RAN Surface Combatant Fleet Review: A clearer pathway for autonomous ships?

It’s been more than 100 years since geo-strategist and historian Alfred T Mahan said, ‘Those who rule the waves, rule the world,’ and it seems nothing much has changed. The Defence Strategic Review (DSR), handed down in February, stated another review is required. This time, an independent analysis of the RAN’s Combatant Surface Fleet – to be completed by 30 September.

While we can only speculate about the recommendations, we know the intent. Australia is a maritime nation reliant on our sea communication routes. The Navy’s surface combatant fleet’s size, structure, and composition must align with Australia’s strategic needs – complementing the capabilities provided by the forthcoming conventionally armed nuclear-powered submarines.

There is, however, a looming challenge, no matter the review’s final recommendations. The challenge is the crewing of a larger Navy. Recruitment of defence personnel is by no means a Navy-specific problem. The DSR highlighted significant workforce challenges across all areas of Defence.  

New or existing vessels, with increased lethality, may require our best and brightest crew (for now). However, Australia does undertake significant surveillance, countermine measures, and logistics, which could be further developed to be unmanned, operated remotely, or require far fewer crew.

What projects are underway?

  • This month, Thales announced that work is underway to create an ‘Australian eyes-only’ site for the integration of autonomous vessels with Australia’s nuclear deterrence capability. Thales will establish its third centre focused on autonomy, with operations already established in the UK and the US.

    Under a Defence Industry Security Program (DISP) Level 3 classification, the purpose-built facility will foster collaboration among research institutions, SMEs, and key industrial partners. According to Thales, to ‘establish future sovereign technology pathways for the development and integration of autonomous vessels in support of Australia’s nuclear deterrence capability’.
  • Austal, Australia’s global shipbuilder, is also contributing to creating a smart path to autonomous ships, both here in Australia and across the Pacific in the US. Read more about Austal’s work with the Commonwealth, Navy and L3 Harris here

These are just two of many exciting projects, advancing the pathway for autonomous ships and technology in Australia. While this pathway is a moving feast, so too is the legal framework around it.

To ensure the safety and security of the world’s oceans, it is crucial that international maritime law can adequately regulate autonomous technologies operating in the maritime domain, much like self-driving cars on our roads. If you want to learn more about autonomous ships and international law, the Australian Naval Institute provides some interesting insights. Read more here.

We’d like to know your thoughts on the role autonomous ships and technologies could play in the future of the RAN?

Author: Jason Hope, General Manager Asia Pacific

Article published: September 2023

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