Australia’s Hunter-class frigate program must be stopped and redirected
28 Apr 2022|

In 2009, Australia’s government decided that it would replace eight Anzac-class frigates with nine ships optimised for antisubmarine warfare (ASW). There was no justification in the Royal Australian Navy capstone doctrine for acquiring and optimising a frigate for ASW, which it regarded as among the most difficult of naval operations to be conducted and most effectively performed using submarines and aircraft. General-purpose ships can contribute to ASW, but their primary tasks are air defence, anti-shipping and land attack, and command and control at sea. Soon, this can be expected to include serving as controlling nodes for unmanned vehicles of various types.

Powerful and survivable large surface combatants, in numbers commensurate with the expected threat and national budgetary limitations, remain central in the order of battle of any navy of a middle power such as Australia, but they need to be fit for purpose.

There were three contenders for what became the Hunter frigate program. The Italian FREMM was already in service. Spain’s Navantia offered a derivative of the Hobart class, known as the F-5000, proposing an extended flight deck, two hangars and an integrated mast to carry the CEA radar. The third design, the BAE Systems Type 26, was incomplete, but the first ship for the Royal Navy had commenced construction. Navantia’s offering carried the lowest technical risk, but the FREMM, and much more so the Type 26, would need considerable modification to equip it with the RAN’s sensibly mandated changes. Those included the US Navy Aegis combat system, which was to be integrated with a new Australian-developed advanced phased-array radar, the US Standard missile system, Australian-specified communications systems and USN helicopters.

In 2018, Australia selected the Type 26, of which the Hunter will be a derivative. BAE Systems had never integrated a US combat system into its RN ship designs. Defence described important aspects of the risk as extreme.

With an estimated displacement of 10,000 tonnes, it will be the RAN’s most numerous and largest, but least well-armed, surface combatant. Not including deck-mounted launchers, it will have 32 missile cells, which is 16 fewer than the smaller Hobart class with 48, and 64 less than the USN DDG-51 (a ship slightly smaller than the Hunter) with 96. The Hunter will operate a single helicopter with space to carry a second, versus two for the DDG-51. China’s Type 055 destroyer is about 12,000 tonnes and has 136 cells and two helicopters.

From 2016 to mid-2020, the cost of the future frigate program increased from an estimated $30 billion to $45.6 billion, and further increases are likely. Some $6.26 billion has been contracted to convert the ostensibly mature design, but the schedule has slipped by at least 18 months. In raw terms, the approximate cost of a missile cell in the nine-ship Hunter class will be $158 million, compared to about $31 million per cell for 10 ships of the now building DDG-51 Flight III. The Hunter’s crew is forecast to be 180, versus the 329 of a DDG-51, but nonetheless it will take three Hunters to deliver the same firepower as a single DDG-51 and require 211 extra crew.

In 2013, the government expected that its future surface combatant would provide an option to conduct strategic strike. In 2021, that option was exercised through the announced acquisition of the Tomahawk missile system, which will be fitted to the Hobart class. The Hunters could also be fitted but they don’t have enough cells to carry a lethal load. They will also be capable of contributing to a future ballistic missile defence role, but once again there are insufficient cells.

Regardless of how naval warfare evolves, the more missiles you carry, the better the odds of success. A misguided emphasis on optimisation for ASW operations has resulted in Australia choosing a ship unsuited for its needs. A change of direction is needed.

My new ASPI report, The Hunter frigate: an assessment, released today, recommends that the Hunter frigate program in its current form be stopped and redirected.

Agreement should be reached with the US government to construct in Australia nine ships of the USN DDG-51 Flight III destroyer, integrating the Australian phased-array radar.

If negotiations with the US aren’t expeditious, a further three or four ships of the Hobart class already in service with the RAN should commence construction as soon as possible, using as much as possible of the combat systems and other equipment already being procured for the Hunter class. Wherever possible, the construction should be to the original design and not incur the risks of modifications.

A longer term program of collaboration with the US should be commenced to join its new DDG(X) program (integrating the Australian radar), potentially timing Australia’s entry into that program as the end of life of the first of the Hobart class is being approached.

Australia’s naval shipbuilding industry should be provided with multi-decade planning information necessary for its proper preparation to deliver the required ships and submarines to the RAN. The industry should plan for and then build those ships to be constructed in remediation of the Hunter program.

The RAN’s future ships and submarines programs should be mandated to be built by Australian-owned prime contractors, using overseas designers and systems as needed, and to incorporate Australian industrial content judged necessary to sustain that industry by an arrangement involving the RAN and industry and approved by the government.

Long-term planning, in the order of 30 years, should be implemented by the RAN, which should provide a clear and publicly available articulation of when its large and small combatants and submarines will reach the ends of their lives. This will include announcing when replacements will be sought in a timely manner in advance of their retirement. The public will similarly be given lengthy notice of intended changes to the composition of the RAN’s fleet.

These plans should be approved annually by government.

The arrangements for the overall management of Australia’s sovereign shipbuilding program should be adjusted to ensure maximum control by the government over the choice of its naval platforms and the fostering of its associated supply chains.