By Brendan Nicholson*
The Royal Australian Navy is strongly focused on building relationships with allies and gaining experience in an increasingly complex and uncertain Indo-Pacific region, says its commander, Vice Admiral Michael Noonan.
‘The geopolitical climate that we find ourselves in is unpredictable’, the navy chief told The Strategist. ‘It’s probably more dynamic than we’ve seen the Indo-Pacific, and it’s changing quite rapidly.’
Noonan says this highlights the importance to Australia of shipping and lines of communication. ‘They are probably more important now than we’ve realised in the past and it’s clear to me that the maritime domain is front and centre in the thinking of our political and strategic leaders as we look at security and prosperity for Australia and the region in the years ahead.
‘The growing competition we are seeing in the region is testament to that. So, I feel very deeply about the responsibility that our navy has in terms of working ultimately with the other elements of national power.’
The navy chief has engaged closely with the secretaries of relevant departments on what must be achieved in the maritime domain and in maritime security. ‘I don’t profess to have all the answers, but I think we’ve a very clear direction that we’re committed to.’
A key goal in his official statement of intent as navy chief is to ensure that the RAN is ready to conduct sustained combat operations as part of a joint force—both with other parts of the Australian Defence Force and with regional partners—by 2022 and to maintain a long-term presence away from its home ports.
Asked if the navy could carry out such operations indefinitely, Noonan says that at this stage it clearly could not. ‘But we need to understand how long we might need to stay out there. It’s about being prepared, and, in some cases, being prepared for the unexpected, and being prepared to do those things that we might not necessarily have done in the past.’
That’s a big step from where it’s been operating over the past 20 years with finite deployments such as the sending of a single frigate to the Middle East for six months as part of a coalition.
With three years left to serve as chief, Noonan wants to ensure that the service can maintain the pace it’s now operating at, while evolving into a fifth-generation navy. ‘It’s not about being able to do everything ourselves. There are very capable platforms and systems we can operate by ourselves, but we’ve got to ensure we can operate with our partners and allies in the region.’
The navy spends a lot of time in the region and Noonan travels often to talk to his counterparts.
‘Certainly, that’s evidenced by the breadth and number of people that we’ll have at the Sea Power Conference and Pacific 2019’, he says. The attendees include about 45 delegations and 21 chiefs of other navies.
At the conference today, Noonan launched the navy’s industry engagement strategy, which seeks to bring what has been largely a transactional relationship with industry to a more persistent partnership. ‘I believe that industry and academia have got a lot to offer in helping our navy find a better way to achieve what we must in the future. They’ve a lot of experience, a lot of learning regarding how we can do better with our people, how we improve our processes, how we harness emerging technologies and use them to their full capacity.
‘We’ve got to make those people in industry and academia feel that they’re part of the navy, enabling us to do what we have to do when we deploy.
‘Part of that, for me as a capability manager, is ensuring that I’m engaging those folk so that they understand what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, where we’re doing it, when we’re doing it, so that they can focus their efforts to the best of their ability.’
Noonan says he’s getting a sense that people from industry see that the navy wants to be closer to them. ‘I’ve talked a lot about being trusted partners. I’ve talked a lot about transformational relationships, and ultimately, it’s about having a shared awareness of what the role of the navy is and how we might best introduce it into the future.’
As an indication of the rapidly growing importance of regional relationships, Noonan will fly to Japan when the conference finishes. There he’ll join four RAN vessels led by the new air warfare destroyer, HMAS Hobart.
The RAN contingent of three surface ships and a submarine will take part in the Japanese fleet review in mid-October. ‘That underlines the importance of Japan and the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force as a close and strong partner with the RAN’, Noonan says.
‘I personally look at the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force as being our most important and capable regional partner in the way that we operate with them. Clearly, we’ve got a very special and strategic relationship with Japan. We have shared democratic values, shared interests. And we have a very, perhaps, strong and close alliance with the US in that relationship as well.’
Noonan says the alliance with the US is clearly Australia’s most important defence relationship, but others in the region are very important also.
And the value of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing relationship with the US, Britain, Canada and New Zealand should never be understated. ‘My personal relationship and commitment to my Five Eyes counterparts is absolute. I communicate with them regularly. I see them regularly. We share information. We share thinking, and we share opportunity to grow as navies through that commitment to our shared ambitions on maritime security.’
Relations with other neighbours such as Singapore and Indonesia are very close.
Further afield, the relationship with France and Spain is deepening. ‘That’s not just because we’re building submarines and ships with these countries but because we are doing more together in the Pacific.’
In preparing for future operations the navy is drawing on the many lessons it has learned about seaworthiness and airworthiness, Noonan says.
‘Ultimately, we’ll learn from those two domains as we move into other domains such as cyber. I’m applying the term “cyber worthiness” to the fleet to ensure that our ships, our aircraft and our systems can operate in a sustained manner in a cyber environment.’
Noonan has set 2035 as a line in the sand where Australia will have a mature understanding of what the future navy will be. ‘We’ll be in the middle of transition to the new frigates. We’ll have all the new OPVs [offshore patrol vessels] in service. We will have transitioned to the Attack-class submarine. Certainly, we expect to have the first submarine in navy service, and the second Attack-class submarine will be built.
‘For me, it’s an epoch in time, where we will see that move from our current fleet to the future fleet.’
Brendan Nicholson is defence editor of The Strategist.