As ASPI’s Future Surface Fleet conference draws closer, we take a look at the three design options, some of the international design contenders and the debate around the build location for Australia’s future frigate under project SEA 5000. Defence is planning to seek first pass approval to conduct a tender process around 2019–2020. With the eight Anzac-class frigates scheduled for decommissioning in the mid-2020s, debates about the future frigate’s design and build location are rife.
It’s likely that the future frigates will be larger than the Anzacs, and will be designed ‘with a strong emphasis on submarine detection and response operations’. As ASW platforms they’ll be equipped with an integrated sonar suite with long-range active towed-array sonar, a maritime-based land-attack cruise missile capability, and be capable of embarking both naval combat helicopters and maritime UAVs.
But what of the design options? In its Keeping Major Naval Ship Acquisitions on Course study, RAND has determined that there are three routes the Government could take to replace the Anzac-class frigates.
The first is the pure military off-the-shelf (MOTS) option—the procurement of an existing foreign design, built either offshore or domestically. The second is the new design option, building a new class of ships designed specifically for SEA 5000. The third option is evolved MOTS, whereby an existing frigate design would be appropriated by the Royal Australian Navy, and then built mostly or entirely in Australia.
The pure MOTS and evolved MOTS options have been previously utilized by RAN: in the procurement and later upgrade processes for Oberon-class submarines, which originally came from the UK, and the Anzacs themselves, which were based on the German Meko-class. For SEA 5000 the first international option is the British Type 26 Global Combat Ship. The Type 26 was designed by BAE systems with the goal of undertaking the Royal British Navy’s three core roles for their workhorse frigate fleet: ‘warfighting, maritime security and international engagement—on the world stage’. This frigate is currently being developed by BAE and the UK Ministry of Defence, and has been designed to be able to accommodate systems specific to prospective international partners of the UK. With the first of these vessels beginning service in 2021, the development timeline of the Type 26 fits nicely with RAN’s needs.
The second is the FREMM European Multi-Mission Frigate, which is currently under construction for the French and Italian navies. Designed by France’s DCNS and Italy’s Fincantieri, these vessels are scheduled for delivery from 2013 through 2021. By including a ‘silent mode’ that enables the frigates to engage in anti-submarine warfare operations, the FREMM frigates address one of the key concerns of the 2012 Defence Capability Guide.
The third and fourth options on the table are both designed by German firm ThyssenKrupp and built by Blohm+Voss; the Meko 600-class Escort Frigate, and the Class 125 Frigate. The Meko 600 is described as being ‘particularly suited for blue water escort of high value assets and the defence of national offshore key points.’ There’d be some continuity benefits, with the new frigates sharing some design philosophy with the Anzacs. The Class 125 is currently under construction for the German military, and it’s claimed that the vessels can be deployed for up to two years before needing to return to the home base. They’ll be delivered to the German Navy between 2016 and 2018.
For the Australian polity though, there’s also the question of where the future frigates will be built. While the pure- and evolved MOTS options have the potential to be less costly and more time efficient for RAN, there’s always the chance that by taking one of these, they won’t be built in Australia for reasons of efficiency. The new design route offers more opportunity to grow and sustain Australian ship design and construction resources.
In a June 2014 announcement detailing the timeline for the future frigate fleet, then-Minister for Defence David Johnston commented that building in Australia was merely an ‘option’—despite the widespread assumption that the vessels would be built locally, as ASPI’s Mark Thomson discusses here. However, as ASPI’s Andrew Davies points out, although RAN and Australian shipbuilding companies may push for an Australian build, the decision to build domestically would ‘amount to a long-term bet on the enduring demand for particular platform types’. Thus, as Thomson commented, it’s important that the government maintains an ‘open, orderly and transparent competition’ for the SEA 5000 project.
For a deeper look at these issues and more, be sure to register here for ASPI’s Future Surface Fleet conference, to be held at the Hyatt Hotel Canberra from 30 March to 1 April. The conference will feature a stellar line-up of international and Australian speakers. Last year’s conference on submarines was a sell-out, so make sure you don’t miss this year’s.
Amelia Long is an intern at ASPI. Image courtesy of Flickr user Horatio J. Kookaburra.