Future frigates: hasten slowly
19 Jun 2014|

HMAS Perth transits through the Southern Indian Ocean as an Orion P-3K from the Royal New Zealand Air Force searches for debris as part of Operation SOUTHERN INDIAN OCEAN.My colleague Mark Thomson despairs over the prospect of the early replacement of Navy’s Anzac frigates on cost-effectiveness grounds. He’s probably right, but I worry instead about the possibility that the capability implications and project complexity have been underestimated.

Let’s start with the positives of the proposal to develop the Navy’s future frigates around the basic hull and mechanical components of the air-warfare destroyers (their naval designation is DDG) currently under construction. The first—and, in my opinion, the best—reason was well articulated by the Chief of Navy in his ASPI White Ensign Dinner speech, when he pointed out the virtues of commonality of systems across the fleet. For a 52-ship Navy, there’s a surprisingly large number of designers and suppliers in the support network.

Second is the potential for naval shipbuilding to become an ongoing program, rather than a stop/start process. Every new program comes with its own start-up costs, both the direct costs of the people and infrastructure required and the indirect costs of an inexperienced workforce. The AWD/DDG program shows only too clearly how much grief that can cause. By the time a number of ships have been rolled off the line, most of the initial bugs are sorted out and efficient production ensues. By the time the tenth Anzac was launched, production was humming along nicely.

Both of those arguments will stand or fall on the numbers; commonality and continuity aren’t ends in themselves, but ways to achieve economies. For now I’ll leave that to Mark, but I’ll make the point that any economic argument for local shipbuilding should consider through-life costs. The maintenance of Navy’s vessels is almost by definition a local activity, and there’s the possibility of synergies with local construction.

Balanced against those potential advantages is the potential disadvantage of a large scale, long term investment in local naval shipbuilding industry, in which the political stakes lock in a substantial part of the force structure, reducing the discretion future governments have. (Mark and I made this observation in the context of proposed rolling production of submarines.) No doubt Navy and the shipbuilders would love that development, but it’d amount to a long-term bet on the enduring demand for particular platform types.

Turning now to the capability and project management aspects of the recently announced future frigate work:

… preliminary design work … will focus on continued production of the current AWD hull, suitably adapted and utilising capabilities from the cutting-edge Australian companies CEA Technologies Australia and SAAB Combat Systems.

Let’s start with some basics. The seakeeping and stability of the 5,000+ tonne DDGs depends on a number of design factors, not least the distribution of weight in the superstructure and masts. Swapping out many of those systems for new ones isn’t as simple as it sounds. Additionally, the new frigates are intended to be ASW specialists, and will presumably need two helicopters and their associated hangars and support facilities. I’d guess that some of the real estate required will come at the expense of existing DDG systems—maybe the frigates won’t have the full 48-cell vertical launch system? (Though more firepower is always useful.) So a fair proportion of the ship above the waterline will be new.

Those aren’t insurmountable problems, and it’s not beyond the wit of man to modify the existing designs to meet the new requirements. But they won’t be small changes; they’ll exceed the modifications to Navantia’s original design required to produce the Hobart class. If we want continuity at the conclusion of the AWD program, it’d be a challenge to achieve a stable design and the required production engineering in time.

Turning to the systems, the air-defence solution developed for the Anzacs is rightly being proclaimed a success by Navy and the contractors involved. The Saab 9LV combat management system/CEAFAR radar combination is a terrific local innovation. But it doesn’t have some of the features that might otherwise be identified as requirements for the future frigates. For example, the Aegis system on the DDGs is integrated with the Cooperative Engagement Capability which allows the vessel to participate in third-party targeting with other vessels and the Wedgetail AEW&C. While the Anzac air defence solution will provide some capability against ballistic missiles in their terminal phase, if the full range of ballistic missile defence capability is required, the frigates would need sensors with an exo-atmospheric capability and SM3 missiles for the engagement.

Again, those probably aren’t insurmountable problems. But they’d present significant development and systems integration challenges—hence cost and schedule risks. The alternative is to do without those capabilities, which is a reasonable option, but any such trade-offs must be well understood by decision makers. It’s possible that pursuing a ‘quick and easy’ future frigate will prove to be anything but, and it might come with larger than expected capability compromises. One potential approach is a staged development, with two or three early ships being essentially larger Anzacs, and adding more capability into the larger hulls later—that’d certainly be less risky than shooting high from the start.

Andrew Davies is senior analyst for defence capability and director of research at ASPI. Image courtesy of Department of Defence.