Vice Admiral (Retired) Tim Barrett: Shaping a Way Ahead for the Royal Australian Navy

By Robbin Laird

During my current visit to Australia working with the Williams Foundation, I had a chance to meet with the former head of the Aussie Navy, Vice Admiral (Retired) Tim Barrett, and to discuss the Australian approach going forward with maritime power.

I have had the privilege of meeting with him when he was in office, but this was the first chance I had to continue that conversation after he had retired from the Navy.

I think the best place to start in understanding his perspective with the book he published when he was Chief of Navy.

The title of the book The Navy and the Nation.

What clearly emerges from this book is a much broader perspective about the RAN than simply adding new hulls or capabilities; it is about a national security strategy in which Australia as a nation embraces what is necessary to defend the nation in the challenging times of the 21stcentury.

It is an enterprise not simply a force structure approach; it is about Australia as a society and political system embracing the importance of building an infrastructure which can sustain the defense of Australia in an alliance context.

But that alliance is changing fundamentally with the rise of China, and Australia clearly is playing and needs to play an anchor role for core allies like the US and Japan, and not simply contribute to Alliance defense

He starts his book this way:

MOST PEOPLE THINK that Navy is something else. They know it exists, they may even have a rough idea of what it is for, but they don’t think it’s got much to do with them. They’re wrong.

The Navy is a national enterprise in which everyone is involved and which delivers peace and security to everyone in the country.

This enterprise is a two-way street, and must be a two-way street.

Going one way, the Navy offers peace and security. Going the other, the people offer support and contribution. Only when the street is a properly mutual two-way exchange between the Navy and the citizens can this bargain, this contract, deliver what it needs to.

Barrett then added a comment with regard to how industry and Navy needed to work together to get the kind of enterprise approach in place which would provide for national security.

In the wider community of interest for which this essay is also intended, the manufacturing, industrial, technological and investment sectors are at front of mind.

Not only should the leaders of these sectors read and understand how the Navy might position itself for these new opportunities, but they should also begin to join the conversation that is a necessary part of realising these opportunities.

Industry leaders should embark upon a conversation with the leaders of the Navy in the same way that naval leaders should talk to them.

Barrett then highlighted the key point that a force like the Australian Navy will draw upon the broader changing skill sets in Australia and both energize them and draw from them, which is another key point when considering an enterprise approach.

Most of the leaders of our key national institutions are acutely aware that our society is changing as it learns to adjust to demographic pressures, the evolving expectations of our fellow citizens, the fluidity and variability in the career choices available to young people, the pressures of managing family and professional demands, the remarkable and timely expansion in the role that women play in our national enterprise—to name just a few factors driving change.

Just as the Navy will be affected by the pace of change, so it needs to participate in managing change and benefiting from it. Inevitably, the naval career of the twenty-first century will differ significantly from that of the twentieth century. We need to prepare for change, in order to make the most of it.1

Working from this perspective it is obvious that for Tim Barrett, the modernization of the Navy is both part of a broader force transformation, a redesign of alliance structures, and a shift in how the Navy needs to work with the broader society in order for Navy to contribute to the strengthening of Australia’s defenses in the broader region and the bigger world.

We discussed the approach to Naval force structure modernization and he emphasized two key points.

The Navy was being recapitalized in terms of hulls, but the larger picture was how those hulls would work together with the larger ADF and beyond that with core allies and partners.

Here the former Chief of the Navy provided further details on the core point he made at a Williams Seminar in 2016:

“We are not building an interoperable navy; we are building an integrated force for the Australian Defence Force.”

The kill web approach was clearly what he is working from when he discusses force modernization for the Navy.

Barret provided a particularly compelling example of the approach and what it means in terms of acquisition.  He described a recent visit to Spain where his wife was privileged to launch a new tanker to support the maritime force.

That tanker has on it a combat system which allows it to operate in a joint manner with the wider maritime force and to be integrated into the wider ADF.

This was a good illustration of what we have argued for, namely “no planform fights alone” if linked with platforms and assets in a broader kill web.

Barrett argued that a key consideration for naval procurement was the nature of the combat systems being placed on the hulls as well as their potential for continuous modernization which is part of what he meant when he argued for a continuous shipbuilding strategy.

The operational advantage that can go to a 21stcentury combat force can come as much for the clean room where software is developed as from the armaments onboard any particular vessel.

And in part this is because if one can shape a kill web force one can get this sort of outcome:

“An Air Warfare Destroyer is as important to the RAAF as is an F-35 to the RAN.”

He underscored that: “We have deliberately separated the procurement strategy for the hull from that of the combat management system.

“For example, with regard to Aegis, the hull is there to take Aegis to sea.

“The hull configuration will change only gradually over its lifetime.

“The Aegis combat system however will evolve and adapt constantly, informed by operational experiences and from the broader Aegis community as well.

“And Aegis is what provides the combat advantage, not just for the Navy but for the wider ADF.”

We discussed at some length the new submarine decision to go with French Naval Group and what the wider ramifications of doing so might be.

It is clear that this is NOT a simple tech transfer contract; it is a co-development contract and as such challenges BOTH the French and Aussies sides to engage in significant cross-learning.

For the French, the Aussies are going to build a digital shipyard, which is not what the French currently have.

The two societies operate with very different work forces and if the French desire they can learn from how the Aussies trade-based system operates and to generate change in France itself.

What we discussed were the changes on the Australian side.

Because this is not simply a build in France or import the design or the technology from an existing submarine in France, at the heart of the challenge if the program is to succeed would be to build the kind of workforce which Australia will need to have to engage in a continuous shipbuilding approach for the new class of submarines.

And associated with this as well will be the combat systems side of this, where Australian software engineers and designers become full participants in its ongoing development.

He emphasized the importance of a whole of government approach to the new build submarine. He noted that providing visas to the French participating in the program, needed to be combined with the education and training part of the Australian government to ensure that French participation in the program was as well about the development of an Australian work force capable of evolving the entire French-Australian submarine enterprise.

“We need to ensure that we have the right personnel to build the 6thsubmarine on; not just capability in place to stand up the program.”

Ultimately, this is about Australian sovereignty and the ability to sustain force in a crisis.

This also means that Australia is enhancing its role in terms of anchoring an alliance of the liberal democracies, and not just in the Pacific.

Interestingly, for this French partner, most French analysts would consider sovereignty to be about an ability of the nation to build its military systems on its own.

But for Barrett this approach would be too narrow, particularly in today’s world of rapidly changing technologies and capabilities.

For Barrett, “sovereignty is the ability to act in a crisis, when government requires it, where it requires it and to be able to do so for as long as is needed, to the level you need, with the resources that are readily available to you.”

“We can and indeed will buy other nation’s equipment, but we will operate it in a sovereign manner and we will integrate into our ADF approach.”

From his perspective, Australia was not building a Barracuda, for it is a new design submarine.

“We are designing the Barramundi ( – which is a well known Australian fish).”

But the new build submarine program really is about a two-way street working with France.

“The whole point of this exercise is that we leverage their each other’s skills: they learn from us as much as we learn from them as they develop their business and manufacturing processes as well.”

This is clearly part of a potential French strategic opening in the region as well.

“They are clearly re-establishing their presence in the region, as recent French naval activity demonstrates as well as the public policy statements made by President Macron as well.”

Barrett then went on to describe a presentation which he made at a UK conference three years ago.

“I put a map of Australia over the map of Europe which showed the relative sizes of each geographic area and got the usual laughs.

“But then I pointed out that on the European map the significant trade routes within the graphic simply stopped at the Suez canal.  It did not account for, or recognize the more than seven trillion dollars that emanates from Asia and our region – from India, China, Japan and the Pacific trade routes as far as the US, that flows into the European economy.

“I opined that the Asia Pacific region was as critical to Europe as it is to Australia”

“I also argued that you need to consider the broader picture, especially when you consider that the influences acting upon European markets – for example, the Chinese acquisition of  container ports in Greece and other European maritime infrastructure.

“They are clearly focused on European ports and are looking at the wider picture. It is important for Europeans to do so as well.

“Perhaps our working relationship with France on submarines might be part of shift in Europe as well on the broader defense and security posture and situation.”

Editorial Note:

The first of a new class of Royal Australian Navy’s auxiliary oiler replenishment (AOR) ships, the future HMAS Supply, was launched by Spanish shipbuilder Navantia at its Ferrol shipyard on November 23, 2018.

HMAS Supply (II) was launched following a keel laying ceremony in November 2017.

Supply and sister ship Stalwart (III) will replace HMAS Success and Sirius with delivery of the first ship scheduled for 2021.

The new Australian AORs are built under a contract signed in May 2016 and are based on the Spanish Navy’s Cantabria-class AORs. They will be delivered at an estimated cost of AU$640 million.

The ships are intended to carry fuel, dry cargo, water, food, ammunition, equipment and spare parts to provide operational support for the deployed naval or combat forces operating far from the port on the high seas for longer periods.

In addition to replenishment, the vessels can be used to combat against environmental pollution at sea, provide logistics support for the armed forces, and to support humanitarian and disaster relief (HADR) operations following a natural disaster.

The AORs will displace 19,500 tons and measure 173.9 meters in length.

In our book on Pacific defense, we highlighted the importance of what we called the “conveyer belt” and its relationship to SLOC defense.

This clearly requires a broader coordination of efforts among the liberal democracies as referred to by Vice Admiral (Retired) Barrett.

Shipping is at the heart of global trade. Most international trade—about 80 percent of the total by volume—is carried by sea.

About half of the world’s trade by value and 90 percent of the general cargo is now transported in containers. The containerization of cargos and the growth in the size of the cargo ships are important forces for change as well. Containerization has been both cause and consequence of a shift in the nature of the global supply chain. Logistic supply chains that feed components and finished products to users on a just-in-time and just-enough basis have become critical to modern manufacturing and service industries.

Seaborne trade and its land connections in the global supply chain have become increasingly efficient, large-scale, and thus open.

Also, part of the containerization phenomenon has been the rise of the megaports. The top container terminals such as Hong Kong, Singapore, and four other East Asian ports accounted for nearly 60 percent of world sea container throughput. Globalization has put in motion many changes on the manufacturing side in which just-in-time manufacturing has been built around the capability to disperse the elements of the production process and then transport those core elements to a final assembly or production area.

The role of maritime commerce is essential to such just-in-time manufacturing practices. It has been enhanced as well by the container revolution within which containers of standard sizes become the coin of the realm in terms of transiting goods by sea then capable of being rapidly transitioned to land forms of transportation for their final destination.

This maritime system is the “highway” and “factory floor” for 21st-century globalization. It reaches from deep within countries to their ports and over the maritime transit routes to other countries’ ports and then deep inside those countries’ delivery systems. With the Arctic opening, the vectors of operation of the conveyer belt will change as well with northern routes complementing the great circle routes and the royal routes.

The major Pacific routes currently operating between the United States and Asia can be seen in Figure 7.1.

What is not widely realized is that the paths from Asia to North America primarily pass through Unimak Pass and the Aleutian Islands.

So the northward trajectory of the conveyer belt will simply be taken farther north by the Arctic opening.

Securing the conveyer belt is a major task facing the Pacific states, notably in terms of the growth and development of the economies in the region.

Much of the physical movement of goods from and to Asia is by sea, even as the currencies move digitally.2

The featured photo shows Vice Admiral Tim Barrett, AO, CSC, RAN during his farewell tour.


  1. Barrett, Vice Admiral Tim. The Navy and the Nation: Australia’s Maritime Power in the 21st Century . Melbourne University Press. Kindle Edition.
  2. Laird, Robbin. Rebuilding American Military Power in the Pacific: A 21st-Century Strategy: A 21st-Century Strategy (Praeger Security International) (pp. 105-107). ABC-CLIO. Kindle Edition.