top of page
Line Concept Level 3 page 2.PNG

Multi-Domain Operations in Australia’s Maritime Strategy: The Army, Navy, and Air Force Orient Their Efforts - Dr Robbin Laird

Dr Robbin Laird, Multi-Domain Operations in Australia’s Maritime Strategy: The Army, Navy, and Air Force Orient Their Efforts, 29 April 2024

The focus of the April 11., 2024 Williams Foundation seminar was on multi-domain operations in support of a maritime strategy. But each service focuses primarily on a particular domain and sees its role in terms of a maritime strategy from their perspective.

What then really does multi-domain mean from the standpoint of each service in pursuit of an effective maritime strategy?

This is determined in part by how one defines what an effective strategy requires and this determination is shaped by whether you are a land, air or surface or sub-surface force. A multi-domain focus can blur an essential perspective: in particular operations, who is the supported and supported force in pursuit of what outcome or effect desired in an operation?

The Army Role

The changes being worked by the Australian government have a very significant impact on the Australian Army. Not only is their role focused on the region and operations from the northern areas of the country, but their template for operations is shifting as well. They are becoming a littoral maneuver force in support of operations in the maritime regions and areas north of Australia.

And the USMC rotation to the Northern Territories will be part of shaping that template. It should be noted that the Marines are working their open template for operations throughout the region, and the Australian Army and USMC will almost certainly dovetail operations.

As they template is shaped, it is obvious that funding or new equipment needs to be provided. Some is already in place in terms of providing for longer range strike and for ships to move Army forces within the region.

As a USNI News piece described the changes in an October 2, 2023 article:

The Australian Army is slated to shift its focus to the littorals after announcing last week several major changes, which include the redeploying a sizable portion of soldiers and equipment across the country and optimizing several brigades for littoral and amphibious missions…

The Australian Department of Defence announced these changes in response to the 2023 Defence Strategic Review…The DSR recommended it to be “optimized for littoral operations in our northern land and maritime spaces and provide a long-range strike capability.” Aside from reducing the procurement of infantry fighting vehicles and self-propelled howitzers, some of the top recommendations for the Australian Army were to speed up the procurement and increase the quantity of HIMARS, land-based maritime Strike systems and amphibious vessels.

Last week’s announcement highlighted significant changes to the mission sets of the 1st, 7th and 3rd multirole combat brigades, which will become more specialized.

The 1st Brigade will be transformed into a light combat brigade, which will allow it to be “light, agile and quick to deploy in the littoral environment” and “support land-based long-range fires.” While Australia has ordered HIMARS, under LAND 4100 Phase 2 the Australian Army is looking to procure a land-based maritime strike capability…

The 7th and 3rd will become motorized and armored combat brigades, respectively. However, like 1st Brigade, the two also will focus on littoral and amphibious operations. To address these littoral missions, brand-new littoral lift groups are also slated to be created and collocated with the brigades in their respective basing locations. Littoral lift groups will host Army Littoral Manoeuvre Vessels, including both landing craft medium and heavy, which will be procured in Phases 1 and 2 LAND 8710…

At the moment, 2nd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, is Australia’s premier and only amphibious-focused unit. With the changes announced last week, all three of the Australian Army’s active brigades will have either littoral or amphibious focuses.

On the one hand, the Army is to play a role in supporting maritime operations by being able to deliver strike in support of maritime forces. On the other hand, the Army needs to have sufficient size to hold ground in significant areas out to Australia’s first island chain in time of conflict, and the Army then would be the supported force.

The USMC unlike the Australian Army has organic lift and long-distance assets such as the Osprey and the F-35B which can support its littoral operations. The Australian Army is a rotorcraft enabled force without the kind of lift which the Osprey and the CH-53K provide the USMC. And the integration of the F-35 into the USMC maneuver element is a key element changing how the rest of the littoral force can operate. Will a similar role occur with Australian F-35s and the Australian Army?

Brigadier James Davis presenting at the Williams Foundation April 11, 2024.

At the seminar, the Army perspective was provided BRIG James Davis, Director General Future Land Warfare. In his presentation, he underscored to the audience that “the majority of the infrastructure which supports a maritime strategy is on land.” In that sense, littoral maneuver from one land location to another within the littoral maneuver space. Ports, airports, sensors, satellite dishes, terrestrial launch and recovery are land-based. For context, Australia has 59,000 kilometers of coast and 50% of our population live within a few kilometers of our coasts. Beyond are shores but within our sovereign area are 8,222 islands and numerous offshore installations.”

He underscored that the “DSR described an Army optimized for littoral and archipelagic operations.” And here he provided a clear sense of the Army role and perspective: “The littoral is an area for the fusion of cross-domain effects and where land forces can make their greatest contribution to the integrated force.”

He argued that the government has therefore shifted resources within Army to work in this domain. “This includes government direction to establish a new long range fires regiment equipped with 36 HIMARS launchers and a littoral group of 18 medium watercraft, pending approval of a second long-range strike regiment, and eight heavy landing craft will be in service from the end of the decade.”

A key role for the Australian Army is working in the neighborhood. “In peacetime, army watercraft will operate to provide organic mobility to the integrated force and to work with our partners and allies in the region, building collective understanding capability and offsetting risk, because armies are the largest arm of the militaries in our region.”

He then added: “In conflict, we see special and general-purpose forces using these vessels operating in operations below the engagement threshold. They will be able to enable joint and integrated C4 by getting communications nodes and relays to the right places, and getting sensors, weapons and influence to where they can exert domain control largely in the maritime domain. This includes maritime strike systems with ranges of hundreds of kilometers. The value of these systems will be the difficulty of detecting or engaging them.”

He noted that “land forces will also support all domain targeting.”

And control of territory within the littoral region is crucial as well. He underscored that “at times, more robust application of land power will be needed to maintain or gain control of specific terrain, such as offshore islands. These outposts have always been critical in maritime strategy.”

He provided a good description of the new template. He highlighted some of the initial investments to make the template real but there are significant changes in aviation as well as watercraft, including in autonomous systems to be made and paid for in the years ahead.

The Air Force Role

In the presentation of Air Commodore Mick Durant, Director General Strategy and Planning—Air Force, the role of the RAAF in maritime operations was highlighted. Given that the RAAF provides the air element for the Royal Australian Navy this is somewhat equivalent to a discussion of how the U.S. Navy’s air arm works with the fleet and then with the USAF, but it is different because the integration of the RAAF and the RAN is a key element of the operational realities of the ADF.

Their integration already is multi-domain so what is necessary is to sort out how the addition of the SSN’s alter this and how the new fleet elements will work to reinforce or disrupt integration already created by the 2017 government focus on the Aegis combat system being the digital backbone of the fleet which has enabled deeper RAN and RAAF integration, and in fact such digital integration is crucial to shaping multi-domain operations.

As he commenced his presentation Durant highlighted the operational challenge: “From an airpower viewpoint, we will operate at distance from our home bases from austere and remote locations across our north and operate deep into the Indian Ocean and Pacific Ocean and the surrounding areas.”

And closing kill chains across a vast region highlights the need to integrate sensors to deliver to weapons effects across the combat chessboard. In effect, the RAAF provides both sensors and shooters in the maritime areas of operation, and sensors to enable the fleet and its targeting efforts as well. Notably, the coming of Triton is symptomatic of these integration efforts whereby targeting data is generated outside of the weapons engagement zone and transmitted to other sensors and to shooter in the engagement zone.

As Durant underscored: “Our potential adversaries will also be highly adaptive, and we are seeking to do the same. This also draws a requirement for the integrative force to think more deeply about building resiliency, as well as managing its own signature. All of this is underpinned by the air force intelligence and enterprise targeting capabilities. With the introduction of new platforms such as the F 35, the P-8, the Triton, and the Peregrine, the complexity and volume of intelligence data has and will continue to increase exponentially. Defense intelligence capabilities will need to embrace automation and edge processing to accelerate Association, correlation, and fusion of data within high capacity resilient and redundant networks.”

He emphasized the air agility basing issue in which the ISR and C2 systems needed to embrace a dispersed force operating from various locations on Australian territory. The intersection of a kill web C4ISR system with force distribution is a crucial way ahead for the RAAF.

Air Commodore Mick Durant presenting at the Williams Foundation Seminar April 11, 2024.

Air Commodore Durant put it this way: “The key airpower principle of centralized control may prove to be transient. However, distributed and decentralized clusters will be able to generate both deliberate and dynamic air effects. To contextualize this through an integrated air and missile defense lens, we will never have enough exquisite interceptors to interdict all threats and to protect all key nodes.

“This not only reinforces the criticality of passive protection measures of camouflage. deception and hardening, but it also underscores the need for new approaches to create distributed mass. A more asymmetric force mix that includes uncrewed and autonomous systems, to complement the force in being is how a small to medium size Air Force might generate greater mass lethality and survivability into its air combat system.”

He highlighted progress underway, such as the creation of regional air force development teams across northern Australia to examine how to enhance force posture options.

Air Commodore Durant provided an example of progress evidenced in the last Talisman Sabre exercise. “Last year’s exercise provided a huge opportunity for Air Force and Navy to integrate the ADF its most potent air defence maritime capabilities with HMS Sydney and Hobart integrating their air and missile defense capabilities with the Wedgetail aircraft. Combined with an equally potent force of P-8s, Growlers and F 35 stealth fighter aircraft, the participants exercised against an equally formidable threat environment where emerging capability capabilities were trialed.

“Our emerging agile control teams established remote command and control linkages for the joint force demonstrating an ability to pass data using multiple discrete nodes providing resilience to a connectivity matrix in a denied environment.

“Additionally, our maritime strike platforms exercised and tested their ability to find, fix and target discrete maritime assets at tactically significant ranges. Against an equally challenging threat environment, the joint force exercised their ability to introduce new tactics and procedures throughout the exercise to counter emerging threat capabilities.”

Air Commodore Durant provided another example of the way ahead with regard to operational innovation evidenced in the coalition exercise Cope North. This is how he put it: “The focus of the exercise was to stress, validate and improve national and trilateral agile combat employment capabilities. Commencing in Guam, the exercise saw the activation and operation of United States Air Force and Japanese self-defence force and our own RAAF assets from the main operating base to six Island forward operating bases. Over the course of three weeks. Air Force representatives from Air Command innovation and Jericho joined the exercise to work with the USAF combined rapid capability development team. This team was focused on solving critical operational problem sets as they arose in theater, or as a response to adverse reaction with the ability to rapidly deploy the solution to the frontline in order to maintain the competitive advantage of the coalition effect.”

He concluded: “The ability for airpower to deliver impactful projection within our maritime approaches requires a combination of effective defence, combined with a series of highly integrated multi-domain offensive counters as part of the integrated force and in conjunction with allies and partners. This is how airpower will deliver a strategy of denial in our key maritime approaches.”

The Navy Role

The perspective of the Royal Australian Navy was presented by Rear Admiral Stephen Hughes, Head of Navy Capability. Hughes presented at the last seminar as well and there he provided a number of insights.

At that seminar, RADM Stephen Hughes, Head Navy Capability, underscored that when focusing on the maritime domain, one is inherently focused on multi-domain strike. The maritime warfighting domain is shaped by strike whether coming from land, surface, subsurface or air domains, as well the cyber and space domains.

“To attain long range strike capabilities allows us to move from a strategy of defense to a strategy of deterrence through denial which signifies a national shift that aims to hold an adversary at risk a greater range raising a question in the adversary’s mind about whether they want to attempt to act against us.

“So what does the maritime force bring to the fight?

“A maritime force is able to be agile, mobile expeditionary scalable, sustainable, versatile, networked, and lethal. Maritime force provides critical advantages through their ability to use the oceans to maneuver and hide in the case of submarines, and the airspace and the space above that domain. Maritime force combines distributed fleet operations, and mobile expeditionary forces with sea control and sea denial capabilities.

“However, a maritime force does not compete, deter, or fight alone. The maritime force is an integral part of the joint force and works closely with allies and partners to bring to bear maritime effects. Controlling the seas enables the maritime force to project power in support of Joint Force efforts. surging into the theater of operations, where adversaries must cross open water. Sea denial deprives them the initiative prevents them from achieving their objectives.

“Maritime force controls or denies the seas by destroying an adversary’s fleet or their associated air support. And in in the modern battle space even extends into space. It can contain it in areas that prevents meaningful operations prohibited from leaving port by controlling sea lines of communication. Maritime forces capable of controlling critical choke points enable joint forces to impose military and economic costs on the adversary.”

Rear Admiral Stephen Hughes presenting at the Williams Foundation Seminar April 11, 2024.

He also added comments with regard to the innovation which Navy is working to enhance multi-domain strike. “The future of our strike capability needs to include the use of uncrewed systems. Navy is working with industry in exploring solutions through the autonomous warrior series of experimental exercises. And such systems will have the ability to strike deep against an adversary by deploying mines and other guided weapons by using sovereign Australian capabilities.”

As he underscored: “The defense strategic review has placed a premium on accelerating lethality for deterrence and impactful projection,”

He cited the examples not only of acquiring TLAMS but the development of greater maritime strike capabilities. against maritime forces, whether from an F-35 or from anti-ship missile capabilities.

At this seminar, he added an update with regard to what the Australian government has focused on in its strategic shift, namely, a focused force on the region which will eventually include nuclear attack submarines and new surface ships as announced in the fleet review recently announced.

As the government announced on February 20, 2024, the intention was to expand the surface fleet.

Today, the Albanese Government has released its blueprint for a larger and more lethal surface combatant fleet for the Royal Australian Navy, more than doubling the size of the surface combatant fleet under the former government’s plan.

This follows the Government’s careful consideration of the recommendations of the independent analysis of the surface combatant fleet, commissioned in response to the Defence Strategic Review.

Our strategic circumstances require a larger and more lethal surface combatant fleet, complemented by a conventionally-armed, nuclear-powered submarine fleet.

Navy’s future fleet will be integral to ensure the safety and security of our sea lines of communication and maritime trade, through operations in our immediate region. This fleet will constitute the largest number of surface combatants since WWII.

The independent analysis of Navy’s surface combatant fleet lamented the current surface combatant fleet was the oldest fleet Navy has operated in its history, and emphasised the need for immediate action to boost Navy’s air defence, long-range strike, presence and anti-submarine warfare capabilities.

In line with independent analysis’ recommendations, Navy’s future surface combatant fleet will comprise:

26 major surface combatants consisting of:

Three Hobart class air warfare destroyers with upgraded air defence and strike capabilities

Six Hunter class frigates to boost Navy’s undersea warfare and strike capabilities

11 new general purpose frigates that will provide maritime and land strike, air defence and escort capabilities

Six new Large Optionally Crewed Surface Vessels (LOSVs) that will significantly increase Navy’s long-range strike capacity

Six remaining Anzac class frigates with the two oldest ships to be decommissioned as per their planned service life.

The Government has also accepted the independent analysis’ recommendations to have:

25 minor war vessels to contribute to civil maritime security operations, which includes six Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPVs).

The Hunter class frigates will be built at the Osborne shipyard in South Australia, and will be followed by the replacement of the Hobart class destroyer. The Hobart destroyers will be upgraded at Osborne with the latest US Navy Aegis combat system.

The new general purpose frigate will be accelerated to replace the Anzac class frigates, meaning the Transition Capability Assurance (TransCAP) upgrades are no longer required. These new general purpose frigates will be modern, capable and more lethal, requiring smaller crews than the Anzac.

Consolidation of the Henderson precinct is currently underway, as recommended by the Defence Strategic Review. Successful and timely consolidation will enable eight new general purpose frigates to be built at the Henderson precinct, and will also enable a pathway to build six new Large Optionally Crewed Surface Vessels in Western Australia.

The Albanese Government is committed to continuous naval shipbuilding in Australia and the design of Navy’s future fleet will provide a stable and ongoing pipeline of work to the 2040s and beyond.

Although the review described projected fleet size, the crucial question is how the subsurface and surface fleet, crewed and uncrewed, are integrated in or integratable within a kill web force. It is about the effects created through such a force rather than simply having a ship building program in my view. In fact when a colleague and I were working for a senior US Navy Admiral, we began to work on a project that he thought was long overdue, namely, replacing the 30 year shipbuilding program with a very different measure, namely a 30 year Navy capability plan. The words are significant here.

This is in my view one of the challenges is using a phrase like multi-domain as it may obscure what the real objective is, namely, to project power and to have effective mobile defence of your forces and nation to deliver the desired combat and strategic effects.

The future of the Royal Australian Navy rests within this matrix, and as Vice Admiral (Retired) Tim Barrett has argued in my recent interview with him, that ramping up capability in the three-to-five-year period rests ultimately on the ability to shape operational space to use autonomous systems,

As he stated: “The surface combatant review took an eye to considering autonomous systems but considered them a generation away. But the reality is that we are already down the autonomous systems path now.

“It is wrong simply to focus on long range prospects for autonomous systems not yet here, such as platforms which could potentially carry a large number of weapons cells, rather than on the systems that are already here. The current systems can deliver significant ISR capability for example, and we need to integrate these systems into the operating force.”

The other key consideration is the integration of the combat systems in the surface and subsurface fleet in a way that allows for the kind of integration mentioned earlier in the Air Force perspective, namely the air warfare destroyer’s integration of air force combat systems.

In 2017, the Australian government took a key decision which in my view is crucial to maintain.

This was the October 3, 2017 announcement:

The new approach for combat management systems will ensure our Navy’s future ships are fitted out to protect Australia in the decades ahead.

Under the plan, the combat management system for Australia’s fleet of nine Future Frigates will be provided by the Aegis Combat Management System, together with an Australian tactical interface, which will be developed by SAAB Australia.

This decision will maximise the Future Frigate’s air warfare capabilities, enabling these ships to engage threat missiles at long range, which is vital given rogue states are developing missiles with advanced range and speed.

The Future Frigates will be operating in a complex and growing threat environment. By bringing together the proven Aegis system, with a cutting edge Australian tactical interface developed by SAAB Australia, our Future Frigates will have the best capability to defeat future threats above and below the surface, while also ensuring we maintain sovereign control of key technologies, such as the Australian designed and built CEA phased array radar.

In the past, Defence has taken the tendered combat management systems individually, which has meant that the Navy has operated numerous systems at the same time. This has not allowed defence industry to strategically invest for the long-term and has also increased the cost of training, maintenance and repair.

Under the Turnbull Government’s new strategic enterprise approach, the Government has now mandated that where the high-end warfighting capabilities of the Aegis system are not required, a SAAB Australia developed combat management system will be used on all of Australia’s future ship projects.

This includes mandating a SAAB Australia combat management system on the upcoming Offshore Patrol Vessels, which will be built in Australia from 2018, and an Australian tactical interface developed by SAAB Australia for the Hobart class Air Warfare Destroyers when their Aegis combat management system is upgraded in the future, consistent with the 2016 Defence White Paper.

Further, it guarantees the development of a long-term sustainable Australian Combat Management System industry, which is integral to the implementation of the Government’s Naval Shipbuilding Plan.

Frankly, nothing has changed for the necessity of such an approach. And in fact arguing for a multi-domain integrated Navy only underscores its necessity.


bottom of page