Australia has announced plans to buy five new warships at a cost of more than A$11bn ($9bn; £4.5bn).
Mr Howard says the purchases represent a massive lift in capability
The three destroyers and two amphibious troop carriers will be Australia's most advanced and expensive warships.
Prime Minister John Howard said they would greatly enhance the country's ability to send forces at strength.
Australia has already started a wider A$47bn ($40bn) defence procurement programme, amid concerns about growing instability in the Asia-Pacific region.
However, Indonesia and Thailand have warned that it could spur a regional arms race.
The first of the advanced Spanish-designed Navantia ships is due to enter service in 2012.
A major military exercise involving nearly 30,000 Australian and American military personnel began in Australia's northern waters this week.