Work on nine advanced frigates will start within five years, three years earlier than expected.Rob Taylor, Wall Street Journal
4 August 2015
CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA – Australia will accelerate construction of a fleet of warships as part of an ambitious buildup meant to more closely integrate its military with the U.S. and respond to instability in Asia.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott on Tuesday said his conservative government would start work on a 20 billion Australia dollar (US$14.6 billion) fleet of nine advanced frigates within five years – three years earlier than expected – while also beginning construction of 20 large offshore combat vessels.
“This is about ensuring that we have a strong surface fleet to deal with whatever naval contingencies we face indefinitely, forever in fact,” Mr. Abbott told reporters. “This is a message of hope and confidence to the people of our country.”
A strategic blueprint to be released as soon as next month lays out a modernized fleet of 40 surface warships and submarines that will allow Canberra to take a larger security role – as called for by the U.S. – in the face of unease over China’s rise and island-building in the South China Sea.
Allies like Britain, Canada and the U.S., as well as European counterparts like Germany and the Netherlands, have been restraining defense budgets in response to sluggish economic conditions. But Mr. Abbott, buoyed by a decadelong resource boom that helped contain debt, has pledged to boost military spending to 2% of GDP from the current 1.8%, adding A$3.5 billion a year to the current A$32 billion military budget.
Australia is building air warfare destroyers worth A$8.5 billion and introducing two 29,000-metric-ton transports each able to carry up to 1,000 amphibious troops, as well as helicopters, tanks and vehicles. It is also spending A$20 billion-plus on eight submarines and A$10 billion on thousands of new armored ground vehicles.
The country will eventually have Asia’s biggest fleet of Lockheed Martin F-35 stealth fighter aircraft, as well as long-range maritime drones and submarine-hunting Boeing P-8A Poseidon aircraft. It has just accepted the first of 12 Growler electronic-warfare and jamming aircraft, the first outside the U.S.
“The U.S., all of Europe, the United Kingdom, everyone, is reversing military spending in an attempt to retire debt and redirect money to more urgent programs,” says defense-budget expert Mark Thomson of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. “Australia is behaving very differently.”
Australia’s defense planners see a strategic-risk environment unlike any since the end of the Vietnam War, driven by China’s rise and military buildups by Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand and Singapore – all looking to hedge against strategic uncertainty related to China.
“For us, this is wake-up time in strategic terms, and I think that weighs heavily on the government’s mind,” says Mr. Thomson.
Australian Defense Minister Kevin Andrews in March told a naval conference that with 70% of Australia’s exports moving by sea in trade worth A$220 billion a year, a beefed-up navy is central to a defense planning white paper. The paper, which had been expected this month, has been delayed as the government looks to prioritize naval shipbuilding, in part to protect jobs as next year’s election looms.
For more than a year U.S. Navy commanders have urged Australia to look at larger and more capable frigates able to undertake policing patrols and anti-submarine operations in a region that will be home to more than 300 submarines inside a decade. Washington also wants the ships to operate seamlessly with U.S. Navy counterparts, and has been strengthening its alliance with Australia more broadly, sending 1,150 Marines to Darwin this year for training and seeking more naval port visits.
“We think it would be good for Australia to have bigger ships that are able to do more and be as multi-role as possible, to work with allies like ourselves and Japan,” said a senior U.S. Navy official who asked not to be named as he isn’t authorized to speak to media.
Mr. Thomson said the U.S. wants Australia to help plug strategic gaps as the U.S. rebalances forces to Asia, including with anti-submarine frigates and submarines able to help protect American aircraft carriers.
Australia will likely choose its frigate fleet from designs including Britain’s new Type 26 frigate, built by BAE Systems, competing with the European-designed Fremm multipurpose frigate built for France and Italy. Germany’s 7,200-metric-ton F-125 frigate and Meko 600 escort frigate will also compete.