Smaller RIMPAC presence needs context

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Smaller RIMPAC presence needs contextBy Peter Leavy*

Australia’s participation in the 2024 RIMPAC naval exercise, judged purely on the fact it has sent just HMAS Sydney, fewer vessels than usual, should be seen in context, and no reflection on Australia’s commitment to either the US relationship or to Australian naval participation in international exercises and co-operation generally.

Having been involved in several RIMPACs, I appreciate the value of the exercise, but it is not the most crucial activity which the Navy or the ADF undertakes. RIMPAC is an ideal forum for international engagement and practicing the fundamental maritime and naval warfare skills underpinning interoperability; it is not designed to train at the cutting edge of high-intensity warfare.

As the number of participants in RIMPAC has increased, nobody expects participants to demonstrate their high-end tactics and capabilities as that risks disclosing sensitive intelligence.

In 2014 and 2016, China was formally invited to provide PLA-N ships to participate in the biennial exercise whereas, in other years they usually have an intelligence collection vessel covering the event. This year, 29 nations are participating with 40 surface ships and three submarines, so counter-intelligence is naturally a factor that all 29 countries consider.

However, there is no doubt that RIMPAC presents opportunities with significant high-end value. For example, the ability to undertake very detailed and complicated weapons firings on the Pacific Missile Range Facility – a vast, instrumented weapons range that allows the recording and subsequent analysis of missile, torpedo and gunnery firings. However, RIMPAC is primarily about the fundamentals of naval warfare and international engagement. It demonstrates that like-minded countries can come together and operate effectively for the common good, building relationships, confidence and trust in each other. These are all critical elements of naval operations.

The Defence Strategic Review, which underpinned the National Defence Strategy, the Surface Fleet Review and the Integrated Investment Plan (outlining which new capabilities Defence will acquire), recommended a greater focus on the lethality of the ADF. Platform numbers are part of that, but so are the capabilities they bring to the fight. This is why there is a focus on, amongst other things, new long-range strike weapons for all three services, along with the Navy’s acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines.

While only having one ship at RIMPAC has made the news, the Navy is very busy doing a wide range of other government-directed tasks and undertaking trials and training to make the fleet more lethal. At the peak of operations during the week that RIMPAC opened, the RAN had 23 ships and 2020 sailors at sea. One ship and 200 sailors were at RIMPAC – the rest were doing equally essential roles, undertaking training, trials, and deployed across the Indo-Pacific supporting maritime security efforts. The bulk of the Navy’s activities do not attract the attention of one ship at RIMPAC but the service is busy doing the most important things our government has set as priorities.

One reason often given for the reduced participation in RIMPAC is a lack of ship numbers. I agree that our surface fleet should be larger, but that is a problem which the current Defence, Navy and political leadership has inherited, and results from a lack of decision-making – from both sides of politics – dating back 20 years. Those in power today are actively trying to rectify this situation, as the Defence Strategic Review and subsequent Surface Fleet Review have shown. While not aiming to be political, both sides of government are responsible for the situation we find ourselves in today, a function of balancing competing demands for government resources against the risks seen at the time. As I wrote recently, we should view the decommissioning of HMAS ANZAC not as a loss of capability but instead as prudent resource management, allowing resources to be spent in other areas to enhance the overall lethality of the ADF.

Every military in the world has requirements exceeding their resources, that is the nature of the business – there is always ‘more that could be done’. Prudent militaries balance their resources against the most pressing needs, and today’s Navy, while smaller than we would like, is covering many tasks with the resource allocation optimised as well as it can be for the current state of the service. Arguing that we should have more ships may be correct, but we have what we have today. The government and Defence are moving to boost the size of the fleet, indicating that the issue is recognised, appreciating that recognition maybe late given the foundations of today’s fleet were laid well over a decade ago.

We, the public, do not know the full range of factors that decision-makers consider when allocating ships to tasks across the year, nor should we. But I think the argument that only one destroyer deploying to RIMPAC somehow undermines our relationship with the United States is a very long bow to draw.

*Commodore Peter Leavy AM, CSM, RAN (Rtd) is the President of the Australian Naval Institute

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