What do destroyers destroy? What do frigates … ?

The Abbott government is copping plenty of flak (metaphor used advisedly) over its obvious politicking with respect to the construction of a new class of guided-missile frigate for the Royal Australian Navy. The project with total costs touted at $90 billion is promised to create lots of jobs in South Australia, perhaps replacing those when the same government, in its free-market incarnation, welcome the death of the car industry.

Rather than pile on, I’ll ask a question which, from past experience, I know is bound to annoy many. What are these things supposed to do?

As far as I can tell, guided-missile frigates are supposed to shoot down aircraft and missiles, but this seems, on the face of things, to be an absurd proposition. Pitting an effectively stationary boat, costing the better part of a billion dollars, against missiles (fired from land or from aircraft), travelling at the speed of sound or more, and costing a million dollars apiece, seems like a hopelessly lopsided contest.

Of course, it’s just about impossible to test this proposition. AFAIK, the only conflict in which surface ships have actually engaged in combat with aircraft using missiles was the Falklands, more than thirty years ago. That didn’t appear decisive: the Royal Navy managed a win against the air force of a Third World country, but took some heavy losses in the process. But technology has advanced a long way since then, and there’s no way of testing which side of such conflicts it now favours. So, naval advocates can make up whatever claims they like about the capabilities of the ships we keep on buying.

Of course, the fact that there has been so little naval warfare in the last 70 years or so seems to me to be a very strong argument for spending less on money on warships.

Readers will be aware that I think war is almost always disastrous for both sides, that most military spending is wasteful and harmful, but that I know this to be a minority view. Even given that, the case against spending money on navies (and particularly surface fleets) seems so overwhelming to me that I’m amazed to find hardly anyone in agreement.

192 thoughts on “What do destroyers destroy? What do frigates … ?

  1. Blue water vessels are necessary to enable us to participate in any distant conflict in which our Great and Powerful Friends might tell us our presence is required. And of course to reassure frightened old Liberals that Vaucluse will never again be shelled by enemy submarines.

  2. Haha, exactly. I thought the same about the 2nd hand Abrams tanks that are too heavy for most bridges, the F35 “Camel” that will never be useful, more submarines than we have crews to sail them, etc.

    As per KenL, the frigates are penis extensions to make us feel important.

    Now, if they bought a fleet of ships/aircraft/vehicles suited to help in natural disasters and other useful roles then good, otherwise, waste of money.

  3. Your headline reminds me of an old song, about frigging in the rigging …

    More seriously, we probably do need a navy of some sort (and not just for terrorizing reffos), but we’d probably get our best value-for-money from submarines. The problem, of course, is manning them. Submariners are hard to find, to the point that a lot of the reason we never had more than three Collins class subs operational at any time was a shortage of crews. I don’t know how the Navy plans on finding enough crews for a dozen of the things.

  4. John, some very pertinent questions. I would add that by the time we get the submarines built, they could very well be obsolete. There are or will be drones that can find any submarine and fire missiles at them. We could lose the whole fleet of subs in one morning of warfare. I am sure there is a plan somewhere for precisely this to happen. We lost the opportunity to invest in schools while this was going on.

    I agree with you that war is inherently a wasteful and mutually destructive activity that it is folly to undertake it. I would go further and point out that it is economic folly for any state in Australia to invest too heavily in building weapons systems, just as it was folly to invest in building fuel-inefficient cars instead of public transport. The additional folly of tooling-up to build tanks, field guns or naval ships is particularly risky as these products cannot be re-purposed into anything we could call socially useful.

    Recently, Geraldine Doogue was on ABC RN gushing about the exciting economic prospects of Darwin. She called it a great leap forward. mentioned an LNG export loader (which will be vulnerable to world commodity prices – and did not have a proper environmental assessment) and, importantly, defence constituted 10% of the economy. This is not where I would bet money. http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/saturdayextra/darwin/6695082

    I thought I heard the Coalition boasting soon after the 2013 election that defence would be raised to 2% of the Commonwealth Budget. It would seem that decisions have been made (without any reference to the people of Australia) that Darwin would be massively over-represented. Someone is gaming the system by loading up the NT investment portfolio in an unproductive, heavily-subsidised ‘industry’. What a disaster for Darwin if there was no war, or conversely if there was a war. No win!

    Willy Bach

  5. All good points, and I agree that we need to go back to basics and ask the question of what role our military should actually be playing going forward.

    The reality is that if a larger country wants to pick a fight, we have to rely on our allies to help us win. Which would suggest that being a good global citizen is likely to be in our interest.

    Absolutely need to have military like capacity to support “policing actions” and assist in disaster relief efforts. Some border awareness is a good thing, but we really don’t need to be able to blow us fishing boats, because it would be cheaper to manage the issue through other mechanisms. When there are larger scale conflicts, it is very useful to be able to contribute forces to show that we are good global citizens and to encourage others to help us should we have issues in future.

    The idea I have promulgated for some time, is that we need to have a military with some global scale capability, but we should become a niche provider. So rather than provide all aspects of military capability, we should pick a few. That way when other countries want us to help out, we can, but we don’t have to support such a huge and expensive bunch of equipment.

    So what would that look like. no need for subs or capital ships. Some literal ship capability, transport and landing vessels to support disaster relief efforts. I like the idea of having world class hospital ships that could be deployed to support foreign aid programs or military action on a global scale. Would give us a reputation globally for helping out, at a more manageable cost. Ditch most of the fast jets, focus on logistics, long range detection, etc. Maintain our army recon capacity, commandos, SAS and engineers, but remove armour and artillery. We don’t need either and if we are deploying overseas we can work with other countries.

    A more specialised solution would save us heaps and still meet our objectives.

    Sell ourselves to the world

  6. Without claiming to be anything more than an armchair admiral, I know that a lot of senior war type people not-so-secretly agree with you, that surface vessels in a modern high-tech conflict are basically stuffed and obsolete. Hypersonic ship killing missiles such as (but not limited to) the DF-21 and the Sunburn would very quickly turn any Australian or US fleet into a smouldering wreck.

    If we are to have large ships, “to project power” or whatever, it should be soft power and we would have reasons to have a big amphibious ship or three (just like what we’re getting), for humanitarian missions or peacekeeping etc, with a hospital and lots of helipads and stores and the ability to transport ground troops/peacekeepers. But if it got nasty, they would need to be somewhere safe like Melbourne.

  7. Surface ships have no defence against ballistic missiles. If you are sitting in a three billion dollar frigate and someone fires a ballistic missile at you, you are basically dead. Your survival will depend upon there being a software error or physical malfunction in the missile itself, which is not a good position to be in.

    The US is supposedly developing laser and other defences that may possibly be able to stop current ballistic anti-ship missiles, but they are little more than science fiction at the moment. And one should no more build a ship that will get everyone on board killed unless a future defence is developed any more than one’s plan should be to attack a Roman legion while naked in the hope that in the meantime Getafix the Druid will come up with a magic potion to make you invulnerable.

    In fact, given the very broad use the word terrorism gets put to these days, politicians and defence force members who conspire to place hundred of Australian naval personal in a situation where their survival depends entirely on an enemy deciding not to attack them, may be guilty of it. And I suggest they be arrested and prosecuted to the full unclear extent of our nebulous anti-terrorism laws.

    Currently one estimate is that it costs $5,000 in aid to save one human life, so instead of a three billion dollar frigate Australia could save 600,000 lives. I think that 600,000 firm friends might actually be of better use in a future conflict than 200 dead Australians in a frigate at the bottom of the sea.

  8. If you are going to field a defence force at all then you cannot afford to ignore a medium in your region. This means land, air and sea for Australia. The important question is what you field in each medium. If you can’t afford the serious capital ships to field a carrier strike group, and Australia can’t, then one can only assume the navy’s role is largely;

    (a) defensive in the home region; and/or
    (b) to support very small landings in the home region (south west Pacific); and/or
    (c) to support US naval operations anywhere.

    (I am not endorsing all these roles, just describing them.)

    So, is the mix of ships correct for these roles? Basically, the answer is yes for now I think. However, the advent and improvement of missiles, drones and multiple light or mini-assault platforms could radically change this assessment. The day could arrive when clouds of mini-drones could do all sorts of mischief.

    Being perforce required, by sort of “precautionary exigency” to buy potentially soon-to-be obsolete ships is bad enough. But doubling down to build them for ridiculous prioce-tags is downright stupid.

    To totally vacate a medium (sea in this case) could invite trouble and is not doctrinally or logically consistent in any way. It could only make sense if one was actually advocating complete disarmament IF that in turn was logical and sensible.

    However, using naval ship construction as a job creation exercise in Australia is really stupid. We don’t get many jobs for the money and we don’t get very many (any?) good ships for the money either.


    The serious modern capital ships are;

    (a) the nuclear powered supercarrier with an air wing of 80 to 90 or more aircraft;
    (b) the nuclear powered attack submarine; and
    (c) the nuclear powered strategic submarine with submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs);

    A U.S. Navy carrier strike group typically includes:

    (1) A supercarrier;
    (2) The carrier air wing;
    (3) One or two Aegis guided missile cruisers (CG);
    (4) A destroyer squadron;
    (5) Up to two attack submarines.
    (6) A combined ammunition, oiler and supply ship.

  9. @Ronald Brak

    These fancy weapons you describe are not fielded by the Fijian navy, refugee boats or any other tinpot force or non-force we are likely to go up against locally. Obviously, Indonesia is not tinpot. But so far as I know, only Russia, China, Iran and the USA have anti-ship ballistic missiles.

    Most commentators here seem to be considering only tactics and not strategy. Iran could possibly hit and destroy a US supercarrier with an anti-ship ballistic missile. Tell me, do you think this would be a good strategic move? I think one could pretty much guarantee that Iran would shortly thereafter cease to exist as anything that could be called a functioning nation state. I am not endorsing this likely US riposte, just pointing out its strategic near certainty.

  10. “Readers will be aware that I think war is almost always disastrous for both sides, that most military spending is wasteful and harmful, but that I know this to be a minority view.”

    The difficulty, as I see it, is that each person in the world doesn’t really know the views of each of the n-1 other persons (older than say 10 years) in the world and, even if they would know and find out it is the great majority who share your views (say GE 75%) they wouldn’t know how to coordinate themselves in this so-called ‘global economy’ to implement their preferences. Finally, unless 100% share your view, the possibility cannot be excluded that the (100-x) % > 0 form at least 2 coalitions who want destruction.

    I am also in two minds about the benefit of political history (which, as far as I know, is the branch of history that deals with wars). On the one hand it is important to know what happened in the past and the associated hypothesis as to why it did happen. On the other hand, it is this knowledge which may make it difficult to stop learning the lesson that peace is not the natural state of humanity. But without the imagination of the future being different from the past, how can things change for the better? And where will this leave ‘evidence based decision making’?

  11. the fact that there has been so little naval warfare in the last 70 years or so seems

    Even before 70 years ago, one of the most abjectly useless of Naval forces was that stationed at Singapore. They had the excuse of being on the wrong side of the causeway from the side that the Japanese mounted their invasion but they could have mounted a bit more defensive action in that area.

  12. Destroyers are anti-submarine and escort ships. Given that the Chinese like using subs, I’d say they’re pretty useful as an insurance policy to keep your waters open if you don’t want to rely entirely on the US to do so in a dispute or conflict.

    Ships are certainly not obsolete because of missiles. They move around in the advent of a conflict, and there are existing anti missile defense systems like Aegis.

  13. Ikonoclast, surely you are not suggesting that it is a good idea to build ships that have no defence against being destroyed by an enemy because we are unlikely to get into a fight with an enemy? Because if so, that makes about as much sense as saying we should buy glass cars that shatter when they hit a pot hole because we are unlikely to drive them.

    You wrote, “But so far as I know, only Russia, China, Iran and the USA have anti-ship ballistic missiles.” The INS destroyer Eilat (formally HNS Zealous) was sunk by an Egyptian anti-ship ballistic missile in 1967. Things have not gotten better since then. In fact, we can go back to the sinking of the Repulse and Prince of Wales in 1941 to see how vulnerable large ships are to things that drop from the sky. A modern missile frigate has little defence against being destroyed by a swarm of Cessnas dropping world war two bombs. Bombs that could be self guiding these days with technology found in a typical smart phone and the addtion of movable fins.

    You wrote, “Iran could possibly hit and destroy a US supercarrier with an anti-ship ballistic missile.” That is not correct. If an anti-ship ballistic missile is targeted at a US carrier, then unless the missile malfunctions, the US carrier will be sunk or at least severely damaged. Surface ships have no defence against ballistic missiles.

    Surface ships also have no defence against submarines.

    Surface ships also have limited defence against a swarm of bomb carrying speed boats piloted by people who’ve had family members killed by drone or cruise missile attacks. (Something to keep in mind if we ever end up aiding an ally that has killed people with drone or cruise missile attacks.)

    Surface ships also have no real defence against mines in congested waters or dropped by Cessnas or speed boats in their likely path.

    Surface ships have no real defence against explosive dingy attacks such as the one carried out on the USS Cole in any port they don’t have complete control over.

    So I don’t really see the point of spending billions of dollars on something that is useless at dealing with “rogue Fijian elements” while also being useless at its stated purpose of being useful in a war. In fact, missile frigates are worse than useless as they are basically very expensive death traps that will waste the lives of naval personnel. It would be far better to spend a few million dollars on anti-ship ballistic missiles instead.

  14. Brett, the Aegis missile defence system doesn’t work againt anti-ship ballistic missiles. It can only potentially stop missiles that follow a ballistic course from launch, such as a scud. Anti-ship ballistic missiles fly close to the surface remaining under the ship’s horizon for most of their flight before popping up as they approach and taking a ballistic course. The Aegis missile defence cannot react in time.

  15. Ikonoclast, I described the anti-ship missile that sank the Eilat as being ballistic. That is not correct. Looking it up I see the missiles followed non-ballistic trajectories against which defences can work. The Israeli destroyer used its defences, they didn’t work, it sank.

  16. @Ronald Brak

    You wrote, “Iran could possibly hit and destroy a US supercarrier with an anti-ship ballistic missile.” That is not correct. If an anti-ship ballistic missile is targeted at a US carrier, then unless the missile malfunctions, the US carrier will be sunk or at least severely damaged. Surface ships have no defence against ballistic missiles.

    Seems like you were in heated agreement to me.

  17. @Ronald Brak
    I know you mean well Ronald but most/many of your assertions are in error or very selective. You really need to have a look at the Wiki guide to Boys Toys which I find I admit fascinating. On the surface the current weaponry looks similar to the old armoured cruiser which serves as a Monopoly board toke but really there is little comparison.

    Donning my Commodore’s hat e.g.:
    – You corrected the Eilat mistake which is good but your putting it up in the first place indicates you need to do a bit more reading.
    – In response to cruise missiles you should have added there are now items such as Phalanx gattling guns which are normal fair now and designed to deal with these kinds of missiles.
    – Most antiship missiles have a limited range of about 200-300 km at most so you need to consider that its easy to hit a ship 500 m away but 200 km is another matter altogether.
    – Regarding no protection against submarines surely you have heard of the dinky di Ikara system. Most destroyers and frigates also have helicopters equipped with homing torpedoes.
    – Basic ballistic missiles arent that well suited to hitting moving targets unless they have nuclear warheads. Modern ships can travel a km a minute so unless your ballistic missile is launched from nearby and has very sophisticated guidance its not necessarily sufficient.
    – Small speedboats are an issue in constrained waters and where there are concerns about civilians. But this doesnt describe the Australian litoral waters.

    If you are going to analyse any engagement probably the only good example is the 30 year old Malvinas affair which illustrates how things happen at long distances at which serious national forces are likely to engage. And even this conflict is a problematic model when you consider the changes in technology between then and now – think of the difference between 1950 and 1982 to get an idea.

    As to where things will be in 10 or 30 years time who can say given the technology is moving so fast. And returning to the frigates and destroyers, though most recent use has been for close to short activities they seem to be designed not for a rerun of Jutland or even the Pacific War battles you see celebrated at the War Memorial but as mobile hard to track bases hundreds of km from the locations of action.

    Its of interesting to prognosticate on this subject but truth be told on the technical aspects none of us really has a clue about the full set of pros and cons.

    As to the final question of are these ships a waste? In respect to alternative uses of resources of course they are. But then who said our society is efficient – the fleets of 4WDs illustrate that us civilians are just as prone to fetish as the military.

  18. @Brett

    When I read the first line of John Quiggin’s title (‘What do destroyers destroy?’) the thought that came into my head was ‘Didn’t they get that name from their role as destroyers of submarines?’ When I looked it up, however, I found that the first ships to be designated ‘destroyers’ were in fact known more fully as ‘torpedo boat destroyers’, and the role in anti-submarine operations was a subsequent development.

    I guess if you’re expecting people with submarines (or torpedo boats?) to use them to attack your ships (or ships transporting your cargoes, or cargoes for you), then it’s probably worth having some destroyers for protection. But should we–I mean Australians–expect that? What are the chances that the Chinese, or anybody else, will start trying to sink ships on their way to or from Australia (using submarines, or torpedo boats, or anything else)? Maybe the chance of anything like that happening is so exiguous that for practical purposes it can be ignored, and if that is the case then the argument in favour of Australia having destroyers pretty much collapses.

  19. Not having any special knowledge here, I find Brett’s comment compelling. We should at least have the capacity to find and destroy subs in Australia’s waters.

    The ASEAN states won’t be too happy with China floating around either, so to what extent is our navy planning for cooperation with them?

  20. @Ronald Brak
    Isn’t there a system called Phalanx which is used for defending against low altitude incoming missiles? I’ve seen footage of it firing and it is a blizzard of metal, from the missile’s perspective. I’m no expert though, so I’ve no idea if this system has been beaten by technological improvements in missile flight measures, or something.

    To wage war against another nation, first you must get within range to use your weapons. While ICBMs can theoretically reach any other nation, to be effective they would need to be nuclear, and would inevitably have large collateral casualties upon strike. To use the more sophisticated, and perhaps more discreet, weapons, the range gap must be closed, so that implies use of something to carry the weapons into range of the enemy. There is an entire logistical chain which is essential to keep intact if a war is to be waged for more than a few hours. There is no way around that. The logistical requirement therefore implies carriers, and protection for the carriers, whether the carriers are planes, trucks, or carrier ships of some sort. Ships are the one mobile carrier which can shift geographical position while retaining a huge magazine “warehouse” and fuel and food, medical supplies, etc. So even though ships are slow moving on an individual basis, they are a rapid mover of large supply points from one spot to another.

    If two fairly large modern nations of similar size go to war, it would be very tempting to use nukes to cut down the navy’s logistics, and to disrupt civilian and military infrastructure on a massive scale. If there is a land corridor between them, perhaps nukes would be less attractive; on the other hand, if you feel that you are beginning to lose the conventional war…

  21. @Ernestine Gross
    The conclusion suggested to me by what I know of history is that both peace and war are compatible with human nature. Human nature is more flexible than people often suppose.

  22. @Ronald Brak

    I think my comments stand. Newtonian has outlined why.

    From an article in National Interest titled “Should America Fear China’s “Carrier-Killer” Missile?”

    “The USN is very concerned about the DF-21D, which is one reason it’s working so hard on ship-borne anti-ballistic missile (ABM) technology. The USN is also working on other countermeasures, including strikes on DF-21 launch sites at the onset of war (potentially delivered from nuclear cruise missile submarines (SSGNs), and electronic warfare.

    This is why it’s so important to emphasize the importance of the ancillary ISR and communication system that make the DF-21D possible. The US doesn’t need to destroy every launcher, or shoot down every missile in flight. Both of those represent important capabilities, but the key task is to disrupt the system that supports the missile, making it hard for China to identify, target, and strike US carrier groups.

    No one knows what would happen if the Second Artillery launched a salvo of DF-21Ds at a US carrier battle group. Some percentage (depending on reliability) would invariably go astray without US help. US escorts would shoot down some percentage with ship-board ABM systems. Electronic disruption would cause some to plunge harmlessly into the ocean. And finally, some might hit a carrier, or hit carrier escorts. A successful hit will almost certainly result in at least a “mission kill,” disabling a US carrier for the remainder of the conflict.”

    All of this illustrates that if conflict ever escalated to this level, it’s not going to be any kind of isolated “one ballistic missile versus one ship” scenario. It’s one entire military system versus another entire military system. There will be measures and counter-measures at system wide levels. At that level of alert, carrier strike forces don’t just blunder into range (about 1,000 miles) which is another assumption you seem to make.

    However, an unprovoked attack without warning by say Iran with a Chinese equivalent missile on a US supercarrier near the Gulf could possibly get through. Who knows what the probability is? I doubt it is 100% as you assume. Let’s assume it’s 50% which are still nasty odds for such a dire event. As I said before, commentators here are thinking only at the tactical level and not at the strategic level. What strategic sense would it make for Iran to launch such an attack? The reply attack would pretty much destroy Iran as a viable nation state. The ability for massive retaliation is a defence measure in its own right.

    None of this is to say I support the Australian Navy’s current force structure or projected acquisitions. I don’t know enough to comment on that. However, I don’t support using naval ship building in Australia as a job creation program. That will just give us expensive, poor ships and a poor job creation program.

    However, J.Q. needs to stump up and propose his alternative defence policy for Australia. Does it involve;

    (1) Unilateral disarmament? or
    (2) Simply no navy? or
    (3) Some radical re-structure of our navy?

    Any kind of simplistic military theory that “Big assets can be hit therefore we must have no big assets” or “the cost of a weapon strike is less than the cost of a military asset therefore we must have no military assets” is really not going to stand up to scrutiny in military theory (though it is probably very good economic theory). You have to understand the roles of big military assets and of small distributed, numerous military assets and how they work together before you can start making judgments or even developing theories about this. This is unless you are prepared to take the outright unilateral disarmament path.

  23. Following Ikonoclast, the reason for buying a guided missile destroyer or cruiser is to protect your aircraft carrier, which Australia has 0 of. I don’t know whether a USN carrier group can protect itself against current and future anti-ship missiles, but it clearly has a lot of options. It can fly look-down AWACs planes to warn of launches, take out the launch platforms with airstrikes, and in future fire powerful anti-missile lasers from the carrier. None of this holds for an isolated destroyer or cruiser.

  24. @Ernestine Gross

    This sounds like a corollary of the “offensive realism” theories of John Mearsheimer.

    (1) All states possess some offensive military capability.
    (2) States can never be certain of the intentions of other states.
    (3) States have survival as their primary goal.
    (4) States are rational actors capable of coming up with strategies which they believe will maximize their prospects for survival.
    (5) Great powers are the main actors in world politics and the international system is anarchical.
    (6) Great powers are power-maximising innovators seeking final hegemony in preference to balancing strategies.

    Note: “anarchical” in this context means there is no power above the competing great powers.

  25. @Ikonoclast

    John Quiggin wrote ‘the case against spending money on navies … seems … overwhelming to me’. Subject to anything further he may have to say on the subject, I think that’s sufficient evidence to justify concluding that one element of his alternative defence strategy for Australia is ‘have no navy’.

    So what’s wrong with that? What would happen if Australia decided on a complete decommissioning of its navy? If we adopted that policy, one thing we would no longer have to worry about is an enemy sinking our naval vessels, because we wouldn’t have any to be sunk. What else would happen? Would submarines start sinking merchant shipping in Australian waters? Nobody has any advantage to gain from that, or any other reason to attempt it. So what else?

    Maybe what would happen would be that Australian Prime Ministers and Defence Ministers would feel small when they’re hanging around with leaders and defence ministers from other countries. You know what? I think we could live with that.

  26. @James Wimberley

    That is very true for a major power and that is what I was driving at. However, secondary powers like Australia might have other valid reasons. I said “might”. One reason might be to supplement your ally’s carrier group or at least operate under its umbrella. Another reason might be that if you don’t have the offensive power of a supercarrier, you might at least need the offensive ship to ship and ship to shore power of frigates for example (mainly via missiles). Or you might need their defensive power to cover an amphibious ship. Clearly, this could only apply to operations in your own immediate region.

    Without a carrier group of its own, a nation’s navy is going to have to operate under the air cover of an ally’s carrier group and under its own land based air cover. Again this points to us having a merely regional navy when it is operating on its own.

    All I am saying is that it is not an open and shut case that we should have no frigates and no submarines. We don’t appear to have any active destroyers that I can see in fleet lists.

    Our frigates have anti-submarine and anti-aircraft capabilities and some have guided-missile capabilities. Missiles and aircraft with missiles can hit them but again a well operated navy just does not range out blindly into enemy aircraft and missile range if there is a state of war or high alert. There seem to be all sorts of assumptions above that various matters like missile ranges, air cover, strategy, tactics, force coordination, measures and counter-measures simply don’t exist. There’s apparently just a single helpless, defenceless ship facing an in-range anti-ship missile (got in range by magic maybe?) in an operational void?

    Mind you, one can make all these arguments and one successful enemy missile strike can make one look very stupid. One cannot discount that we are at an inflection point of some kind when it comes to missile, drones and mini-drones etc. But there are the matters of range, duration, projection and platforms. The enemy missile needs a platform too.

  27. @Ikonoclast

    Without a carrier group of its own, a nation’s navy is going to have to operate under the air cover of an ally’s carrier group and under its own land based air cover.

    No; not if it has no navy.

  28. @J-D

    It’s a long argument. I don’t think ignoring a medium (air, land or sea) is viable for the military of even a second rate power like Australia. I’ve made some of the arguments above. The idea that a significant island nation or island continent should have no navy is certainly… unique in the annals.

    Whether we should have a military at all is another question. However, since I adopt the position that the theory of offensive realism (summarised in my post 25 above) is descriptively correct (describes the international order as it actually is) then I am not in favour of unilaterally disarming.

    From a military standpoint, an a mere armchair general, I would say Australia should adopt a wholly defensive posture. We have an admirable, indeed an almost a perfect defensive position geostrategically… or at least as good as it gets on this planet. We have a relatively small economy and population. It’s plenty for defence but vastly inadequate for offence and power projection in this world. There is absolutely nothing whatsoever for us to gain from overseas “adventures”.

  29. I’ll make a few points in general:

    First, I am certainly not up to date on all the details of military technology, but I am sure if the basic problem that extremely expensive capital ships with large crews can be sunk or damaged at low cost and low risk by an attacker had been solved, someone would have mentioned it to me.

    The Phalanx is not effective against ballistic missiles. That is ones that come in from above. It can only be elevated to 70%. And even if it could be elevated 90 degrees it may not be able to stop ballistic missiles or ballistic missile pieces which may possibly be travelling at mach 10 and quite capable of passing through the deck of a frigate. Falling Phalanx rounds would also be a danger, although exploding ammunition could be used to reduce that problem.

    There is no real defence against submarines. There are a wide range of anti-submarine weapons and they are all deterrents, not defences. They may destroy a submarine after it has given away it position by attacking but there is no reliable way of defending against a submarine’s initial attack.

    Automated systems that can guide ballistic missiles to targets are now quite cheap. Or at least cheap compared to the cost of a three billion dollar frigate. Not every missile will hit, it’s quite common for military equipment not to work as advertised, but Australia’s Popeye missiles were one million each, so what are we looking at these days? Two million a missile? If one in three hit that’s $6 million to sink or badly damage a $3 billion dollar frigate.

    I am not aware of any defence that can reliably protect a frigate or a carrier from a modern anti-ship ballistic missile once it has been launched and has detected its target. The time between when it starts its pop up manoeuvre and hitting its target is apparently too short fo the current Aegis missile shield system to respond. And other systems such as the Phalanx are apparently ineffective. Now nothing is certain, and maybe the ship will get lucky, but that’s not a very good defence.

    And maybe our frigates will be built with some top secret totes works for realz defence against ballistic anti-ship missiles, but if that is the case I am unware of it. Or unwilling to admit that I am.

  30. The basic Wikpedia article seems relevant here.

    For example, some warships, such as the U.S. Navy’s Ticonderoga-class guided missile cruisers, the Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyers, and the Royal Navy’s Type 45 guided missile destroyer, use a combination of powerful and agile radar systems, integrated computer fire-control systems, and agile surface-to-air missiles to simultaneously track, engage, and destroy several incoming antiship missiles and/or hostile warplanes at a time.


    Recent years have seen a growing amount of attention being paid to the possibility of ballistic missiles being re-purposed or designed for an anti-ship role. Speculation has focused on the development of such missiles for use by China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy. Such an anti-ship ballistic missile would approach its target extremely rapidly, making it very difficult to intercept.[5]

    Clearly, being on a ship being shot at by anti-ship missiles is not for the faint-hearted.

  31. This is all bogus.

    We are run by stooges and puppets of the US empire. “We” only buy, build or otherwise get what the US military industrial security surveillance financial complex either wants, or allows, us to get. And we pay dearly for whatever rubbish we end up with. It has nothing to do with “defence” of Australia and everything to do with US militarism and propping up a failing empire that is way past its “legitimacy date”.

    On Friday our brave leader told us the Pentagon had rung him on the hotline desperately pleading for proud, brave, dead, Aussie-Digger assistance to save the world from the streeemists in Syria.

    Turns out, unsurprisingly – and as many of us suspected at the time, that he made the whole thing up. It was Abbott who begged the US to “ask” Australia for “help”.

    Nicky Hager (NZ investigative journalist and author) wrote about precisely the same tactic employed by NZ forces to get themselves in good with uncle sam, at great expense to NZ taxpayers and for absolutely no value whatsoever.

  32. Readers will be aware that I think war is almost always disastrous for both sides, that most military spending is wasteful and harmful, but that I know this to be a minority view. Even given that, the case against spending money on navies (and particularly surface fleets) seems so overwhelming to me that I’m amazed to find hardly anyone in agreement.

    The defence policy of the Liberal Democrats essentially says most of those things. Specifically it envisages the surface navy being scrapped with the exception of some assets to be transferred to a coast guard service.

    See here: http://www.ldp.org.au/index.php/policies/1218-policy-on-defence

    16. Most of the navy’s surface fleet would be sold to help fund new acquisitions. Some patrol boats and frigates may be kept to establish a coast guard while hospital, supply and amphibious capability may be retained for humanitarian disaster relief.

    The policy trims the military in a number of other ways and introduces new constraints on how it could be used and how it’s use can be authorised.

  33. @Ronald Brak

    Are you talking about that Chinese missile? It’s hard to say what that thing can do anyways, given the limitation of knowledge about it. But in any case, I’m not convinced yet that the problems with using them have gotten any easier. The big problem is the system of finding and targeting a rapidly moving carrier group with said anti-ship ballistic missiles fast enough so that the carrier group hasn’t significantly moved by the time the missile gets there. I’m not convinced the Chinese have that for ballistic missiles with conventional warheads (it’s not as much a problem with nuclear warheads instead, but . . .nuclear weapons).

    And of course, in the advent of a conflict where the Chinese are shooting DF-21Ds at US carrier groups, we’ll be in an all-out war anyways. I assume in that situation the US will be shooting at Chinese forces and missile sites.

  34. @Ikonoclast

    No, it’s not a long argument. It boils down to two possibilities:

    A. bad things are likely to happen as a result if Australia has no navy
    B. no bad things are likely to happen as a result if Australia has no navy

    If it’s A, then somebody should be able to produce some examples of what those bad things might be: even one would be a start.

    If it’s B, then there’s no case in favour of Australia having a navy.

  35. @Ronald Brak

    Where do these missiles come from? You seem to be assuming that the opposition can launch these missiles with no platform. You seem to be assuming our weapons platforms (ships in this case) have high vulnerability to missiles (which might well be true) but that the enemy has weapons platforms without vulnerability or that their missiles need no platform and appear and are launched from nowhere.

    Given that you accept the effectiveness of submarines, you seem to be arguing for a submarine force for Australia. Are you going to operate Collins diesel-electric subs (that’s all we have) without oil and supply ships? Can oil and supply ships operate without other surface support ships or will you tie the subs down to their defence so that the subs cannot operate forward in surveillance, screening and attack operations? Can this surface fleet operate without anti-air capacity. Australia can’t run land-based air patrols everywhere. Aircraft have range and duration limits.

    With all respect, you don’t understand the first thing about force composition and combined operations. I know precious little about that field either. At least I know the field exists.

  36. @J-D

    Then logically you must make a case for the unilateral disarmament of Australia and so must J.Q. if his views are as you ascribe them. My case against unilateral disarmament follows the theory of offensive realism mentioned in my post 25.

    Offensive realism does not in any way presuppose an offensive stance. Indeed, for Australia a defensive stance without military adventurism makes far more sense and would be far cheaper. This might and probably would involve a smaller navy. I very much doubt it would mean nothing bigger than a patrol boat. I would say people arguing such things understand nothing about combined arms nor about combined operations. Other than that they are fine armchair generals.

  37. @Ikonoclast

    German U-boats did pretty well in the Atlantic 1939-45 without the benefit of oil and supply ships. Collins class subs have an operating range of 20,000 km and endurance of 70 days. If they are used in a defence role, that is ample without the need for supporting surface vessels.

  38. @Brett

    I sincerely hope that in “a conflict where the Chinese are shooting DF-21Ds at US carrier groups”, Australia will not necessarily be a participant. Even the Liberals will be leery of following the US blindly into a war with our biggest trading partner over some trivial dispute about territorial waters. Of course it’s highly unlikely America would ever start such a conflict either, but with lunatics like Marco Rubio and Scott Walker running for president, one can never be sure.

  39. @Megan

    Correctly speaking, you meant this is all morally bogus. However, it is materially real. No amount of moral outrage can change realpolitik or the fundamental dynamics of offensive realism in this system (capitalism). No great power is ever going to become benign under the current system. In it, every great power becomes aggressive and oppressive in proportion to its greatness. Previous systems (before capitalism) found no answer to the problems of offensive realism either. Whether there is some new and radically different system which could be developed to address these issues is another debate.

  40. Australia has acquired two amphibious helicopter carriers, hulls built in Spain and fitting-out completed here. These will be our largest surface combatants, with a capacity to carry and deliver heavy vehicles, troops and helicopters. In a humanitarian relief role (say, following a cyclone disaster affecting our South Pacific island nation neighbours), these vessels would be invaluable. One could ask whether they would be even better in such a role if they were purpose-built as humanitarian aid vessels, though the frequency of their use for such a role would be low. The likelihood of their being required for an actual military role is also low. One could also ask whether the money spent on equipping our Navy for humanitarian work would be better spent in assisting our poorer neighbours with better infrastructure and disaster responses of their own.
    Our new amphibious vessels are lightly armed and various types of destroyers and frigates would, in a shooting war, be given the role of protecting and supporting them.
    Meanwhile, given the extent of Australia’s coastline, and the limitations of much of our transport infrastructure, naval amphibious capability is essential just to move our Army around (assuming we are to retain an Army).
    Other points:
    (1) The Chinese are themselves building aircraft carriers (or refurbishing discarded Russian ones). So the desire to build prestigious and expensive targets of dubious military value is not confined to Australia.
    (2) The US Navy’s super-carrier task forces retain some military value because of their ability to stay far out to sea, at least in the Pacific. They are less elusive in confined waters such as the Mediterranean and the South China Sea.
    (3) While we continue with current policies of ‘border protection’ (which seem to have so-called ‘bipartisan endorsement’), it seems we need a navy that has a large fleet of long-range patrol vessels. These keep getting bigger, in successive acquisitions and building programs, because they need to stay long periods far from any base.
    (4) Mr Abbott’s decisions about naval construction in South Australia appear to give bipartisan support to the previous Labor rationale for establishing shipbuilding capacity there: naval construction is about needing ships (rightly or wrongly), but also about needing to provide investment, skilled jobs and employment in strategic locations (by ‘strategic’ here I refer to employment and investment policy, rather than military strategies). This is an element of the establishment of our own ‘military industrial complex’, comparable to the United States version in which military interests, state investment, employment and electoral outcomes are inter-twined.

  41. @Peter Chapman

    “The US Navy’s super-carrier task forces retain some military value because of their ability to stay far out to sea, at least in the Pacific. They are less elusive in confined waters such as the Mediterranean and the South China Sea.”

    Agreed. Is it not also the case that USA’s capacity for massive retaliation up to and including tactical and strategic nukes is another form of protection for its carrier groups? A nation like Iran could possibly hit a supercarrier tactically but it would be strategic suicide. They could not contemplate it.

  42. @Ken_L

    Like I said, it’s ultimately about how much you trust the US to come to your aid if something did go down, be it as simple as Chinese submarines trespassing in Australian territorial waters to a bigger conflict. I think it would be a good idea for Australia to have at least some capable to stop submarines and attempts to interdict shipping in a potential conflict, at least as a “tripwire” beyond which the conflict has escalated to the point that the US gets involved.


    Do you really think the US would respond with nuclear weapons to a conventional Iranian attack on a US carrier group? I don’t, although the conventional response would be harsh.

  43. Sorry to link to Oz. This article says a little bit. I don’t endorse or dis-endorse its views. I don’t know enough to do either.


    What kind of navy? This is a good question. No navy?! This is a ridiculous position to take unless you are advocating unilateral complete disarmament in which case it is at least consistent (though in conflict with the observed “laws” of the offensive realism phenomenon). The no navy position indicates no awareness of the existence and exigencies of combined arms and combined operations.

    J-D claims J.Q. supports the no navy position but J.Q. has not re-entered the debate to clarify his position. On the face of it, J.Q.’s position is simply a no frigates, no destroyers position.

  44. @Ikonoclast

    Australia used to have two aircraft carriers. Almost bought another one from Britain but the Falklands War saved us. Making the decision to go without any was widely condemned as unthinkable madness at the time. But here we are, and nobody sane is suggesting we buy a new carrier.

  45. @Brett

    “Do you really think the US would respond with nuclear weapons to a conventional Iranian attack on a US carrier group? I don’t, although the conventional response would be harsh.” – Brett.

    Honestly, I don’t know. I do know the Americans are highly militaristic and that blowing up two buildings was enough to send them plumb loco and destroy two countries. I am almost certain they value a supercarrier far more than two buildings (whatever the relative economic costs). They could not NOT react to the destruction or even temporary disabling of a carrier and the likely attendant casualties in the hundreds or thousands. There would be massive retaliation with a strategic level of destruction whether or not tactical nukes were used. I don’t suggest they would use strategic nukes.

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