OPINION | Getting real about the schedule for Australia’s future frigates

An artist’s impression of a RAN Hunter-class frigate (Photo: Australian Department of Defence)

The government has announced an 18-month delay to the Royal Australian Navy’s Hunter-class future frigate program. Is this a sign that the project is in serious trouble? Or is it simply an overdue recognition of the reality that there’s no getting around the timeframes required for highly developmental projects involving complex crewed platforms? In my view, it’s the latter, but either way the Defence Department needs to get real about the schedule’s implications for Australia’s maritime capability.

Let’s review the wishful thinking that has reigned in the history of the future frigate program. But first, as a benchmark, we should reacquaint ourselves with the timeline for the Hobart-class air warfare destroyers. The selection process included a two-year, $200 million design phase in which two competitors were funded to develop their designs. The government gave second-pass approval in June 2007 to acquire Navantia’s design, known as the “existing” design because it was based on a vessel that was already in service in the Spanish Navy. Importantly, that vessel already used the Aegis combat system and AN/SPY-1 radar that were to be installed on the Hobart-class. Despite that, it still took five years and three months for construction to start in September 2012.

Certainly, there were problems in the ramp-up of the AWD program, but to achieve a faster schedule in the future frigate project one would have expected to see significantly less risk. That, however, was not the case.

In August 2015, concerned about the prospects of a shipbuilding “valley of death” between the close of the AWD project and the start of construction on the future frigates, the government announced it was bringing forward the frigate program with construction to start in 2020—that is, construction would start in five years, even though the government had not yet selected a design, let alone funded any work on it.

Later that year, the government commenced a competitive evaluation process to identify a reference ship design that was mature, in the water and in service. However, it said it also required five significant modifications to the successful design: integration of the Australian CEA radar, the Aegis combat system, US weapons that were already in Australian service, the MH-60R Seahawk maritime combat helicopter and any modifications necessary to meet Australian regulatory requirements.

The list of contenders was whittled down to three, who were funded to conduct design activities such as assessing the risk of modifying their designs. Those risks forced the government to acknowledge that it wasn’t possible to meet the 2020 construction deadline. So the 2020 milestone was redefined as the start of “prototyping” (that is, demonstrating that the new shipyard in South Australia worked), while the start of construction on actual ships was moved to the end of 2022.

“We’re looking at 12 years until the first of nine planned Hunter-class frigates provides useful capability.”

In June 2018 the government announced that it had chosen BAE Systems’ Global Combat Ship based on the Type 26 frigate being built in the UK. This was in some ways surprising since the Type 26 was the only one of the three contenders that was not mature, not in the water and certainly not in service. We have continued to see instability in the reference ship’s design and it also didn’t use the radar, combat system, weapons or helicopter required by Australia. In essence, the government accepted Defence’s recommendation to choose the least mature design and then perform fundamental modifications to it.

In that light, the four and a half years available to achieve the start of construction by late 2022 seem quite inadequate, compared to the AWD design that needed more than five years despite starting with a more mature design requiring fewer modifications. The growth of the Hunter’s design from around 8,800 tonnes to 10,000 tonnes confirms the immaturity of the initial design.

If we add into the mix the fact that the UK’s program still requires design resources, the Canadians have also selected the Type 26 and are also seeking to implement substantial design changes, and Covid-19 has disrupted everybody’s plans, the announcement of a further 18-month delay to the start of construction simply confirms that reality beats wishful thinking every time.

So, what does that delay mean? It would appear that the desperate attempt to bridge the valley of death by short-circuiting the selection and design processes for the future frigate has achieved little except to inject additional risk into the program. The 18-month delay to the start of construction—presumably to mid-2024—will create uncertainty for the ramp up of BAE’s workforce. The first two offshore patrol vessels are being built in Adelaide to ensure some continuity of workforce after the completion of the AWDs, but they are due to be delivered in late 2021 and 2022 (noting there are also signs of some delay there). How long can workers usefully conduct “prototyping” activities for?

Second, the delay increases the capability risk. I’ve noted previously that the RAN is undergoing two major transitions in its submarine and surface combatant fleets that are marked by substantial strategic risks. We’ve seen that those risks are being realised in the submarine transition. It’s clear that that is now the case in the surface force as well. Getting real about the Hunter-class schedule, and the transition from the Anzac-class that they’re supposed to replace, means Defence can’t simply sit and watch those risks grow.

We’ve known for a while that the government’s $575 billion in spending on defence this decade wasn’t going to get a single additional missile launcher to sea. That picture is now even worse. Defence officials recently informed a Senate committee that while construction has been delayed by 18 months, delivery of the first ship has been delayed by two years to 2031. Since Defence’s master schedule indicates a further two-year testing and evaluation phase before the first ship is deployable, that suggests that initial operational capability has now moved two years to the end of 2033. Or put another way, even though the government’s 2020 defence strategic update said we can no longer rely on 10 years of warning time, we’re looking at 12 years until the first of nine planned Hunter-class frigates provides useful capability (and 13 for the Attack-class submarine).

The officials did state that the schedule would be recovered by ship four. Since its acceptance date is scheduled for the third quarter of 2034, that suggests BAE will be delivering a ship a year following ship one in 2031. Defence has previously informed the Senate that the Adelaide shipyard has the capacity to deliver ships faster than the two-year drumbeat currently built into the naval shipbuilding plan but such a pace still seems like an ambitious ramp-up.

If it’s achievable, it demonstrates once again the fundamental contradiction built into the shipbuilding plan: we are deliberately paying more to slow down delivery, sacrificing capability at the holy altar of “continuous naval shipbuilding.”

“For less than a tenth of the cost of a Hunter-class frigate, we can get the same surface warfare capability, potentially a decade earlier.”

The hard reality we’re continually relearning is that the design and build of complex, multirole, crewed platforms is taking longer and longer as they aggregate more and more systems to survive the rapidly multiplying threats they face. Not only are their schedules increasing but so are their size and their cost. Despite the combined $52 billion investment in our surface combatant fleet ($8 billion for the AWDs and a predicted $44 billion for the Hunters), fleet numbers aren’t growing.

We’re also learning the true financial and capability costs inherent in an approach to continuous naval shipbuilding built around the achingly slow delivery of exquisitely expensive multirole platforms. So there’s no viable Plan B involving a different frigate.

Getting real about the Hunter schedule means taking a hard look at the options the government has to enhance maritime capability (and not just “mitigate risk”) and actually pursuing some of them, even if they’re outside Defence’s comfort zone. We need achievable Plan Bs that complement continuing with Plan A.

As with the future submarine, a life-of-type extension is already built into Plan A for the frigates, with the Anzac-class vessels already in the middle of a substantial upgrade program. If the first of the Anzacs is retired when the first Hunter achieves IOC, it will be 37 years old. The last will be around 40 should the eighth Hunter arrive on schedule in 25 years’ time—and it’s hard to see us squeezing more blood out of that stone.

So, getting real about the schedule for the Hunter class means pursuing complementary capabilities that break the vicious cycle of cost, capability and schedule we’re mired in. Several ASPI authors have addressed the need to pursue the small, the smart and the cheap—autonomous capabilities that can be quickly and inexpensively acquired in numbers. Certainly, development work needs to be done, but the funding required is orders of magnitude less than the $140+ billion naval shipbuilding program.

A key part of Plan B is staring us in the face. The first Arafura-class offshore patrol vessel is due to be delivered soon. The OPV can be enhanced with tailored mixes of anti-ship missiles, towed array sonars, lethal and surveillance drones, and many other capabilities. For less than a tenth of the cost of a Hunter-class frigate, we can get the same surface warfare capability, potentially a decade earlier. Why not keep building them in Adelaide in parallel with the build program in Perth? With the navy’s next new warship not coming for 12 years under the current plan, what have we got to lose?

Article reprinted with permission from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s analysis and commentary site The Strategist.

Marcus Hellyer

Marcus Hellyer is ASPI’s senior analyst for defence economics and capability.