems bright. There will always be problems to be overcome, but there can be no doubt that the RAN will serve Australia as well in its second 100 years as it has in its first.
Graham Harris is federal president of the Navy League of Australia.