Since the Cold War ended the US Navy has dominated the seas, and this has allowed Western navies to focus on projecting power from the sea, generally in support of land force interventions in failing states.
This domination has now changed: accompanying the return of geopolitical tensions are new challenges to American naval supremacy by China and Russia but also by some smaller states like Iran. The seas are now contested. Western navies are now having to reorient from projecting power onto the land to preparing for a future possible war at sea against formidable naval powers.
The 2016 Australian Defence White Paper reflects this strategic shift, with its key focus being modernising the Royal Australian Navy (RAN). The significant expansion of the RAN’s submarine fleet has naturally attracted the most interest but this is more than a decade away from implementation. In contrast, the building of nine new large frigates for the RAN begins in two years time with an intense competition to win this contract now in its final stages. It is the RAN’s surface warfare fleet that will first bear the impact of Australia’s strategic shift towards warfighting at sea.
Today this fleet consists of three Adelaide Class FFGs and eight ANZAC class frigates. In 2032 – when the first new submarine enters RAN service – the surface warfare fleet will have evolved into three Hobart Class Air Warfare Destroyers (AWD) and nine new Future Frigates (FF). While both classes will have multi-role capabilities, the AWD’s primary mission is air and missile defence and the FF’s anti-submarine warfare.
The latest Plan Pelorus, the Navy’s rolling three-year strategic plan, reflects the emerging ‘war at sea’ future in outlining a shift in the RAN’s operational concepts.