Why is Australia building its biggest navy since WWII? Is China the reason?


Australia is bulking up its navy. Canberra on Tuesday announced it would increase defence spending by $7.25 billion and double the number of ships ready to do combat within the next decade.

The move comes after an independent review from a retired US vice-admiral found the coutry’s navy was “the oldest fleet in history” and ‘not appropriate for the strategic environment.”

It also comes amid increasing geopolitical tensions around the world and concerns in Australia about China’s influence among some Pacific island nations.

Beijing in November warned Canberra to act with “great prudence” when deploying warships.

This, after a confrontation between the two navies broke out when Australia accused Chinese destroyer CNS Ningbo of injuring its navy divers with sonar pulses in Japanese water.

But what do we know about the plan? What is its significance?

Let’s take a closer look:

What do we know?

Australia currently has 11 major surface combatant ships.

The new plan would increase take that tally to 26 – the largest since the end of the Second World War.
Australia will get six Hunter class frigates.
As per The Conversation, these frigates will be equipped to carry out anti-submarine operations and to safeguard Australia’s trade routes, northern maritime approaches and to escort the navy’s amphibious ships.

The frigates will have anti-ship and land-attack missiles.

The first three vessels will be built overseas and are expected to enter service before 2030.

According to The Guardian, the vessels’ missile strike capability would increas from 432 planned vertical missile cells to 702.

Canberra will also construct 11 general-purpose frigates and six state-of-the-art surface warships that do not need to be crewed.

These warships are known as large optionally crewed surface vessels (LOSVs).

Marles said the Large Optionally-Crewed Surface Vessels (LSOV), which can be operated remotely and being developed by the United States, will significantly boost the navy’s long-range strike capacity.

“These vessels will mostly operate without a crew, though they may have a small crew embarked for short periods, such as when entering and leaving port or refuelling at sea. The LOSVs are expected to be lower-cost, long-endurance vessels able to carry anti-ship and land-attack missiles,” The Conversation piece noted.

At least some of the fleet will be armed with Tomahawk missiles capable of long-range strikes on targets deep inside enemy territory – a major deterrent capability.

As per CNN, more than two dozen smaller ships would also be deployed to patrol offshore and to conduct maritime security.

The latest funding would bring the total cost for the future surface fleet to $35 billion, with the government estimating its defence spending to rise to two per cent of GDP by the early 2030s from current expectations of 2.1 per cent, Marles said.

NATO expects its members to keep defence spending at two per cent.

“This decision we are making right now sees a significant increase in defence spending … and it is needed, given the complexity of the strategic circumstances that our country faces,” Marles said.

Royal Australian Navy guided-missile frigate HMAS Parramatta (FFH 154) (L) sails with U.S. Navy Amphibious assault ship USS America (LHA 6), Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Bunker Hill (CG 52) and Arleigh-Burke class guided missile destroyer USS Barry (DDG 52) in the South China Sea. Reuters

“What is critically important to understand is that as we look forward, with an uncertain world in terms of great power contest, we’ll have a dramatically different capability in the mid-2030s to what we have now,” Marles told reporters.

“That is what we are planning for and that is what we are building.”

“A strong Australia relies on a strong navy, one that is equipped to conduct diplomacy in our region, deter potential adversaries, and defend our national interests when called,” Australian Chief of Navy Vice Admiral Mark Hammond was quoted as saying by CNN.

“The size, lethality and capabilities of the future surface combatant fleet ensures that our navy is equipped to meet the evolving strategic challenges of our region.”

Why is it important?

The government’s defence strategic review out last year said intense competition between the US and China was defining the Pacific region, and that the major power competition had “potential for conflict”.

According to The Guardian, the independent review was conducted by retired US navy Vice-Admiral William Hilarides.

It noted that Australia required a surface fleet with “greater capability in integrated air and missile defence, multi-domain strike and undersea warfare.”
It called for “immediate implementation” and said “any delay will exacerbate the risk” to Australia’s security..

The review said Australia needed a surface fleet with “greater capability in integrated air and missile defence, multi-domain strike and undersea warfare”, echoing calls from the defence strategic review last year which found that the “plan for the surface combatant fleet is not fit for purpose”.

In short, Australia is worried about its security.

“It probably signals how concerned both the government and defense are about our strategic circumstances,” Jennifer Parker, adjunct fellow in naval studies at UNSW Canberra, told Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

“There are many saying that for the period of the latter 2020s, we are entering a period of risk in the Indo-Pacific and that’s generated by China’s increased aggression in both the South China Sea and Northeast Asia,” she said.

As per CNN, the review pointed out that Canberra is operating “the oldest fleet Navy in its history.”

The US Canadian and Australian militaries have complained multiple times about what they say have been dangerous actions by the Chinese navy and air force in the western Pacific.

Analysts fear a collision or other accident could spark an international incident and escalate into conflict.

Some argue deterrence is the best offence.

Collin Koh, research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, told CNN the move is “is essential if there’s a need for capacity to match the growing set of mission requirements, especially projecting presence across the Indo-Pacific.”

Experts say that taken together, Australia is poised to develop significant naval capability.

Major issues persist

But there are major problems.

The Conversation piece noted that Australia has not laid out a plan to staff its current navy, much less an expanded one.

“The Navy is already about 900 people short, equivalent to more than three Anzac ship crews, as it struggles to meet its recruitment goals,” the piece noted.

“Even with high levels of automation found on these planned new build ships, what about crewing? Will (the navy) face a manpower challenge in manning this expanded fleet?” Koh told CNN.

But the government argues that manpower required would be ‘minimal’ thanks to increased use of technology and automation.

Some argue Australia has not addressed its navy’s manpower problems. Reuters

The country’s major defence projects have also long been beset by cost overruns, government U-turns, policy changes and project plans that make more sense for local job creation than defence.

Michael Shoebridge, a former senior security official and now independent analyst, said the government must overcome past errors and had “no more time to waste” as competition in the region heats up.

Shoebridge said there must be a trimmed-down procurement process, otherwise, it will be a “familiar path that leads to delays, construction troubles, cost blowouts – and at the end, ships that get into service too late with systems that are overtaken by events and technological change”.

Wooing specific electorates with the promise of “continuous naval shipbuilding” cannot be the priority, he said.
“This will just get in the way of the actual priority: Reversing the collapse of our navy’s fleet.”
The Opposition slammed the government’s plan.

Shadow minister for defence Andrew Hastie was quoted as saying by CNN, “We won’t see a ship in the water until 2031, assuming this plan stays to timeline. It does not meet the urgent strategic challenges posed by this dangerous world.”

Meanwhile, the Greens party described the government’s plan as a “multi-billion-dollar mistake.”

The party claimed the government was playing politics and looking to protect jobs.

“No matter how many times defence leadership fails, both overcharging and underdelivering, they keep their jobs and get rewarded with billions more public dollars,” spokesperson Senator David Shoebridge was quoted as saying.

In 2021, Australia announced plans to buy at least three US-designed nuclear-powered submarines, scrapping a years-long plan to develop non-nuclear subs from France that had already cost billions of dollars.

While the Virginia-class submarines will be nuclear-powered, they will not be armed with atomic weapons and are instead expected to carry long-range cruise missiles. They represent a step-shift for the country’s open water capabilities.

With inputs from agencies

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