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What will the RAN’s fleet look like in 2035? Indo-Pacific 2023 offered options

14 November 23 | Jennifer Parker

Australia is often accused of ‘sea blindness’ and a lack of appreciation of the need for a strong navy to protect our vital maritime trade routes. It was reassuring that last week’s biennial Indo-Pacific exposition in Sydney delivered a confluence of ideas from defence personnel, industry and academics on the future of maritime capability in Australia and the region.

Within the exposition was the Royal Australian Navy’s Sea Power Conference, on the theme Fleet 2035: Sea power and the future of maritime warfare’, where it was noted that the future structure of the surface combatant fleet remains unsettled despite an eight-month defence strategic review (DSR) process and five-month independent analysis of surface capability. The analysis was delivered to the government in late September and it was anticipated that decisions on the surface fleet’s structure would be made public this year. However, the government has indicated that the outcomes will not be known until early 2024.

The 2016 defence white paper planned for recapitalisation of the RAN, but uncertainty remains about the viability of the choice of nine Hunter-class frigates and 12 Arafura-class offshore patrol vessels. Debate has focused on whether either program can deliver as promised. The Hunter program was the subject of a highly critical Australian National Audit Office report, and while the first of the Arafura class was launched in 2021, it’s yet to be commissioned into operational service and that program has been listed as a project of concern.

Perhaps gaining more traction is the debate over whether either program will deliver the capability required to meet Australia’s strategic circumstances. The DSR authors clearly believed that these vessels did not meet the need for an enhanced-lethality surface combatant fleet consistent with a larger number of smaller surface vessels.

Given that the government is yet to answer the question of what the fleet should look like in 2035, some industry representatives took it upon themselves to do so. Defence companies put forward options to meet the DSR intent that the fleet should consist of Tier 1 and Tier 2 surface combatants.

Among the new contenders were light frigates from TKMS and Gibbs & Cox, a subsidiary of Leidos. Both presented designs to address the DSR’s call for Tier 2 ships. TKMS, which produced the MEKO 200, the reference design for the RAN’s current Anzac-class frigate, delivered a design for a third-generation multi-purpose frigate, the A210. The 4,700-tonne design sought to answer the DSR’s call for enhanced lethality with 32 vertical launch system (VLS) cells, 16 cannisters for naval strike missiles (NSMs), a directed-energy weapon with power plant, a mission bay for uncrewed surface vessels (USVs), a towed-array sonar and plans to integrate Australia’s CEAFAR radar.

Gibbs & Cox offered a 3,700-tonne (similar to the Anzac) design for an Australian light frigate based on the new Taiwanese light frigate. The design has a similar strike capability to the MEKO A210 with 32 VLS, 16 cannisters for NSM, capacity for a close-in weapons system (CIWS) and a hangar to embark the MH-60R helicopter. Although both are interesting propositions, it seems unlikely that the surface combatant fleet decision would embrace a new designer at this difficult stage.

The current surface combatant plan already relies on extending each Anzac frigate by nine years which, given the state of the class highlighted in the 2019 ANAO report, seems unlikely. Any decision on the surface fleet will therefore need to ensure delivery of vessels in the early 2030s as currently planned, or perhaps earlier. There will be limited appetite to introduce further risk with a new ship designer. One exception is, perhaps, an AUKUS Pillar 3 covering shipbuilding, which could be a worthwhile consideration now the US is back in the frigates game.

Seeking to address concerns that the Hunter frigate lacks firepower, BAE Systems Australia showcased a design for an evolved Hunter with the number of VLS increased from the 32 in the current design to 96, akin to the firepower of a US Arleigh Burke destroyer. It was suggested that could be increased to 128 should the 5-inch gun not be required.

By any stretch that’s a dramatic increase for the Hunter design. Of course, this would come with a cost. The 2023 ANAO audit highlighted concerns about the weight of the Hunter design, so the addition of a further 64 or 96 VLS would appear to be challenging. To accommodate the extra weight, BAE has said the USV mission bay, towed array or other anti-submarine warfare systems would be removed from the evolved Hunter, but it would still have 85% commonality with the current Hunter class.

The Hunters were always intended to be delivered in batches, and BAE says this change would have a negligible risk to the schedule if it’s delivered in batch II (ships 4–6). There are significant benefits in retaining the same shipbuilder/designer and commonality of systems, and the hull. While that could reduce the risk in delivering a more lethal fleet, questions would remain about the plan’s viability and cost. It’s unlikely that such an expansion of capability would be feasible within the current Hunter project costs, already predicted to be beyond $45 billion.

Perhaps seeking to address all aspects of the surface fleet discussion, Navantia, which designed the RAN’s Hobart-class destroyers, Canberra-class landing helicopter docks and Supply-class replenishment vessels, produced three designs. Consistent with the company’s previous offerings, they included both a corvette and a destroyer option. Navantia’s Tasman-class corvette is based on the Alpha 3000 design built for Saudi Arabia with the same tonnage as the Anzac class. It has increased firepower with 16 VLS, room for 16 NSM cannisters, a 57-millimetre main gun, CIWS, USV mission bay and the Australian CEAFAR radar. Navantia announced that it would lock in Australian shipbuilding partners by joining with CIVMEC and Austal to deliver six corvettes to the RAN.

Seemingly in response to corvette critics—though the Tasman class is the size of an Anzac frigate—Navantia also unveiled a design for an Alpha 5000 frigate at 4,550 tonnes with 32 VLS. That’s about half the tonnage of a Hunter frigate but would have double the VLS capability of the Tasman-class corvette. Navantia’s final design was for a ‘Flight III’ destroyer to address the RAN’s Tier 1 requirements. Based on the Spanish F110 design, the 10,200-tonne destroyer has 128 VLS cells in two 64-cell segments, a 127-millimetre main gun and two CIWS. It reportedly has drone-swarm and anti-drone-swarm launchers.

With the surface combatant recommendations now in the government’s hands, it’s difficult to forecast which, if any, of the options on offer at Indo-Pacific 2023 might be selected. It’s clear that with the Anzacs nearing their expiry date there will be limited appetite to introduce further risk into the shipbuilding program. This must make the BAE and Navantia bids compelling, with existing relationships and commonality of systems key elements in de-risking the decision. Of course, there’s always the option of aligning with American shipbuilding programs now that the US is back in the frigate game, so perhaps an AUKUS Pillar 3 based on shipbuilding is worth considering.

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