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IN DETAIL: The Australian government’s surface combat fleet review to report in 2024

Gregor Ferguson

The Government’s Defence Strategic Review, released early in 2023, side-stepped the issue of building a fleet of surface combatants for the RAN. Instead, the Government announced yet another Review, by retired US Vice-Admiral William Hilarides, which was completed in September 2023 – and then promptly announced that it would publish its response to the Review in early 2024.

So, at a time when the authors of the Defence Strategic Review say the RAN needs a mix of Tier 1 and Tier 2 ships with more missiles, and that the currently planned Hunter-class frigates are too late, too heavy and too expensive and under-armed, and while the planned 12 Arafura-class Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPV) lack missiles of any kind, the Government has introduced a 12-month delay in its deliberations.

We don’t know for sure what the Hilarides Review actually recommended, but in relation to the RAN’s surface combatant fleet we should expect that he addressed the following questions:

  • What threats must the RAN face in future?
  • How important is speed into service?
  • How important is commonality between the RAN’s surface combatants?
  • How important is the Cooperative Engagement Capability (CEC) that is available only with Aegis?
  • How important is the number of missiles carried by RAN warships, and the mix of missiles?
  • To achieve speed do we choose a Military Off The Shelf (MOTS) design, at least some of which will be built overseas?
  • What does this do to Australia’s planned Continuous Naval Shipbuilding Program?

All of these questions are to some extent inter-related and multiple exhibitors at the Indo Pacific International Maritime Expo in Sydney back in November presented their own answers.

Replacing the Arafura-class OPVs could be relatively simple, and this could provide the RAN with a ready-made Tier 2 capability. Australia is currently committed to building half of the planned 12 ships in this class; we could replace the final six with a much more heavily armed corvette-type vessel that can undertake both constabulary and some warfighting duties. Navantia has already suggested such a solution, the 3,600 tonne Tasman-class corvette, based on the Alpha 3000 design it is already building for Saudi Arabia. This has 16 Mk41 Vertical Launch System (VLS) cells and up to 16 superstructure mounted anti-ship missile launchers. Navantia has already announced a teaming agreement with CIVMEC and Austal to build these ships in Fremantle.

Navantia’s Tasman-class corvette. Image: Navantia

And the RAN has other options if it chooses to replace its Arafura-class OPVs. These ships are unlikely to need the full Aegis combat system though they will probably need something like the Saab 9LV Mk3E combat system to provide commonality of both training and software support across the surface fleet.

The Tier 1 ships, the ANZAC-class frigate replacements, are a more complex problem. Firstly, what threats must the RAN be ready for? The Hunter-class frigates were ordered (rather messily) to counter the submarine threat. Whatever else may happen, the submarine population in Australia’s region will still continue to grow: it will exceed 220 boats by the mid-2030s, not including those of Australia and the United States. And about 130 of these will be North Korean and Chinese, a mix of (mainly) diesel-electric and nuclear-powered boats. And that threat will persist through the 2050s and beyond.

The undersea threat isn’t just from submarines. Australia is vulnerable to attacks on the fibre-optic cables that connect the country with the rest of the world. As recent events in the Baltic have shown, those cables can be cut or damaged deliberately or ‘accidentally on purpose’ so Australia needs both crewed surface ships and Uncrewed Undersea Vessels (UUV) to patrol its waters and, if necessary, deter (or destroy) any threats to what really matters.

The two most important things about ASW ships are their sonar suite and their own relative quietness. The Hunter-class is derived from the British Type 23 ASW frigate, arguably the quietest frigate ever built and one of the most effective against submarines. The Hunter is designed to be at least as quiet as the Type 23 and equipped with the same sonars as the Royal Navy’s Type 26 frigate. This is Thales’s CAPTAS (Combined Active-Passive Towed Array Sonar) Type 2087, which has a large, variable-depth towed body and a separate towed array; and, under the bows, the Ultra S2150 hull-mounted sonar.

The relative quietness of the Hunter-class matters to a Navy that is projecting threat development over the next 30 years and beyond. The CAPTAS towed body is substantial enough that the stern of the ship carrying it needs to be designed specially for it – modifications to an existing design could be significant and take time.

So, a quiet ASW design, good ASW hull-mounted and variable depth sonar and the ability to carry and operate UUVs is important. A MOTS design may not have the ASW capabilities the RAN needs today, still less in 20 years’ time.

Of course, since the Hunter-class was selected other threats have emerged: we’re seeing a proliferation of longer-range anti-ship missiles, hypersonic missiles and Intermediate and Inter Continental Ballistic Missiles (IRBM and ICBM) in our region. Our ships need to be able to defend themselves against faster weapons with longer ranges and protect others as well, including Australia itself.

Regardless of their ASW capabilities, this means equipping Australian warships with weapons such as the Raytheon SM-2/3 and SM-6 missiles which have sufficient range to tackle both missiles and launch platforms at stand-off ranges, as well as shorter-range weapons such as the ESSM to tackle aircraft and incoming weapons in the terminal phases of their attacks.

So, for the RAN a significant Anti-Air Warfare (AAW) capability will be necessary for self-protection, area air defence and even anti-ballistic missile defence. And the Hunter-class’s CODLOG propulsion system provides lots of electrical power for things like Directed Energy (DE) weapons in the future. A decent AAW sensor suite will also contribute significantly to the development of air and missile surveillance and the creation and maintenance of a Common Operating Picture (COP).

The RAN’s existing Hobart-class ships and planned Hunter-class frigates have (or are designed with) a world-class AAW surveillance and combat management capability. However, the Hunter-class frigate’s armoury of 32 Mk41 VLS cells won’t be sufficient, according to multiple critics. Although it can carry up to 128 ESSMs for self-protection and protection of ships in company, it simply won’t have the Mk41 VLS cells necessary to support a robust mix of ESSM, SM-2 and SM-6. The Hobart-class, with its 48 launch cells, is much better equipped.

So, how important is the number of missiles the ship carries? Arguably, any warship with just 32 Mk41 VLS cells will lack the flexibility and sheer magazine depth the RAN is said now to require, though this seems to be typical now of dedicated ASW ships.

The Babcock Type 31 design carries 32 Mk41 VLS cells; so does the Navantia F110; so does TKMS’s 3rd-generation MEKO A210 design; and so does the US Navy’s new Constellation-class frigate, which is based on the Fincantieri FREMM design but has none of that design’s original missiles, sensors or combat system and is therefore longer and heavier.

Presumably, if the Hunter-class armament is insufficient for the RAN, the same goes for any rivals offering the same, or fewer, launch cells, regardless of the ship’s ASW capabilities. And whichever ship the RAN selects must also have an effective AAW sensor and combat management suite.

At Indo Pacific 2023 BAE Systems Maritime Australia displayed an ‘upgunned’ AAW ‘Guided Missile Frigate’ version of the Hunter-class of the same length but slightly smaller beam and with much of the Mission Bay equipment space amidships replaced by additional Mk41 VLSs. This version of the ship carries 96 launch cells, the same as the US Navy’s Arleigh Burke-class destroyers which are considered the benchmark for combat capability. It also carries up to 16 anti-ship Naval Strike Missiles (NSM).

The ship has an empty weight of 8,200 tonnes, but as the head of BAE Systems Maritime Australia, Craig Lockhart, said at Indo Pacific it would be virtually impossible to find a lighter ship design that has a 96-cell capability: “Pretty much all guided missile frigates and destroyers are of that size and ilk.”

The RAN’s Hobart-class DDG uses Aegis (and will soon have the Saab 9LV Mk3 as an Australian interface) and has a 48-cell Mk41 VLS. This launcher configuration can carry 64 quad-packed Evolved Sea Sparrow Missiles (ESSM), 32 SM-2/6 long-range anti-air missiles along with eight Boeing AGM-84 Harpoons or, in future, Kongsberg NSMs, in separate launchers. Australia has built these ships before and could do so again, but the industrial arrangement under which they were built in Australia no longer exists, so setting up to build another three (or six, or more) of these ships efficiently in Adelaide may take longer than many expect.

The Hobart-class DDG HMAS Sydney – image: Defence

However, Navantia has also proposed a 10,000-tonne ‘Flight III’ version of the Hobart-class with no less than 128 Mk41 VLS launch cells. This is actually a new design with a CODAG propulsion plant – which also generates significant amounts of electrical power so that it can also carry DE weapons in the future – an Aegis combat system and a CEAFAR2 radar suite, similar to the Hunter-class, and it includes both UAV and counter-UAV capabilities.

The company is reluctant to speak openly but says it has offered a variety of options for the construction of the ships it has proposed, should the government choose to change its present course.

Table 1: Characteristics of possible RAN Tier 1 surface combatants

Class Mk41 VLS launch cells Total Across the Fleet Short-range AAW missiles Long-range AAW missiles Anti-Ship missiles Tomahawk Land Attack Missile (TLAM) Combat System Primary Sensor

(8 ships)

8 64 ESSM 0 Harpoon/ NSM 0 9LV Mk3E CEAFAR2
Hobart DDG

(3 ships)

48 144 ESSM SM2/6 Harpoon/ NSM x 8 To Be Determined Aegis + 9LV Mk3E SPY-1D(V)
Hunter FFG

(3 ships confirmed)

32 96 ESSM SM2/6 NSM x 8 To Be Determined Aegis + 9LV Mk3E CEAFAR2
Hunter Guided Missile Frigate

(6 ships?)

96 576 ESSM SM2/6 NSM x 16 To Be Determined Aegis + 9LV Mk3E CEAFAR2
Navantia Flight III

(6 ships?)

128 768 ESSM SM2/6 NSM To Be Determined Aegis + 9LV Mk3E CEAFAR2

Commonality: the RAN plans to equip all its Tier 1 warships with the Lockheed Martin Aegis combat system. The existing Hobart-class DDGs are equipped with Aegis and the SPY-1D(V) radar and will soon get the Saab 9LV Mk3E combat system; the ANZAC-class frigates are equipped with the CEA Technologies CEAFAR2 phased array sensor and the 9LV Mk3E; the Hunter-class frigates will carry CEAFAR2, Aegis and the 9LV Mk3E. The latter provides an Australian interface between Aegis and the RAN’s sensors and weapons and, importantly, a common Man-Machine Interface (MMI) right across the surface fleet for training and software support.

At the same time, the combat system software support burden was focussed just on Aegis and on the Saab interface. That was a significant strategic decision by the RAN and its importance hasn’t waned over the years – the RAN’s Canberra-class LHDs use the 9LV Mk3E combat system for that very reason.

Not stated at the time but of possibly even greater importance was the Cooperative Engagement capability (CEC) which comes exclusively with the Aegis combat system. In simple terms, this allows a sensor on one ship to illuminate a target so that it can be engaged by a weapon from another ship, possibly some distance away. The beauty of CEC is that it links the air warfare suites of multiple CEC-equipped warships to provide a massive SA and engagement ‘bubble’ protecting everybody within it from air, surface and submarine threats, and makes jamming of a single ship much less effective. While a number of ship classes around the world have versions of Aegis, the US Navy has only shared CEC with the navies of Japan and Australia.

It’s safe to say that CEC matters to the RAN. All things being equal, the RAN probably wants to persist with Aegis. So, the RAN’s options really are Aegis-equipped vessels which don’t carry the cost and schedule risks of a redesign: the Guided Missile Frigate variant of the Hunter-class, the US Navy’s Constellation-class, or Navantia’s F110-class, Hobart-class or Flight III destroyers. But two of those options are ASW designs and therefore under-armed, according to the critics. To up-arm them would mean modifying their designs and introducing (yet again) a delay in fielding them.

How does all this square with speed into service? What’s the quickest you could get a ship into service? At present, you’d be lucky to get a MOTS design delivered from a foreign yard within three years – say by 2028, allowing for contractual negotiations and the Department of Defence’s own internal processes. And if speed is all that matters, you’d be fielding a MOTS frigate with a 32-cell launcher.

That’s still faster than we would get a Hunter-class frigate which won’t enter service until at least 2031, according to Defence (BAE Systems Maritime Australia won’t comment on the RAN’s timeline but believes it can deliver well ahead of this schedule). If you choose to have the first couple of ships built overseas and then the remainder built in Australia, that might meet the need for speed into service – but what sort of sensors, weapons and combat system would the ship be equipped with? What would be the resulting training and logistics burden if the ship comes with a completely different combat system, sensors and missiles?

If speed to service needs to be blended with the need for an Aegis combat system, does the design selected need to be modified to include Aegis? In that case the redesign work will take time, as will the regression testing, and the resulting design may be heavier.

Again, the signs point to an existing Aegis-equipped design and the RAN’s current and planned inventory of missiles. But if we buy or build Aegis-equipped warships, how long will that take us? We don’t know – we have assertions and predictions but no contracts: we have no hard knowledge.

What would such a move do for Australia’s Continuous Naval Shipbuilding program? This program was established to prevent the ‘stop-start’ nature of shipbuilding in this country which typically saw a very expensive build-up of skills and talent followed by construction of a class of ships. The first of class was usually late, expensive and riddled with teething problems, but ‘learning curve’ effects meant that by about ship 3 we were at or exceeding world class levels of productivity. This would be followed by dissipation of the industrial capability so that Australia could go through the entire horrible cycle all over again.

This has proven to be a very expensive and wasteful way of building warships. It has caused endless grief to Australia’s maritime SMEs. It has also caused severe reputational damage to both the shipbuilders and the Department of Defence and created the false impression that Australia simply can’t build ships.

The Continuous Naval Shipbuilding program is designed to establish construction as an ongoing, sovereign activity at a dedicated, modern yard with a permanent workforce of design, construction and supervisory personnel. The prime contractor and suppliers would employ several thousand people on a roughly full-time basis.

BAE Systems Maritime Australia, on the back of the Hunter-class frigate order, has invested heavily with Flinders University in the ‘Factory of the Future’ to build one of the world’s most modern yards at Osborne in Port Adelaide. Flinders has established close links with universities in the USA and UK to further its research and commercialisation of modern manufacturing technology.

The aim is to build and deliver ships in Australia quickly, affordably and to the highest quality, and keep on doing so. A ‘stop-start’ process with ships delivered initially from an overseas yard without any Australian involvement would work against this goal.

The Hunter-class has passed its Preliminary Design Review (PDR) and detailed design of the first flight of three Hunter-class ships is under way. There may only be three Hunter-class ships built of the nine originally planned, but the Guided Missile Frigate variant of its design uses 85% of the hull, superstructure and machinery of the Hunter-class, according to BAE Systems Maritime. The design synergies between the Hunter-class and the Destroyer variant mean it wouldn’t be hard to switch from building one to the other after that first batch of three ships, says the company, if the Navy chooses to do so.

There remains the question of what the government will do once it has announced its response to the Hilarides review. On the one hand, the review is all about capability and ensuring the RAN’s surface fleet is ‘fit for purpose’; on the other hand, the government has created expectations that it will change and accelerate the way Defence and the Navy do things. However (and this is where it gets complicated), a continuous naval shipbuilding program would be incompatible with any move to cancel existing arrangements with BAE Systems Maritime Australia once the initial three Hunter-class frigates are built, throw several hundred people out of work, terminate contracts (yet again!) with several SMEs and try to start all over again with a new design and a new prime contractor who will need to configure the shipyard for its own needs and activate its own local supply chain.

Furthermore, at the maritime strategic level many of the commentators do not acknowledge hard realities, such as the difficulty in manning an increased number of ships; many do not acknowledge the funding pressures facing the Department; many do not acknowledge the persistent and growing submarine and undersea threat which stubbornly refuses to go away; and many do not acknowledge the importance of things like the CEC. If these things all matter, then the range of options open to the RAN and the government may be much smaller than appears at first glance, and Hilarides is undoubtedly aware of this.

If we consider that more heavily armed replacements for the last six Arafura-class OPVs represent our Tier 2 ships, then we could still have the two layers of capability that the authors of the Defence Strategic Review, and a number of other commentators, seem to be demanding.

At the Tier 1 level we apparently need a ship big enough to carry both a world-class AAW suite and many more than 32 Mk41 VLS cells; we need it quickly; we need CEC; we still need to be able to fight the submarine threat in 2030 as well as the 2050s; we still want a continuous naval shipbuilding program; and we need commonality across the fleet to reduce the RAN’s training and recruiting burden.

The result is that we could end up with more of what we already have (the Navantia-designed Hobart-class), or changes to what we’re planning to get (Hunter-class ‘Guided Missile Frigate’ variant or Navantia’s Flight III destroyer design). All of these ships come with the Aegis combat system and most of them with the 9LV Mk3E and CEAFAR2. If we can get them in good time none of these options would necessarily be a bad result.

Do not forget the old maxim, however: “Of the two courses of action open to the enemy, he will always choose the third.” The Commonwealth government isn’t exactly the enemy, but predicting what it might do, and when, is not for the faint-hearted.

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