The debate on SEA 5000 to date has focused on capability to engage in high intensity naval combat, likely as part of a taskforce, with some capacity to lob a few land attack missiles into terrorist hideouts to contribute to the War on Terror. That has limited consideration to traditional frigate designs and excluded flexible vessels, such as the Danish Absalon class, which has the warfighting capacity and size required by the Royal Australian Navy (RAN), but with flexibility beyond that of the three leading contenders to provide a multirole platform for the missions the Navy undertakes on a regular basis.
RAN hasn’t fought traditional naval combat since World War II. In the last 70 years, the Navy’s guns have only been fired in support of land forces or across the bows of illegal fishing boats—it has never fired missiles in anger. While it should prudently prepare for major combat operations, greater emphasis should be put on flexible capacity to meet the broader range of peacetime mission requirements that RAN is engaged in.
RAN’s mission is ‘to fight and win in the maritime environment as an element of a joint or combined force. To assist in maintaining Australia’s sovereignty and to contribute to the security of our region’. While defending the nation is the most important role of our defence forces, for most of their lives, our warships are in non-warfighting operations.
In my view, beyond warfighting, RAN’s three main missions should be:
- Maritime enforcement; including border protection/sovereignty assurance, sanctions enforcement, counter piracy operations and fisheries patrols.
- Support for land forces; including logistics, afloat support, fire support and potentially providing anti-aircraft cover.
- Furthering Australia’s national interests; including multinational exercises, freedom of navigation exercises, disaster relief, maritime enforcement on behalf of our neighbours and assisting Australian citizens overseas where required.
To work towards achieving those roles, a multirole vessel is the best solution for SEA 5000. The warfighting capability of the Absalon, including flexible mix of Harpoon and Evolved Sea Sparrow missiles, five-inch gun, two embarked helicopters (Seahawk Romeo and/or MRH-90 and capacity to land a Chinook), landing craft, and its flex deck provide for many missions from one platform.
The current design would meet a MOTS solution, but I propose some modifications. First, adding a towed-array sonar module deployable from the stern ramp. A small redesign could replace the current landing craft with two larger CB-90 boats, better suited to troop insertion and boarding operations. Those could be swapped with LCVPs if required to provide a limited over the beach insertion of cargo and light vehicles. An elevator between the flex deck and helo deck would facilitate cargo transfer and provide additional capacity for UAVs. Finally, some consideration should be given to greater engine power, although the current 24 knots top speed is sufficient for most missions.
The Australian Absalons could be the Swiss Army knives of the sea. In addition to a Seahawk Romeo and MRH-90, the flex deck could routinely host a medical module, special forces equipment, disaster relief supplies, assorted light plant and vehicles.
Consider a scenario where a cyclone hits a neighbour. The airport is damaged so the RAAF can’t land. The Absalon is the first responder and provides food, water, shelter and medical assistance to the population and deploys a team to repair the airport.
In another scenario, an armed group takes a merchant ship. They could be terrorists or pirates. The Australian Absalon and an allied frigate close on the stricken ship, but alas, the frigate’s missiles and electronics are of little use in this situation.
Within 24 hours a squadron of SAS troopers parachute from a C-17 into the sea alongside the Australian ship and are collected by its boats. Drawing additional gear stored on board, the SAS plan and execute an assault on the merchant vessel. Two troops come alongside in CB-90s and RHIBs and scale the side of the ship while a half troop fast ropes from the MRH-90. Overhead, the Seahawk provides top cover with a sniper and machine gun.
Within ten minutes the ship is reclaimed and the hostages are in the medical bay. A political decision is taken to strike the armed group’s home base and the following night 40 SAS troopers deploy by CB-90 and patrol towards the base. A dozen land attack Harpoons strike key points in the base, punctuated by Hellfires from the Seahawk, signalling the ground force assault, supported by a further 20 troopers alighting from the MRH-90. Enemy resistance is neutralised with assistance from further Hellfires and GPS guided five-inch rounds.
And within an hour, the base is destroyed, prisoners are taken and the troops are on their way back to base.
Those scenarios demonstrate that a flexible frigate option should be in the mix for SEA 5000 to give the government of the day greater options in times of crisis. If the Navy insists on major warfighting pre-eminence then perhaps a mixed fleet of Absalon types and traditional frigates is the answer, just like the Danes have.