Fleet Warfare Forum, Chief of Navy Address

28 Nov 2023

The Fleet Warfare Forum is an opportunity to sharpen our swords – our minds, to promote excellence in warfare. As, ultimately, warfare is the reason we exist. I note the uncanny echo of history as I address the forum on this day, the 28 November – marking 81 years to the day the Australian Fleet enjoyed one of its many tactical successes in WWII. It was the day that HMAS Quiberon, a Q Class destroyer, successfully prosecuted, attacked and sunk the Italian submarine, Dessiè, off the Tunisian coast in 1942, only three months after commissioning. Quiberon certainly lived up to her ship’s motto, ‘seek and subdue’. Indeed, what our navy has lacked in scale – we have made up for with excellence and tenacity.

The story of Quiberon is but one of many throughout the RAN’s history that displayed the quality and character of Australian sailors and Officers on the world stage. Since this period, we have never been in a more consequential era in our nation’s history than right now. It’s illuminating to highlight some data on why this is the case.

Firstly, the environment. More than half of the world’s population, eight of the top ten EEZ claimants and seven of the world’s largest militaries call the Indo Pacific home. Australia is the custodian of the third largest EEZ in the world – a herculean responsibility for a small nation. This is the complex terrain that is our back yard.

Secondly, maritime trade and infrastructure. 80% of global trade by volume and 70% by value is transported by sea. Of that volume, 60% of maritime trade transits through the Indo Pacific. For Australia, over 90% of our consumables are imported by the sea. Maritime infrastructure such as undersea fibre optic cables and seabed oil and gas pipelines connect and fuel the world. Faster and cheaper than satellites, undersea fibre optic cables are responsible for 99% of global internet traffic. With increasing reports of suspected incidents or sabotage of critical seabed infrastructure, security of it can no longer be assumed. For Australia, dislocated as we are from other continents, these undersea lines of communication (uSLOCs) connect us to the world and especially our access to global financial markets. It is our Navy that must assure this access. As Alfred Thayer Mahan wrote:

“The necessity of a navy springs from the existence of peaceful shipping, and disappears with it.”

Finally, military. The Indo Pacific is home to the largest military expansion in over 70 years. In 2022, the U.S. had the highest military spending globally (USD$877 billion) and its spending for that year constituted nearly 40% of total military spending worldwide. The PLAN has more than doubled its fleet of principle combatants in a decade, producing eight cruisers since 2020 and an average of 7.2 corvettes per year in the last decade. Similarly, Japan has grown to a force of 44 destroyers and 23 submarines. India has 68 warships under construction.

This is our era. Defined by a complex environment of strategic competition, increasing maritime trade and infrastructure vulnerabilities and increased militarisation. All amidst persistent challenges to the international Rules Based Order and international law. We can see it in Ukraine, Gaza, Taiwan, Korea and the South China Sea. The contest and competition plays out on, above and below the seas. All of these conflicts and crises have a maritime element and a global impact.

This consequential era has led to the Defence Strategic Review (DSR). It has led, and will continue to lead, to significant change for Navy. The Defence Strategic Review uses the words ‘navy’ or ‘naval’ 41 times. This compares to 18 references of ‘army’ and 13 references to ‘air force’ or ‘aviation’. Not because navy is more important. Our defence force will integrate across services, we must - to be effective. But rather, because the maritime domain is the nexus of contest, competition and conflict in our era defined by dwindling resources and degraded international order.

Our Fleet, and all the rates and workgroups that animate it, are at the vanguard of the challenges in our era. I will not re-brief you on the DSR, but capabilities aplenty are coming our way. From weapons such as Tomahawk, NSM and smart mines to platforms like AUKUS SSN and the Hunter Class. Capabilities aside, press and pundits alike have written prolifically on our future Fleet. What will it look like? How many missiles are enough? Can we achieve it? And in particular, for a small navy will it be enough to achieve our aims?

Amidst the noise, we must remember that fleets are representations of a nation. They are human and steel works of national art – for the national interest. They should be designed and crafted against our own strategic requirements. Fleets should not be reproductions. We don’t build them in the image of others. We must, and we will, create our own navy, for our own context. Retired Royal Norwegian Navy officer Jacob Borresen summed it up better than I. He said,

“Coastal navies should not be modelled on the navies of the naval powers. Instead they should be tailor-made to fit the local environment.”

The concept of counting and comparing hulls for a decisive air-sea battle is of an era past. In the competition and conflict of our times, we must think about a constellation of integrated capabilities across five domains, not just fleet on fleet action. Therefore, our analysis should be effects-based; the effects used by us and those used against us. Hull by hull and pound for pound comparisons are of little use for us today. The chairman of the U.S. House Armed Services Committee, Adam Smith said in 2021:

“If you have a 500-ship navy and you’re up against someone who has a five-ship navy, but they’re able to shut down your information systems so none of your 500 ships work, they win”.

While this takes the point to the extreme, the underlying sentiment stands. A capable fleet is not guaranteed by scale alone. It must be a work of national art - moulded for our strategic needs to rise to our strategic challenges. A process of realising such a fleet takes strategic patience and strategic commitment.

I am confident in Australia’s Fleet of the future. The moulding, and shaping of our own human and steel work of national art is what we are all doing now. Investing effort today for the security of tomorrow. If you want to do comparisons, consider the following:

  • Australia ranks as the 55th nation by population. 12 Indo Pacific nations are ahead of us on that list.
  • An independent analysis from 2023 measured the largest navies in the world by number of ships in service. Australia was rated number 59.

These statistics alone would appear to indicate that our navy has little influence. But, this would be short sighted. Simply, our impact eclipses the size of our fleet. It shows our true influence on the world stage.

A recent International Institute for Strategic Studies report on maritime capabilities picked Australia as one of nine navies to base their research. The report highlighted Australia’s leading role in the Indo Pacific and how this is projected to increase into the future. In Fleet - requests for coordinated activities, naval exercises and navy to navy engagement with our international partners is constant – and rising. What separates Australia’s Navy is our convening power as demonstrated by Indo Pacific 2023 Sea Power Conference. For those who have not heard the statistics: over 27, 000 people attended from across the globe. There were 50 senior naval delegations from 44 countries in attendance. When we put on a show, people come.

This is why the hull by hull and pound for pound comparisons are often unhelpful. Our Fleet is trusted, relied upon and in demand by our friends in the region. We are a partner of choice in our region because despite our modest size, we are highly respected, professional, well trained and reliable. Our professional reputation for excellence is global. The engagements we do with our partners in the region have purpose and meaning beyond photos for ‘the gram’.

The particularly close relationships we are cultivating with India, Indonesia, Japan, Korea and the U.S. are critical to a free and open Indo Pacific. They are critical to our national prosperity which is bound to the sea. We have prioritised our partnerships with these nations to ensure we develop personal relationships, build trust and integrate our collective fleets. Collective effort is the only way to address the challenges of the day. That is how we will continue to operate in the future; in partnerships. Just as we have in the past. In this way, the changes to our Fleet will be an evolution, not a revolution.

I acknowledge there are challenges ahead. The subsurface, surface, air, cyber and information domains present threats from all azimuths. Internally, in almost every aspect of our business, there are challenges: capability, sustainment, workforce, funding, nuclear stewardship, the list goes on. But in every challenge lies the seeds of opportunity.

Our consequential era typifies a unique juncture in history. It provides an opportunity to do meaningful work of enduring consequence. To reshape Australia’s Navy and its Fleet to be tailored to our needs. Together, we are making history. Which is why it gives me great pleasure to speak to you during Fleet Warfare Week. And in the long Australian tradition of naval excellence displayed by HMA Ships Quiberon, Sydney, AE2 and countless other sovereign ships from our past into our present, I encourage you to continue to cultivate the professionalism and focus that will ensure our safe passage through the voyage ahead.