Nautical breakthrough: Missile cruisers transforming Aussie Navy

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Over time, experts have consistently pointed out the inadequacy of the firepower of the Australian Navy, specifically the shortage of missile cells on existing and planned platforms.

Photo credit: Australian Navy

A popular resolution often suggested is to acquire numerous small warships or corvettes. Advocates highlight the small and nimble characteristics of these ships as being specially suited for the restrictive passages and shallow waters near Australia’s north.

However, contrasting opinions question their effectiveness. Despite these disagreements, a government review of the surface fleet – which is due to be released – supports the idea of a corvette fleet. It’s noteworthy, however, that historically, such ships have yet to prove to be the powerful strategic tool that Australia needs.  

Back at Australia’s wartime experiences

This assertion can be validated by looking back at Australia’s wartime experiences. In 1914, during the initial stages of World War I, the HMAS Australia emerged as the flagship of the Australian fleet.

The battlecruiser was essentially a less armored dreadnought—the premier combatant of its time. The HMAS Australia served as a powerful deterrent, stifling any German naval plans to target Australian shipments to Britain, which included food, gold, and wool.

Photo credit: Lockheed Martin

Vice-Admiral Von Spee of Germany, recognizing that his squadron lacked a battleship on par with the HMAS Australia and that a confrontation would lead to swift and unnecessary losses, chose to retreat. His squadron ultimately met a crushing defeat at the Battle of the Falkland Islands at the hands of the British battlecruisers Invincible and Inflexible—a testament to Spee’s prudent fear of the HMAS Australia. 

Pacific in 1941

The scenario was starkly different when war erupted in the Pacific in 1941. The formidable HMAS Australia had been sunk by the Washington Naval Treaty, leaving the Royal Australian Navy [RAN] with a fleet comprised of two heavy cruisers, an assortment of both modern and outdated light cruisers, and some ancient destroyers.

Most of these vessels were engaged in serving the British Navy in the Mediterranean. Given the underdeveloped state of the Air Force, the Imperial Japanese Navy was able to fearlessly venture into Australian waters. Their intrusions into the South Pacific and North-East Indian Ocean were substantial. Ultimately, Australia had to depend on U.S. naval power to counter Japan’s southern offensive at the Battle of the Coral Sea and the Solomon Islands.

Photo credit: US Navy / Flickr

Top-tier navy

These incidents clearly illustrate that only a top-tier navy, equipped with an adequate number of premier combatants, can effectively ward off potential adversaries from Australian waters. Despite technological advancements, this timeless lesson from naval history continues to hold true today. Currently, Australia faces challenges in achieving cost-effective deployment of lethal anti-ship missiles across its north, as recommended by the Defence Strategic Review [DSR]. Unfortunately, in terms of missile-carrying capacity, corvettes fall short. This is why I stand by the assertion that Australia needs missile cruisers. 

Large warships prove to be more efficient carriers of missiles. The table below reveals the tonnage, crew numbers, and missile cell count of the leading corvette, destroyer, and cruiser models. Currently, the best-armed corvette is the Israeli Sa’ar 6—an offshoot of the German K130 Braunschweig class.

Photo credit: Sputnik News

Should the government decide on commissioning corvettes for the RAN, they would have to be significantly more potent to match the missile efficiency of its existing air warfare destroyers [AWDs]. Notably, the AWDs are only equivalent to America’s tier 2 combatant, the new Constellation class frigate.

The unsurpassed standard is South Korea’s Sejong the Great class destroyer or America’s retiring Ticonderoga class cruiser, which requires only 2.7 crew per missile cell and a mere 78.7 tons per missile.

Costs

Costs are inevitably a major factor and the tonnage provides a rough approximation of the price. Furthermore, to match the number of missiles deployed on a single AWD, the RAN would need to launch three Sa’ar-type corvettes, requiring 210 sailors – 24 more than one AWD.

To equal the missile power of a Ticonderoga, it would take eight such corvettes, necessitating 560 sailors – 230 more than a single Ticonderoga. This explains why nations like South Korea and Japan are seriously considering ‘arsenal ships’ for ballistic missile defense and conventional deterrence strategies.

If fitted with Block V Tomahawk missiles, each boasting a range of 1500km and an anti-ship capability, missile cruisers would provide Australia with a cost-effective solution for asserting missile supremacy over its northern approaches. 

Photo credit: Wikipedia

Larger vessels

Yet, there may be those who contend that larger vessels are more susceptible in an era dominated by space-based surveillance and missile warfare. However, this is a debatable assertion.

To begin with, larger warships are generally more durable due to the availability of space to accommodate defensive systems. This has been proven in recent developments in the Red Sea. These cruisers would function as part of a system-of-systems, as well as a task force, using smaller assets to create an external layer of safety that aids in the detection, identification, and targeting of enemy forces.

Alongside the AUKUS submarines, outfitting the RAN with missile cruisers could be the most optimal improvement to Australia’s defenses in the mid and short-term future.

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