Corvettes and the RAN surface fleet debate
8 Aug 2023|

Last month, in my article ‘To corvette or to not corvette: the defence strategic review and the Tier 2 surface combatant’, I outlined some of the debates and one specific option for the independent analysis team of the Royal Australian Navy’s surface fleet to consider. Rowan Moffitt has provided an insightful and robust response. While his points about range and firepower are important, his argument overlooks some key issues about the strategic and capability realities we face.

In reply, I want to make one thing exceptionally clear—my argument boiled down to this: to meet the defence strategic review’s requirement for an enhanced-lethality surface fleet, minimally armed offshore patrol vessels and patrol boats won’t cut it. Instead, Defence should consider replacing the OPV build with a fleet of much more capable combatants, and a corvette or light frigate option should be seriously looked at.

To meet the DSR’s speed-to-capability imperative and the requirement for a large number of smaller vessels, I noted that the Luerssen C90 corvette should be considered. I made the point that, based on the Luerssen data sheet, in a range of areas the C90 may well provide a capability similar to or better than (16 versus 8 vertical launch cells, for instance) the current Anzac-class frigates. Given the lethality requirement, missile capabilities are important and small ships can pack a punch. Russian corvettes of just 1,000 to 2,000 tons’ displacement, for example, carry Kalibr cruise missiles with a 900-mile range.

Moffitt’s argument about off-the-shelf options is well made, but I’m yet to see a corvette, frigate or destroyer option in service that meets the RAN’s needs. The question then becomes more about minimal modifications or about trade-offs to achieve a minimal viable capability in the shortest possible time. The suitability of the Seahawk helicopters for the C90 also needs to be offset by questions about how much capability a corvette or light frigate needs. Is it a lily pad, a short-term host for a large helicopter with minimal armament and maintenance options? Or is there a requirement (as opposed to a want) for a full Seahawk capability on a small surface combatant?

All these debates come back to fundamental trade-off questions that revolve around all capabilities. It serves to highlight that there are no easy options for the RAN’s surface fleet no matter which way we turn.

To be crystal clear, I never argued that a C90 could or should replace the Anzacs—the current, and much troubled, Hunter-class frigate program has been put forward as their replacement (and that is a whole other debate).

In essence, Moffitt’s argument is for a larger number of larger vessels: it’s an all-big-gun proposal. The demand for larger surface combatants has long been a feature of the debate over the RAN’s post–World War II surface fleet mix. The failed destroyer light program and the precarious Hunter frigate program are two key examples. The Hunter, whose design is still not complete, has apparently grown to more than 11,000 tonnes. In the past, that would have put it in the weight class of a heavy cruiser rather than a frigate.

A larger number of larger vessels also does little to meet the DSR’s requirement for the navy to provide a much greater regional presence in the age of strategic competition. And it does little in the face of the reality of the navy’s acute workforce crisis.

Such an approach also overlooks the need for a fleet balance that reflects a broad range of tasks required of the RAN and the fact that, as history has shown, in times of major conflict demand for smaller vessels is significantly higher. To provide just one example, Australia built 60 Bathurst-class corvettes in World War II: 56 for the RAN and four for the Royal Indian Navy. This reality doesn’t, though, overlook the need for major surface combatants and the long lead time it takes to build them, but serves to highlight the utility of these smaller vessels.

In relation to his assessment of the littorals and archipelagos to our north, Moffitt’s approach echoes a call for a focus on sea control via an everything, everywhere, all at once approach. His characterisation of blue- and brown-water combatants overlooks the fact that, of course, the RAN will need some platforms that can operate in blue water, but also that these vessels are not optimised for and not always ideally suited to operations in archipelagos. Given the fact that the DSR identifies these archipelagos as the key maritime terrain, it only stands to reason that consideration should be given to platforms that are ideally suited for such an operating environment.

A focus on so-called blue-water vessels also does little to enhance the focus on asymmetric denial and overlooks the development of the Australian Defence Force as an integrated force, the increasing role of airpower and (especially) land power for sea-denial operations in a maritime environment, and the DSR’s requirement for the ADF to develop asymmetric capabilities.

While we disagree in some areas, there’s significant merit in a number of Moffitt’s arguments, including the need for major surface combatants with requisite firepower, but his article offers little in the way of answers to the dilemmas that the RAN’s surface fleet faces. Pivoting to building only US ships such as the Arleigh Burke–class destroyer is simply not feasible given the time, cost and other factors—something that the DSR makes abundantly clear and Moffitt highlights. It also overlooks the effectiveness of European designs, such as the German MEKO 200 frigate (the base design for the Anzacs) and the fact that the next batch of US frigates, the Constellation class, is being developed by Fincantieri, whose FREMM frigate was named as one of the two most viable designs for Australia’s future frigate by the Defence Capability and Investment Committee (the other was Navantia’s modified F100).

Moffitt and I certainly also agree on some key issues, including that we need to build ships that meet our needs as closely as possible and that preferably already incorporate the combat-related systems we operate now, that chopping and changing wastes time and money, and that firepower is key.

But perhaps to push this debate further, we should be considering other, more asymmetric options. One potential way to address the firepower issue and enhance the capability of the existing fleet, especially our Hobart-class air warfare destroyers, may well lie in options currently under development such as Austal’s autonomous Spearhead-class EPF (expeditionary fast transport) or Lockheed Martin’s OUSV (optionally unmanned surface vessel).

Austal has promoted a version of its current EPF equipped with 96 vertical launch cells, while the Lockheed Martin proposal uses the Mark 41 vertical launching system hidden in 40-foot shipping containers. Both options would significantly increase the RAN’s firepower at a relatively low cost compared with building new major surface combatants (the money would have to come from somewhere, though). The attachment of, for instance, a 96-cell autonomous EPF to a Hobart or Hunter would radically alter its firepower—something well worth debating for the wicked problem that is the RAN’s surface fleet mix.