Australia's ambitious naval expansion, unveiled on Tuesday, signals a significant strategic shift with over $35 billion allocated for defense over the next decade. With tensions rising in the Indo-Pacific, the Royal Australian Navy plans to increase its major surface warships to 26, aiming to address the evolving regional challenges. Vice Adm. Mark Hammond emphasized the importance of a robust navy for diplomacy, deterrence, and defense. The plan includes 20 destroyers and frigates along with six Large Optionally Crewed Surface Vessels, capable of autonomous operation. Additionally, Australia's partnership with the US and the UK under the AUKUS pact will see the development of nuclear-powered submarines, addressing concerns over the aging fleet highlighted in an independent review.

Amidst escalating tensions in the region, characterized by China's significant naval buildup and territorial assertions, analysts emphasize Australia's imperative to enhance its defense capabilities. Collin Koh, a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, underscores the necessity of expanding the Australian fleet to meet evolving mission requirements and project presence across the Indo-Pacific. Although the buildup plan doesn't explicitly mention China, the review commission highlights the importance of supporting critical activities like patrolling northern approaches and close escort missions. Analysts caution against potential threats from China, underscoring the strategic significance of Australia's proactive measures.

Jennifer Parker, an adjunct fellow in naval studies at UNSW Canberra, emphasized the significance of Australia's naval buildup, suggesting it reflects both the government's and defense's concerns about the evolving strategic landscape. In an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), Parker highlighted the growing apprehension over China's heightened aggression in the South China Sea and Northeast Asia. She underscored the prevailing sentiment among experts that the Indo-Pacific region is entering a period of heightened risk, particularly in the latter half of the 2020s. This perception is largely driven by China's increasingly assertive behavior in territorial disputes, prompting Australia to bolster its defense capabilities in response to emerging challenges.

The ambitious naval buildup slated for completion by the mid-2040s is poised to transform Australia's maritime defense capabilities significantly. The comprehensive plan entails the enhancement of the country's existing naval assets and the introduction of cutting-edge vessels equipped with advanced weaponry and technology.

Central to this endeavor is the upgrade of the three Hobart-class guided-missile destroyers, which will undergo modifications to bolster their air defense and strike capabilities. Additionally, the construction of six new Hunter-class frigates, boasting anti-submarine warfare and strike capabilities, is set to fortify Australia's naval prowess. Furthermore, the acquisition of 11 new general-purpose frigates, designed to fulfill air defense, strike, and escort duties, underscores the nation's commitment to maintaining maritime security.

A pivotal aspect of the plan involves the deployment of six Large Optionally Crewed Surface Vessels (LOSVs), each equipped with 32 Vertical Launching System (VLS) cells for missiles, to bolster Australia's naval firepower. Moreover, the addition of 25 smaller vessels dedicated to offshore patrol and maritime security tasks underscores the comprehensive nature of Australia's naval expansion strategy.

Recognizing the pressing need to modernize the country's surface fleet, the Australian government emphasizes the urgency of the initiative. The phased approach involves the construction of the first 11 general-purpose frigates based on existing designs sourced from leading naval powers such as Japan, South Korea, Germany, or Spain. Subsequently, the manufacturing process will transition to Australian shipyards, ensuring domestic involvement in naval development.

However, challenges loom on the horizon, as older ships are slated for retirement before their replacements are commissioned. Jennifer Parker, an expert in naval studies, highlights the inherent risks associated with this transition phase, emphasizing the need for careful management to mitigate potential gaps in Australia's maritime capabilities.

Echoing this sentiment, John Bradford, an international affairs fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, underscores the importance of steadfast commitment to the naval modernization plan. While acknowledging the long-term nature of the initiative, Bradford stresses the necessity of unwavering governmental support to ensure its successful implementation. Despite the projected timeline for the induction of new assets, such as the premier Hunter-class frigates, slated to join the fleet by 2032, sustaining momentum and funding remains paramount for Australia to realize its strategic maritime objectives.

Opposition lawmaker Andrew Hastie, serving as the shadow minister for defense, raised concerns over the timeline of the naval buildup initiative, emphasizing the delayed commencement of ship construction. Expressing skepticism regarding the proposed schedule, Hastie underscored the failure of the plan to address the pressing strategic challenges confronting Australia in an increasingly volatile global landscape.

Analysts echoed similar apprehensions, highlighting the imminent need for adequately trained sailors to crew the incoming vessels upon their completion. Collin Koh, a research fellow specializing in maritime affairs, raised pertinent questions regarding crewing capabilities and potential manpower shortages, particularly considering the expanded fleet size envisaged under the plan.

Addressing these concerns, the government asserted that the naval expansion initiative would necessitate only a minimal increase in crew complement. Emphasizing the integration of advanced technology and automation systems, the government expressed confidence in mitigating any potential manpower challenges.

Furthermore, the government underscored the significant economic benefits associated with the naval buildup, particularly for the shipbuilding industry and workforce in South Australia and Western Australia. Pat Conroy, the minister for defense industry, lauded the initiative for its potential to generate employment opportunities, projecting the creation of 3,700 jobs within the next decade, with the prospect of further job growth in the future.

However, the opposition Greens party vehemently criticized the plan, denouncing it as a "multi-billion-dollar mistake" driven by local political considerations rather than strategic imperatives. Sen. David Shoebridge, the Greens defense spokesperson, lambasted the government's approach, accusing Defense leadership of recurrent failures and mismanagement, yet being rewarded with substantial public funding allocations.