Will ‘impactful projection’ see the return of the fixed-wing Naval Air Arm?
April 19, 2023
Photo: Defence Connect
Australia’s pursuit of “impactful projection” marks a major step change in the nation’s strategic direction and capabilities — as part of this shift, will we see a return in some capacity to Australian fixed-wing naval aviation?
Throughout the history of naval warfare, platforms, doctrine, and the very concept of maritime-based power projection and sea control have evolved as the ambitions and interests of nations did.
Beginning with the Second World War, aircraft carriers, advanced guided-missile cruisers, destroyers, frigates, and, increasingly, conventional and nuclear-powered submarines emerged as the pinnacle of maritime prestige and power projection.
Unlike their predecessor, the battleship, aircraft carriers in themselves, are relatively benign actors, relying heavily on their attached carrier air wings and supporting escort fleets of cruisers, destroyers, and submarines to screen them from hostile action.
In recent years, nations throughout the Indo-Pacific have begun a series of naval expansion and modernisation programs with traditional aircraft carriers and large-deck, amphibious warfare ships serving as the core of their respective shift towards greater maritime power projection.
Driving this change is an unprecedented period of Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea and the growing capabilities of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN).
As part of this, China has begun fielding or preparing to field a range of power projection capabilities, including aircraft carriers and supporting strike groups, fifth-generation combat aircraft, modernised land forces, area-access denial, and strategic nuclear forces, combined with growing political and financial influence throughout the region.
Building on this, the long-term threat from North Korea has prompted South Korea to embark on a series of land, air, and sea acquisition programs that support the Republic of Korea’s transition towards developing a robust, deployable, conventional power projection and deterrence-focused force.
Not to be outdone by rising powers, many traditional “great powers”, namely European nations like the UK and increasingly France, have sought to flex their muscle in the Indo-Pacific, recognising the region as the epicentre of 21st century economic, political and strategic power — and at the heart of that is the aircraft carrier, and for smaller, but still potent powers like Japan, South Korea, and Australia, the large amphibious warfare ships.
While some question the survivability of these potent power projection platforms, consideration of a fixed-wing naval aviation capability comes at a time of increased commentary from across the defence and strategic policy community and points to a growing recognition by Australia that it will need a range of platforms across the joint force particularly those in the maritime and aerial domains.
Adding further to this now long-recognised capability gap is the glaring loss of maritime strike capability, particularly following the retirement of the final Perth Class guided missile destroyer in 2006 and critically for operating independently in the Indo-Pacific, the end of Australia’s fixed-wing, fleet air arm with the retirement of the HMAS Sydney and HMAS Melbourne aircraft carriers without replacement in the 1980s, something highlighted in a recent piece for ASPI’s Strategist by Vice Admiral (ret’d) and former Chief of Navy, David Shackleton, who said: “By 2006, when the RAN’s final Anzac frigate, HMAS Perth, was commissioned, the class had 64 cells, but the ESSMs they contained were to be used for self-defence. In the interim, two of six older Perry Class ships were decommissioned to provide funds to upgrade the remaining four, including adding eight VLS cells. That gave each ship 48 cells, and an improved capability with the longer-range SM-2. After modernisation, the Perry Class went from six ships to four, but the total number of cells went from 240 to 192.”
With the Albanese Government’s growing emphasis on developing ‘Impactful Projection’ and extending the nation’s capacity to engage more directly across the Indo-Pacific, does a return to fixed-wing naval aviation provide Australia, and its allies with a much needed strategic and tactical force multiplier?
Japan’s return to carrier ops
The Japanese government has closely monitored the rise of the Chinese Navy and its growing force of aircraft carriers and territorial ambitions particularly in the South China Sea (SCS) and the southern Ryukyu and Senkaku Islands.
Izumo and her sister ship Kaga are capable of supporting airwings of 28 aircraft, with capacity for about 10 “B” variant of the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter, with both 27,000-tonne vessels capable of supporting 400 marines.
The incorporation of the F-35B into the two vessels enhances the maritime strike and broader deterrence options for Japan, particularly as the country seeks to expand its own maritime strike capabilities with the acquisition of Tomahawk cruise missiles and the Naval Strike Missile, respectively, combined with the domestic development of a suite of advanced ship and air-launched strike weapons, including hypersonics.
The introduction of anti-access, area denial (A2AD) systems also requires that the new “carriers” be supported by an enhanced layer of air and missile defence capable cruisers, destroyers, and frigates, adding further cost and operational complexity challenges.
Additionally, concerns about the capability of the “B” variant of the F-35, particularly concerning combat range, payload, and manoeuvrability raises additional variables that can be overcome through the integration of key force multiplying platforms, namely tanker aircraft, either fixed wing or rotary, and airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft and need to be accounted for as part of the broader integration equation Japan is currently embarking upon.
South Korea joins the race
South Korea’s focus on establishing itself as a regional power capable of intervening in regional affairs serves as a model for Australian force structure planners — the comparable economic, political, and demographic size of Australia and South Korea, combined with the similarity in the platforms and systems operated by both nations, serve as a building block for both interoperability and similar force structure models.
The north Asian industrial power has had a storied history pursuing its own carrier capability, beginning with a proposed 30,000-tonne short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) aircraft carrier. This new vessel, which is expected to be double the size of the Republic of Korea Navy’s (ROKN) two previous Dokdo Class, which weigh in at 14,500 tonnes of displacement, will serve as the basis for Korea’s burgeoning carrier capability and will be slightly larger than Japan’s Izumo Class vessels at 27,000 tonnes of displacement.
It was expected that the new vessel will accommodate 16 F-35Bs, in conjunction with 3,000 Marines and 20 armoured vehicles — further supporting the power projection capabilities of the new vessel and the broad ROKN.
This announcement fits in with the broader reorganisation of the ROKN — it should be noted that in this original configuration, the proposed vessel would be similar in size to the Royal Australian Navy’s own Canberra Class amphibious warfare ships: HMA Ships Canberra and Adelaide.
Former US Navy captain and a former director of operations at the US Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Centre, Carl Schuster explained to CNN the driving force behind the acquisition, stating, “The primary advantage a small carrier offers South Korea is its use as a mobile airfield. If North Korea targets South Korea’s air bases ashore, being able to manoeuvre and attack from ever-changing locations has tactical and operational advantages.
“It signals the ROK Navy intends to operate farther from home than it does now.”
Serving in a complementary role in Korea’s transition towards a blue water capable navy is the original Dokdo Class vessels, which will serve as the flagship in Korea’s “Rapid Response Fleet” structure. Korea has recently announced plans for three additional 7,600-tonne block two Sejong the Great Class Aegis guided missile destroyers worth a total of US$3.3 billion, to be completed by 2028.
These formidable vessels are expected to serve part of Korea’s broader integrated air and missile defence capabilities with a secondary focus on anti-surface and land attack capabilities.
This complementary capability and force structure mix provides Korea’s decision-makers with three credible rapid reaction fleets supported by a range of escort and sea control formations — however, the power of aircraft carriers comes from their embarked air wing, with Korea expected to build on its 2014 US$6.75 billion order for 40 F-35As with an additional 20 F-35Bs or replace the original order with 40 F-35Bs with an additional 20 F-35Bs.
Going further, Korea, working with Italian-based Fincantieri, has evolved this original concept to shape a vessel now expected to be approximately 45,000 tonnes, supporting an air wing of 20 F-35Bs and a number of support helicopters, coupled with the domestic design and early stage production of a conventional take, arrested landing variant of its KF-21 4.5 generation fighter aircraft.
In doing so, this raises questions about South Korea’s own carrier ambitions and whether the country intends to stick with a “smaller” type of aircraft carrier, or pivot toward a larger, more capable aircraft carrier capability?
A medium aircraft carrier – Designed to complement and supplement super carriers
Developed in response to the doctrine established by famed Second World War admiral and Cold War-era chief of naval operations, Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, the CVV concept was designed to be a smaller, cheaper aircraft carrier to complement the larger Nimitz Class aircraft carriers then in the early stages of operation and construction.
With a planned displacement of between 50,000–60,000 tonnes (comparable to the Royal Navy’s new Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carriers), length of 278 metres, and a conventionally powered top speed of 27–29 knots and carrier air wing of between 55–65, compared with the 90 aircraft carried by the larger, nuclear powered Nimitz Class, the CVV would be capable of supporting a suite of conventional carrier fighter aircraft.
It was planned that the CVV concept would provide a complement and supplement to the larger nuclear-powered aircraft carriers with a scalable, adaptable, and flexible carrier platform for forward deployment when a supercarrier would be considered too expensive a platform to place in harm’s way or was unavailable in event of tactical or strategic requirements during the Cold War.
While the election of the Reagan administration eventually put an end to the CVV concept during the late 1970s — recent cost increases in the Gerald R Ford Class has prompted many within the US strategic establishment to propose a reinvention of the CVV concept, with the late-senator John McCain identifying the growing need for the US Navy to invest in smaller, more deployable and cheaper aircraft carriers in his white paper Restoring American Power.
“The Navy should also pursue a new ‘high/low mix’ in its aircraft carrier fleet … Traditional nuclear-powered supercarriers remain necessary to deter and defeat near-peer competitors, but other day-to-day missions, such as power projection, sea lane control, close air support, or counterterrorism, can be achieved with a smaller, lower cost, conventionally powered aircraft carrier,” McCain’s report posited.
A precedent to follow?
Increasingly, multi-domain air power plays an important role in the efficacy of naval forces and serves as a key component in both the force structure and capability development plans for Japan, South Korea, and Australia.
These similarities support not only closer relationships between the two nations that share unique geopolitical and strategic similarities, but also provide the opportunity to develop robust force structures to respond to the rapidly evolving regional strategic environment.
Promoting greater interoperability and duplication of capabilities serves to support the broader regional order, while also serving to share the tactical and strategic burden between key US allies at a time when the current US administration is placing increasing emphasis on allies sharing the financial, personnel, and material burden of maintaining the post-Second World War economic, political, and strategic order.
The notion of Australia acquiring a third F-35B dedicated Canberra Class LHD has been discussed at great length by both strategic policy analysts and politicians since the RAN acquired the vessels.
Currently, the HMA Ships Canberra and Adelaide lack a number of structural and technical modifications that would enable the ships to safely and effectively operate the aircraft and any third vessel would need to incorporate the modifications from the keel up, in a similar manner to the Turkish Navy’s recently launched TCG Anadolu (based on the Canberra/Juan Carlos Class vessels).
Despite the apparent structural limitations of HMA Ships Canberra and Adelaide, the vessels’ base design, the Juan Carlos I, was designed from the keel up to accommodate a fixed-wing naval aviation capability.
The Spanish vessel, when acting in the light carrier role, is capable of accommodating 10–12 AV-8B Harrier IIs or Lockheed Martin F-35Bs combined with an additional 10–12 helicopters by using the light vehicles bay as an additional storage space.
Meanwhile, despite continuing issues with Turkey’s access to the F-35, Turkey fully expects to operate a small fleet of the Lockheed Martin F-35B from the TCG Anadolu.
Despite the relative success of the platform in the light carrier role, it is important to recognise the limitations of the LHDs in the carrier capacity and role, and identify alternatives that would better suit the introduction of a dedicated aircraft carrier role.
Australia’s security and prosperity are directly influenced by the stability and prosperity of the Indo-Pacific, meaning Australia must be directly engaged as both a benefactor and leader in all matters related to strategic, economic, and political security, serving as either a replacement or complementary force to the role played by the US — should the US commitment or capacity be limited.
So does Australia retrofit its LHDs or does it work with partners like Japan and South Korea in a similar framework to that of AUKUS to develop a common carrier design to aggregate capability, enhance industrial capability, and strengthen the strategic weight of the three powers?
Lessons for Australia’s future strategic planning
There is no doubt that Australia’s position and responsibilities in the Indo-Pacific region will depend on the nation’s ability to sustain itself economically, strategically and politically in the face of rising regional and global competition.
Despite the nation’s virtually unrivalled wealth of natural resources, agricultural and industrial potential, there is a lack of a cohesive national security strategy integrating the development of individual, yet complementary public policy strategies to support a more robust Australian role in the region.
While contemporary Australia has been far removed from the harsh realities of conflict, with many generations never enduring the reality of rationing for food, energy, medical supplies or luxury goods, and even fewer within modern Australia understanding the socio-political and economic impact such rationing would have on the now world-leading Australian standard of living.
Enhancing Australia’s capacity to act as an independent power, incorporating great power-style strategic economic, diplomatic and military capability serves as a powerful symbol of Australia’s sovereignty and evolving responsibilities in supporting and enhancing the security and prosperity of Indo-Pacific Asia, this is particularly well explained by Peter Zeihan, who explains:
“A deglobalised world doesn’t simply have a different economic geography, it has thousands of different and separate geographies. Economically speaking, the whole was stronger for the inclusion of all its parts. It is where we have gotten our wealth and pace of improvement and speed. Now the parts will be weaker for their separation.”
Accordingly, shifting the public discussion and debate away from the default Australian position of “it is all a little too difficult, so let’s not bother” will provide unprecedented economic, diplomatic, political and strategic opportunities for the nation.
As events continue to unfold throughout the region and China continues to throw its economic, political and strategic weight around, can Australia afford to remain a secondary power, or does it need to embrace a larger, more independent role in an era of increasing great power competition?
Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on Australia’s future role and position in the Indo-Pacific region and what you would like to see from Australia’s political leaders in terms of partisan and bipartisan agenda setting in the comments section below, or get in touch Stephen.email@example.com, Liam.firstname.lastname@example.org, or at email@example.com.