The Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) has released a report calling for an increase in the overall numbers of offshore patrol vessels (OPVs) to be acquired for the RAN, and an acceleration of the program in order to bolster Australia’s surface combatant capabilities until the Hunter class frigates enter service.
In a paper entitled From concentrated vulnerability to distributed lethality—or how to get more maritime bang for the buck with our offshore patrol vessels, author and ASPI Senior Analyst Marcus Hellyer says, with the delivery of the third and final Hobart class DDG recently, the RAN is not due to take delivery of any new major combatants until the first Hunter class frigate in just under a decade.
Hellyer says competition between China and the US (and thus, the US’s allies in the Indo-Pacific region) is increasing in the wake of calls for an investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, and racial and political tensions in the US. He says maritime capabilities will be increasingly relied upon as the ADF transforms its force structure to counter or address these tensions.
“Two things have become clear so far in the Covid-19 crisis,” Hellyer says. “The first is that the competition between the US and China will continue to intensify. The Chinese Communist Party has become more emboldened and likely to disrupt the regional order. The willingness and the ability of the US to preserve the existing order is even more in question. This has implications for regional stability and consequently for Australia’s security.”
An added benefit of increasing and accelerating the Project SEA 1180 Phase 1 OPV build program is that it will build Australia’s industrial capability further – not only as the economy ramps back up after the pandemic and associated recession – but in order to provide additional indigenous capability that can carry over to future industrial programs.
Hellyer has also called for the Commonwealth to consider up-gunning the OPVs with more capable sensors and weapons systems, and possibly equip the vessels with modular capabilities that would enable them to augment the larger combatants in the anti-submarine. This is particularly pertinent in the face of rapidly growing submarine capabilities in our wider region.
He also advocates for the OPVs to be able to conduct anti-surface maritime strike, autonomous and unmanned systems support, offensive and defensive mine warfare, air warfare, light amphibious operations, and special forces support.
Other observers have gone further in recent weeks, with some advocating for the integration of anti-ship missiles and other advanced weapons systems to give the OPVs additional punch, particularly in the littorals and ‘brown water’ regions that dominate Australia’s northern approaches.
Construction of Australia’s first Arafura class OPV commenced in late 2018, the keel was laid in May 2019, and the major hull pieces were joined at Adelaide’s Osborne facility in May 2020. It and a second vessel will be built at Osborne, before construction of the remaining 10 vessels switches to a new site at Henderson in WA.