Australia's Defence Strategic Review (DSR) has effectively postponed decisions on the future makeup of the Royal Australian Navy (RAN), pending the outcome of a new surface combatant review. The review isn't expected to report until September this year but the Australian Minister for Defence, Richard Marles, has already hinted at a major shakeup of the surface fleet.

Speaking to reporters after the release of the DSR, Marles said that there were two main takeaways from the review. He noted that with the switch to nuclear powered submarines (SSNs), the currently envisioned fleet would need changes as it was designed to operate alongside diesel-powered ones (SSKs). This is understood to refer to a shift of navy-wide anti- submarine warfare (ASW) capabilities from the surface fleet to the more capable SSNs. Marles also commented on the DSR’s finding that Australia needs to embrace a two-tiered system of surface combatants, suggesting that there is a global trend towards a larger number of smaller ships: “The surface fleet, as it’s currently constructed, was determined at a time when Australia was still pursuing an [SSK]. Now that we are going to be operating [SSNs] that is a dramatically different capability, and it obviously has some implication in terms of the overall structure of the Navy....The second is that the DSR has observed that navies around the world are moving in the direction of having a larger number of smaller vessels. Now, with those two ideas in mind, we are thinking about the long-term structure of our surface fleet [into the 2030s].”

The ambition to move towards smaller and less ASW-focused warships seemingly challenges the survival, at least in its current state, of the nine-ship Hunter-class frigate program. The Hunter is both a large warship and an ASW- focused one. If the impending review aligns with the Defence Ministers’ comments, and there is no reason to suspect otherwise, these traits are both liabilities for the program. Nevertheless, at least for now, work will continue on the Hunter with Marles reassuring journalists that “current work” underway in Osborne will continue: “We are completely committed to having a domestic build right now. The current work in terms of the construction of Hunter will continue, and this Review will report in the third quarter and it will do so in a way which does not see any disruption.”

The fate of the Hunter-class frigates will ultimately be determined by the government’s reaction to the “short and sharp” surface combatant review. While the terms of reference of the review have not been disclosed, it’s been reported in Australian media that VADM William H Hilarides (ret) has been appointed to lead the effort. He will work alongside two senior Australian officials, VADM Stuart Mayer RAN (ret) and former senior public servant Rosemary Huxtable. The review is expected to report to the government in the third quarter of this year, though it’s unclear how much, if any of it will be made public.

Wider ADF to focus more on Maritime Domain
Aside from the Navy other branches of the Australian Defence Force (ADF) are set to receive new maritime capabilities because of the DSR. The Royal Australian Air Force is set to ‘rapidly’ acquire the Joint Strike Missile (JSM) for its F-35A fleet, necessitating a fleet-wide upgrade to Block IV standard. This will also facilitate the integration of the AGM-158C Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM) aboard the F-35A. Australia is currently procuring LRASM for its fleet of F/A-18F Super Hornets. Meanwhile, the Australian Army, reeling from cuts to its Infantry Fighting Vehicle (IFV) and Self-Propelled Howitzer (SPH) fleet will see the planned acquisition of medium and heavy landing craft and accelerated. The services plan to procure land-based anti-ship missiles, either the Naval Strike Missile (NSM) or LRASM, will be similarly sped up. With Army’s HiMARs buy expanded and accelerated by the DSR, Australia’s plans to procure and domestically build Increment Two Precision Strike Missiles (PrSM) has also been given a boost. The Increment 2 program will increase the range of the missile and provide it with a new seeker so that it can strike moving targets at sea.

Source : NavalNews