National defence and the RAN (part 2): tasking for deterrence by denial

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Part 1 of this series explored how the Royal Australian Navy is contributing to the new national defense strategy of deterrence through denial. This section analyzes the primary tasks that the RAN must be capable of. A third post will deal with the required primary force structure.

The 2023 Defense Strategic Review (DSR) reinforced the objectives of the 2020 Defense Strategic Update form Australia’s strategic environment, scare actions against Australia’s interests, and answers with credible military force, if necessary. These are the primary tasks of the Navy.

The RAN has long made a significant contribution to shaping Australia’s strategic environment. Participation in international exercises of varying levels of sophistication domestically and across the region has been a feature, as have regular, long-term goodwill visits, sometimes involving a half-dozen ships or more and submarines.

An important part of these activities in shaping regional perceptions – and contributing to a deterrent mindset – is that the RAN is seen as a highly professional fighting force that is well equipped for sustained combat operations in the region, if necessary.

The Navy plays a highly valued role in supporting regional humanitarian operations. Australian patrol boat donations to Pacific island states, with supporting RAN operational and technical advisors, have helped small countries become more self-reliant in sovereignty protection and law enforcement.

These activities demonstrate our national capacity, ability, and willingness to respond, while helping build confidence that we do not pose a threat. All are critical in shaping the perception that Australians see themselves as part of the region. Strengthening this vision is essential for our security, as the economies of some neighboring countries are outpacing ours.

Australia must also demonstrate its willingness to assert its own sovereignty, especially in its vast exclusive economic zone. Maritime patrol and response is always an important naval task, regardless of the circumstances. This is why the RAN is equipped with small patrol boats that are relatively cheap to operate and well suited to assisting the Australian Border Force in operations. The Navy has occasionally been forced to supplement its patrol boats with larger and more advanced ships, but this dramatically drives up costs and contributes little to the Navy’s combat efficiency and effectiveness.

As the DSR implies and this discussion shows, achieving deterrence through denial has many aspects, some of which are more nuanced than delivering a nuclear warhead, but all are important to its achievement.

The nature of potential military operations in the region is difficult to predict, but an Australian government will always look for options to respond. Whatever hard power Australia will have to counter, the DSR sets out a response that will be massive, extremely lethal and rapid.

The DSR notes that Australia may have little warning of a regional conflict. If our efforts to achieve deterrence have failed, the RAN’s contribution to denial combat operations and impactful projection must already be in place. Operations potentially extending from the Cocos (Keeling) Islands across northern Australia into the Coral Sea would necessarily be part of a very large Australian Defense Force effort to defend the nation.

The use of the advanced naval mine capability being sought would help close off routes to the south, and our submarines would help close off chokepoints north and south of Indonesia and eastward. But the overwhelming effort of Australian firepower would be delivered against any opponent via precision-guided missiles from all three services. For the Navy, surface combatants and submarines would be the biggest contributors.

Developments in long-range precision weapons will allow surface combatants and submarines to play a broader role. The Navy’s destroyers with Aegis combat systems can contribute to air defense and the land campaign over significantly longer ranges than just a few decades ago.

Several other capabilities are highlighted in the DSR as critical to ADF success. This involves networked detection and targeting for long-range strikes in all three dimensions, integrated air and missile defense, improved operational logistics capability and appropriate theater command and control. Also heavily implied was an expeditionary capability for air operations and a “fully enabled, integrated amphibious combined arms land system.” It must be assumed that these operations will not be against a strong opposing force, but that the ADF will have to undertake forward-facing operations for which the RAN is a crucial factor. The associated lift ships are very lightly armed, which places a greater burden on escorting troops for protection.

Distributed maritime operations can avoid or reduce the effectiveness of an adversary’s surveillance and limit its ability to neutralize our forces through mass attacks. But these concepts require advanced, resilient, high-capacity communications networks to coordinate our own attacks. This poses significant technical and doctrinal challenges. Well-armed, well-equipped surface combatants and submarines that can have long endurance are needed in sufficient numbers to participate in networked missile attacks. They all need communications for command, control and coordination – and they need to be able to defend themselves. As technologies mature, unmanned surface, aerial and underwater vehicles can increase fatalities and extend the time that presence can be achieved.

Our Navy is there to fight at sea when necessary, with as good a chance of winning as we are willing to afford. Owning a Navy that is consistently able to win is difficult, complex and expensive. An unwavering national commitment is required. It requires consistent investment in equipment and its maintenance, continuous training and innovation, performance assessment and evaluation, research and development, experimentation and sometimes risk-taking with unproven technologies in search of a capability edge, perhaps asymmetrically.

Above all, a Navy needs a motivated, skilled and committed national workforce, made up of uniformed public service personnel and blue-collar workers from the private sector. The RAN must ensure that Australians want to be part of that effort.

Large ships axiomatically contribute to greater endurance and larger magazines that provide the firepower for distant, more expensive operations. They are also generally better suited to the environmental conditions of this region.

The adoption of the DSR’s vaguely worded tiered typology for warships, which implies the purchase of more but smaller ships, has not received support from experienced practitioners. The overhaul of the RAN’s surface force, which has yet to be made public, could reset its combat capability to meet its future needs. Public commentary shows that there is room for serious and long-lasting mistakes.

Protecting shipping is an important mission of the Navy and Air Force, and disrupting fuel, much of which is imported from Southeast Asia, would have a major impact on our economy and military operations. In 2010, the RAN concluded that shipping could best be protected by creating a secure corridor and umbrella for selected ships carrying strategically important cargo. Our submarines, large surface combatants, and air surveillance and air combat capabilities will need to create and keep these routes safe. Mine countermeasures would ensure the safe passage of shipping through or around potentially mined areas. Maritime naval vessels would collect data to help evaluate risks on shipping lanes and define areas in which the performance of ship sensors is improving or deteriorating. The quantity and geographical distribution of ships requiring protection implies that multiple simultaneous, dispersed and demanding operations would be required.

Creating a plausible anti-access and area denial capability for the ADF is essential to convincing any potential adversary that Australia can inflict significant damage on a force intent on attacking our nation. All ADF efforts in peacetime should be used to prevent hostilities – with the ability to immediately switch to combat operations if necessary to help force a return to diplomacy.

A RAN equipped with heavily armed ships and submarines, complemented by an effective logistics support force, with other capabilities in prospect for the ADF’s four other domains, will give Australia confidence in its ability to withstand coercion – and will match any adversary make you think.

Part 3 will propose what the RAN’s primary force structure should become.

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