The Royal Australian Chief of Navy shares his insights on maritime issues that span the Pacific and Indian oceans and South China Sea

Article by FORUM Staff


Vice Adm. Tim Barrett, Chief of Navy for the Royal Australian Navy (RAN), sat down for an interview with FORUM during the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in January 2016. He spoke on a variety of topics from an expanded perspective following Australia’s chairmanship of IONS, which the RAN hosted in Perth, Australia, in March 2014. Among the themes discussed, Barrett shared his thoughts on regional maritime cooperation, the need for continued discussion on issues affecting the Indian Ocean region among its stakeholders, and the RAN’s contribution to Australia’s fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

Barrett joined the Royal Australian Navy in 1976 as a seaman officer and later specialized in aviation. He assumed command of the RAN on July 1, 2014. A dual-qualified officer, Barrett served on Her Majesty’s Australian (HMA) ships Melbourne, Perth and Brisbane and HMS Orkney as a seaman officer and then as a flight commander in HMA ships Stalwart, Adelaide and Canberra. He has served as commanding officer for the 817 Squadron, commanding officer for the HMAS Albatross, commander of the Australian Navy Aviation Group, commander of the Border Protection Command and most recently, commander for Australian Fleet.

He holds a bachelor of arts in politics and history and a master of defense studies, both from the University of New South Wales. He recently completed the Advanced Management Program at Harvard Business School. He and his wife, Jenny, have two daughters.

A Royal Australian Navy Seaman stands by to lower the flag as HMAS Canberra sails from Sydney Harbor to commence Fleet Concentration Period East 2015.
A Royal Australian Navy Seaman stands by to lower the flag as HMAS Canberra sails from Sydney Harbor to commence Fleet Concentration Period East 2015.

FORUM: What do you know now or better understand about the capabilities of regional navies after your tenure as IONS chairman?

BARRETT: I have a graying understanding of what others can provide, both in a collective sense and what we can share. But also, I’ve noticed there are a number of countries that are still developing their own organizations to prepare themselves to be able to respond to what could be collective security issues. I’ve seen, I think, a broad range of development, but also I’ve seen the constraints that some of our particularly smaller nations are still facing in bringing themselves up to speed.

Royal Australian Navy Sailors conduct visit, boarding, search and seizure training.
Royal Australian Navy Sailors conduct visit, boarding, search and seizure training.

FORUM: How has the existence of IONS changed the conversation on maritime issues for nations that have an interest in the Indian Ocean? 

BARRETT: It has given them a voice, where previously they may have been attempting to manage situations through governments in isolation. IONS, and the great strength of IONS, is that there are like-minded people — mariners — who understand the issues that navies can attend to and the way that navies can assist. We’re able to have those conversations in a forum that I don’t think they’ve necessarily been able to take in other forums. If we look only at the Indian Ocean Rim Association, for instance, it has developed over a period of time, but it is still searching to meet some of its intended outcomes. IONS, because of the closeness of navies — and we know intimately what each does in terms of on the sea — we’ve been able to progress a little further in terms of the working groups, and I think that has allowed some of the smaller nations to feel they can have a voice.

Members of HMAS Stuart stand in formation during the ship’s crew swap to HMAS Parramatta at Henderson, Western Australia.
Members of HMAS Stuart stand in formation during the ship’s crew swap to HMAS Parramatta at Henderson, Western Australia.

FORUM: Please expand on the comments you made during IONS on creating a maritime information and exchange directory.

BARRETT: I used the example of the search for MH 370, the loss of the Malaysian Airlines aircraft. That caused a number of desperate nations in the region, because there were passengers of many nationalities onboard. Everyone had a need and desire to be part of the search. It needed to be immediate, because at first we thought we were looking for survivors. Then quickly, we realized it was becoming a search for debris. What we found was to bring everyone together quickly, we were, I wouldn’t say scrambling, but we were spending a lot of valuable time up front learning each nation’s capability. If we had some intimate sense and knowledge of that earlier in the piece, our response might have been a little different early on to be able to mix and match the required capability to meet what we thought was needed at the time.

We found we were reactive, rather than being proactive in establishing the search. I would argue even a short time after the tragedy that was the Malaysian aircraft, north of Indonesia, even within that time, there was a noticeable change with people having a sense of what other nations could provide. I think IONS — by developing a directory of information, including capabilities and the sort of preparedness that each nation has, knowing within each nation how the civil military situation works in terms of search and rescue and responsibilities between military organizations and civil organizations, command and control structures — the more information we can openly share about those things, the more quickly we can make the right decisions early on when a tragedy of that nature starts.

HMAS Darwin sails off the coast of New South Wales during Fleet Concentration Period East 2015.
HMAS Darwin sails off the coast of New South Wales during Fleet Concentration Period East 2015.

FORUM: Talk about force modernization, which seems to be a theme across the Indo-Asia-Pacific region. What’s happening in Australia with your Navy and a move forward?

BARRETT: There’s a complete recapitalization of our Navy at the moment. It is tied to our white paper on defense [released February 25, 2016], which is the government’s position. It indicates that Australia accepts that it has a regional responsibility in terms of security for its own defense, but also to provide a level of security in the region for others. There’s a global responsibility for us to show ourselves to be a good citizen and to act where we need to around the world. It also acknowledges that we still gain most of our trade by sea and that our major trading partners are in the Asian region, be it China and Japan.

With all those things into account, it’s very much seen that this is a maritime strategy that needs to be evoked. As a result, Navy will recapitalize. We’ve already started, and it will demonstrate a drive for a greater level of engagement that we will have at sea, both by ourselves in our sovereign capability, but also when we operate with allies.

Those two things dictate where the force will go, the shape of the force, but also the nature of the force when we seek to operate with others. In that mind, we are developing a force that is task-group oriented and will allow us to operate from anything from a policing function or an HADR [humanitarian assistance and disaster response] function, right the way through high-end warfighting, knowing that we may be doing that with others.

Members of the Australian, Singaporean, Malaysian, New Zealand and United Kingdom defense forces work together during Exercise Bersama Shield 16 at the Royal Malaysian Air Force Base in Butterworth.

FORUM: On the topic of security in the region, Australia has been very proactive in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Talk about what the Navy does to secure not only the waters around Australia but in neighboring waters as well.

BARRETT: Our most evident is our activities in the Middle East. We’ve been providing a frigate almost constantly now since 1991, and we’re in our 62nd rotation. Principally there, it’s in an anti-piracy role. We feel that’s important. The acts of those ships are stopping the flow and trade of narcotics, which fund terrorist activity, not just in the Middle East, but around the world. We will continue to do that. We also provide personnel in the Middle East to run CTF [Combined Task Force] 150, and currently Australia has command of that task force. Each of those provides us the opportunity to contribute away from Australia on what is still a global issue in terms of terrorism. We’ve had great success. The ships we have sent there over the last 18 to 24 months have interdicted upward of 5 tons of illegal drugs — street value is enormous. That is our contribution to show that this can’t be a free trade of drugs that fund terrorist activity.

In our own region, we continue to be part of a number of regional fora, all of which have a strength in either voicing our concern over international terrorism or demonstrating that we have a capability to join others to act against terrorism as it happens. Often, that’s highlighted through things like anti-piracy activities. In the Asian region, we are a member of ReCAAP [Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia], so we contribute to that fora, and we stand ready to contribute in a naval presence if required.

FORUM: Terminology has begun changing to be more encompassing and inclusive by referring to this as the Indo-Asia-Pacific region. Australia recently completed an exercise with China. How would you describe your relationship with them, given your geographic locations, and ability to
work together?

BARRETT: We take a firm view that China remains our significant trading partner. It is important in an economic sense, and from a government-to-government extent, that we demonstrate that we can operate. At the same time — and it’s open press to show — it hasn’t stopped Australia as a sovereign nation from making its position well understood to all those within the South China Sea. We do not condone anyone who makes claims within the South China Sea or who doesn’t seek to manage those claims through international courts or international fora. We don’t see a dilemma in being able to trade with China, and through that, exercise government-to-government relations through Navy conducting exercises with China. That does not stop us from still making our voice heard. We take a very clear view of our relationship in the South China Sea — with China in particular.

FORUM: What does the Royal Australian Navy look like in the next five to 10 years?

BARRETT: It’s a question I’m asking all my members of the Navy to look at, because we actually have some certainty now with a number of government decisions. Government, in the last half of last year [2015], have indicated that we will procure new frigates to replace our current frigate force. We will procure new offshore patrol vessels to replace our current patrol boat force. We’re in the throes of a project to replace our tanker force. And we’re also looking at replacing our submarine with a future submarine in the mid- to long term. All of those things will completely change how our Navy looks, whilst we’re also bringing in new air warfare destroyers and the new LHDs [landing helicopter docks]. In five to 10 years’ time, the Navy will look completely different. What we have, though — between now and then — is certainty in what we need to do. We have to introduce current capability, the LHD, the air warfare destroyer, new Seahawk Romeo helicopters, but we also know that we have to continue the project to bring these new capabilities in. All that work will need to be done in the next three to five years, with the prospect then in 10 years that the ships will be operational.

It’s not often a small- to medium-size Navy gets to see so much clarity around where it will be in 10 to 15 years’ time. I’m using that to our advantage to allow all those who are in the Navy or who are contemplating joining the Navy to say, I can tell you where you will be and what you will be doing over the next five to 10 years.

This recapitalization is a great opportunity for us in the Navy. The beauty of all of this being done as not just individual projects with ships, but it is to be seen as a system that allows us to think completely different about how we might train and how we might sustain each of these forces. We’re in a prime position at the moment, and we’ve got a great opportunity to really bring this Navy up to a very contemporary and future standard in everything we do — not just how we operate the ships, but how we sustain them, how we train for them, how we develop the workforce to be able to manage them. And I can show people that there’s a distinct outcome or product that they will see for their efforts and their endeavors. It’s a great time for Navy at the moment.

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