08 Oct 2019
Royal Australian Navy is under-gunned for denying long-range attackers
The navy has neglected long-range naval surface-warfare capability for too long.
Its new Hobart-class air warfare destroyers represent Australia’s most advanced naval combatant introduced into operational service, but their main anti-ship and land-attack missile, the RGM-84 Harpoon Block II, has a range of only 124km, is subsonic and has an explosive payload of just 272kg.
It carries just eight missiles in two quad launchers, which cannot be reloaded at sea. The Hunter-class Future Frigate, based on the BAE Systems Type 26 design, will have the same quad launchers, though navy fact sheets simply mention an ‘‘advanced anti-ship missile’’.
In terms of surface warfare, the navy remains under-gunned going into a more challenging future maritime battlespace.
Both the AWDs and the Future Frigate are superb choices for the navy’s future development. They epitomise the sharp cutting edge of sensor and combat-management technology, with the Hunter class incorporating the Australian Ceafar2 Radar that is world-leading, as well as the US Aegis combat system and the Saab Australia developed combat interface.
The Hobart guided-missile-destroyer (DDG) primary role will be naval air defence, while the Hunter class will be an anti-submarine warfare frigate, but both are required to undertake the full spectrum of operations in the joint maritime environment, and that includes surface warfare.
The challenge for the Royal Australian Navy, and for many Western navies, is that surface-warfare capabilities have not responded quickly enough to rapid changes in long-range adversary strike capabilities which are now emphasising supersonic, and ultimately, hypersonic, speeds, and much greater strike range.
Instead, an emphasis on defensive responses to these threats is evident with modern naval surface combatants being equipped with more capable sensors, and sophisticated missiles that are launched from vertical launch systems (VLSs) such as the SM-2 and ESSM that will be equipping the Hunter-class future frigates.
The result is imbalance in naval capability, with fleets optimised to go somewhere and defend against attacks, but with little ability to offensively project force decisively to deny such attacks from happening — ‘‘shooting the archer before he releases his arrow’’. An emphasis on defence surrenders the tactical initiative and is riskier especially when an adversary can launch large numbers of long-range high-speed anti-ship missiles — ASCMs and ASBMs — beyond the tactical range of defensive missile systems.
As we confront growing Chinese naval capability, together with development of its broader anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) systems, it’s important that the navy place more emphasis on long-range naval surface warfare, either delivered from naval assets, or from long-range air platforms.
Two options could be acquired quickly, via military off-the-shelf sales, from the US, which is developing long-range anti-ship missile (LRASM), which in air and ship-launched variants is a logical successor to Harpoon, boasts stealth technology and can conduct autonomous targeting. It would offer commonality with the RAAF’s Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM) and has a considerable range boost over Harpoon, at 560km, and it can be launched from the same VLS as that on the AWD.
The latest version of the Tomahawk Land Attack Missile (TLAM), the Block IV, also has an anti-ship mode, and offers a range of 1600km. Such a capability would mean the navy could strike at land targets as part of a coalition, similar to the employment of Royal Navy and US Navy forces in strikes against Syria. Acquisition of such long-range weapons boosts the ability of the RAN to burden-share in complex scenarios.
LRASM capability would also have the advantage that it could be air-delivered from the F/A-18F Super Hornet. That would then fill the gap in the air-delivered naval strike weapon, which initially had been designed to be employed from the F-35A, but which is now to be acquired without a specific launch platform in mind.
Looking further out on the horizon, there are other possible alternatives. Greater dependence on long-range unmanned combat air vehicles (UCAVs) could open up potential options for either land-based or sea-based naval air strike for the RAN. The US development of the Northrop Grumman B-21 Raider bomber could see complementary long-range strike escort platforms that would support the B-21, which could include allied participation in the program.
Or Australia could look at the possibility of small surface combatants that can mount long-range strike weapons.
These would be corvette-sized, offer an interim level platform between the Arafura-class offshore patrol vessels (OPVs) and the Hobart and Hunter-class vessels, and would imply an expansion of the fleet beyond that planned for in the 2016 defence white paper. Such a move would contribute towards distributed architecture across more ships, rather than all our eggs in a very few, very boutique platforms.