In a big surprise, the Defence Strategic Review has deferred all decisions regarding the future of the RAN’s surface fleet until later this year. The logic is that the planned – or rather, hoped for – acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines will probably have consequences for the surface fleet. The argument goes that since SSNs are themselves good anti-submarine warfare (ASW) platforms, perhaps fewer surface ships dedicated to this role are necessary.

This could be code for reducing the number of Hunter class frigates from the current plan of nine to something less. Dispiritingly, this extra review will be led by Retired US Vice Admiral William H Hilarides – as if somehow Australia is lacking the necessary talent to examine the structure of our own navy and needs the guidance of someone from another country about what we should do.

As a distinguished ex-submariner, Admiral Hilarides probably comes from the above school of thought that says the best ASW asset is another submarine. This is in line with USN doctrine, which takes a different approach to ASW operations than many other navies. Much of this is in the detail – such as the USN has never seemed particularly interested in the use of active-passive towed sonar arrays deployed by surface ships. It also has the luxury of two embarked ASW helicopters per ship, while most other navies – including the RAN – can only afford one.

Also, as Defence Minister Marles remarked, there seems to be a broad trend underway for many navies to move from small numbers of large ships to the opposite.

This is an excerpt from APDR. To read the full story, click here.

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Kym Bergmann
Kym Bergmann is the editor for Asia Pacific Defence Reporter (APDR) and Defence Review Asia (DRA). He has more than 25 years of experience in journalism and the defence industry. After graduating with honours from the Australian National University, he joined Capital 7 television, holding several positions including foreign news editor and chief political correspondent. During that time he also wrote for Business Review Weekly, undertaking analysis of various defence matters.After two years on the staff of a federal minister, he moved to the defence industry and held senior positions in several companies, including Blohm+Voss, Thales, Celsius and Saab. In 1997 he was one of two Australians selected for the Thomson CSF 'Preparation for Senior Management' MBA course. He has also worked as a consultant for a number of companies including Raytheon, Tenix and others. He has served on the boards of Thomson Sintra Pacific and Saab Pacific.


  1. Maybe we do need an “outside the box” assessment given our propensity to select unproven, overpriced & under performing capital equipment such as the Hunters, Attack class, MRRT, Tiger ARH, MRH90 & the list goes on. The Aust Govt’s / Defence’s propensity to constantly select major assets with the highest associated risk & highest unit & life of type costs along with the never ending need to gold plate & “Australianise” everything is negatively impacting capability. The Hunters in particular will be delivered late, significantly over weight, with no room for growth & only have 32 vls cells in a 10k tonne class vessel. The entire program is a joke & needs to be scrapped. The size of a Bourke with 1/3 of the vls count. Outclassed before they even hit the water.
    More Hobart’s & a fleet of capable Corvette’s makes way more sense. Think Saar6.
    Defence really needs to get its act together.

    • Thanks Matt – you have selected an interesting list. I’m not aware of any problems at all regarding the MRTTs. You have nominated all non-U.S. platforms, so let me throw the C-27J into that hugely depressing mix. I agree with your comments about the Hunter class. I strongly disagree about Tiger and Taipan – they should be kept in service for at leat the next 15 years, saving Army (and Australian taxpayers) about $11 billion.

  2. It is hard to tell exactly what this article was trying to impart Kym, other than you are obviously a fan of LMA. I think however there are a number of points worth making about your commentary. Firstly, I’m not sure you can make the claim that Aegis and it’s attached FCS is central to the Navy’s future. As the chap from LMA points out, the Saab product is going to be just as central going forward and it can be no coincidence that the goverment has just decided to take majority ownership of CEA, the maker of the Radar on the Hunter. I would suggest that making these three things work together, rather than Aegis in isolation, is what is central to the future RAN.

    I do agree that appointing a retired US nuke boat driver to review the surface fleet is a strange selection, until you realise that the preferred outcome requires a certain point of view. For better or worse, all Australian governements now and in the future are tied to the success of an AUKUS sub and that will require a realignmnet of spending priorities for the senior service. It really has nothing to do with capability or force structure for the skimmers. It’s about having a fancy titled report writer’s name to hang their hat on when it comes time to cancel/’re-structure’ the Hunter project and purchase cheaper ships with more spear chucking capability and less Australian industry involvement.

    I’m not saying this is a bad thing startegically. The concept of doing ASW surveillance surface tail ops in the warm pacific waters to our North has never made much sense to me. I’m no sonar expert but it doesn’t take a genius to work out that you can’t stick a tail in the South China Sea without getting it cut off and anywhere south of that isn’t much good for those types of activities. It’s probably why the USN doesn’t do ASW that way. They have the UK to take care of the Atlantic and its just not feasable in the Pacific when subs can do it better.

    But that is a strategic problem and it fails to recognise where a ship like the Hunter would be invaluable. If, as the DSR suggests, the Army needs to become more expiditionary focused then the obvious extrapolation is they need to be taken somewhere and the mode of transport is likely to be a big grey boat. That big grey boat needs to be protected from the fastest proliferating combat asset in our sphere of influence…the submarine. Sure, you can use a nuke boat to do the protecting… but can you though?! If you are the USN you can, because all the gaps in coverage can be filled with ASW aircraft. But as you so astutely pointed out…RAN ships can only carry a single ASW helicopter. So maybe there is a spot for an ASW capable warship at the operational level of the new and improved ADF as envisioned by the DSR???

    And that brings me to my final point. Something which seems to have eluded commentary from all of the reporting since the public version of the DSR was released…The Authors. I can’t imagine that the report was ever going to say anything about the Air Force needing re-structure noting the chief military man on the writing team was the man in charge of the Air Force when it’s current structure was being put in place. I’m sure he was smiling as he penned the parts about getting rid of that pesky Space Force and Air Force taking over IAMD (which will attract almost as much money as nuke subs). Nor is it any surprise that the Army has been attacked as both primary authors have no particular love for that organisation. As for the complete silence on the Navy, well I daresay that neither of them have a clue to be blunt. I looked over the staff listed to support the DSR and while there was a WGCDR with ex Navy experience no other names jumped out as having any real maritime competence. So much easier to push that subject on to a retired USN Boat Driver who has already been paid to come up with the correct answer.

    • Thanks for all of that – particularly the final point. As I’ve written elsewhere, I’m not yet fully convinced that we will receive second-hand Virginia class submarines in the 2030s, unless the U.S. succeeds in massively ramping up their production capacity. If that happens, fine. But if not I cannot imagine for a moment they will give priority to Australia over their own needs.

      You also make fair points about Aegis, and indeed I had structured the article to focus on the role of Lockheed Martin. I’m aware of the involvement of Saab and also CEA and I hope to go into more detail regarding those two entities in the near future. I also noticed the Commonwealth buy-in, replacing Northrop Grumman. This means that the Department of Finance now owns 100% of ASC (the submarine part) and 49% (I assume) of Australia’s premier radar house. Most of the western world is going in the opposite direction, with governments getting out of the ownership of defence industry assets. There are some exceptions: Spain; the Nordic counties (partial) and France (partial) but with the AUKUS partners Australia appears to be bucking the trend.


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