Hunter-class frigate report indicates Australian naval shipbuilding in disarray
2 Feb 2022|

The latest revelations about the Royal Australian Navy’s Hunter-class frigates confirm much of what we knew about the problems besetting the program, but add a level of granularity far beyond the general admissions made by Defence Department officials at earlier Senate committee hearings.

This new evidence is contained in the system design review exit report written by the Hunter program’s own engineering team in November 2021. It’s coming from the coal face and is as close to the ground truth as you can get.

A system design review is a key milestone that is meant to demonstrate that the project will meet the system’s requirements—or, in other words, that the elements of the ship make a coherent whole that will deliver the capability the navy seeks.

Unfortunately, the exit report indicates that the design is far from coherent. We’ve known that the substantial modifications that Defence imposed on what was an immature design to start with have driven substantial problems. First among these is a growth in the size of the vessel from around 8,000 tonnes to over 10,000 tonnes. The laws of physics mean that if you increase the size of the vessel by 25% without increasing the power plant, performance will suffer. The exit report puts some detail around that, stating that ‘maximum speed will be lower than comparable RAN surface combatants’ and the vessel will face ‘increased fuel consumption and running costs’.

Lack of power also has a direct impact on warfighting capability, with the commander needing to ‘prioritise power allocation to either the CEAFAR2 radar or the propulsion system depending on the ship’s operational requirements’. In the middle of a fight when you need to go fast and run your radar at full power to detect incoming missiles, you can’t do both. The list of problems goes on, suggesting that ultimately a feasible ship design may not be possible.

The future frigate selection process was meant to pick a mature design that was in the water and in service. Instead, it picked an immature design as its reference ship (the UK’s Type 26 frigate) that had barely started construction and was far from being in the water, let alone in service. The government also agreed to five major changes to the design, including installing the Australian-made CEAFAR radar and the US Aegis combat system. There’s no such thing as a completely off-the-shelf warship design, but the point of picking a mature, in-service design is to minimise changes and the technical and schedule risks that accompany them. Instead, the path Defence has taken has generated risks that are now being realised.

One key irony is that the now-cancelled Attack-class submarine program had completed its system functional review—a milestone further along the design path than the system design review—and was ready to commence detailed design. In essence, the Attack class was considerably more mature than the Hunter and its technical, cost and schedule risks better understood.

Senior Defence leaders are predictably saying that solutions to the Hunter’s design problem are well underway. However, Defence’s assurances have minimal credibility in the shipbuilding space. For years Defence assured Senate committees that the Attack class would provide a regionally superior capability throughout its life, yet after the cancellation the prime minister stated that the Attack class would have been obsolete almost the minute it went in the water and ‘we formed the very strong view, the unanimous view of all the Chiefs of our services and Defence Force, that this was a capability that was not going to meet our needs’.

So, where does that all leave us? The delays in the Hunter program mean that the start of construction has slid from 2020 to 2022 and now to 2024, with the exit review warning of further possible delays. At the business end of the project, initial operational capability—when the first vessel is ready to fight—is now 2034. Even the most optimistic view of the nuclear submarine program doesn’t see it delivering any capability any earlier than that, and unless AUKUS finds a way to short circuit usual project timelines, it could be considerably later.

The government’s $575 billion expenditure on defence in the 2020s, which includes $270 billion on new capability, will not get any frontline warships to sea this decade and likely none until the middle of next decade. Meanwhile, the Anzac and Collins fleets will need to serve on into the 2040s, hopefully (but not assuredly) ageing gracefully. But if the brand-new Attack class wasn’t going to be the undersea warfare capability we need, it’s hard to see the 40-year-old Collins providing it.

The RAN’s entire warfighting capability is at risk.

We simply can’t afford to cross our fingers and hope that Defence can sort out the problems in the Hunter-class program. Even if it can, the capability it delivers is too little, too late, at too great a cost—and may be irrelevant in the face of future threats. ASPI and others have suggested alternative and complementary courses of action, from building more of the proven Hobart-class air warfare destroyers, to arming the Arafura-class offshore patrol vessels (which don’t even have a main gun) with anti-ship missiles, to investing more heavily in lethal uncrewed and autonomous systems, to acquiring strike systems such as the B-21 bomber.

So far, Defence’s focus has doubled down on the shipbuilding program; indeed, the SSN program is sucking even more people and attention into that space. But anybody with a basic familiarity with crew resource management will tell you that if everybody in the cockpit focuses on the flashing red light on the panel in front of them, the aeroplane will fly into a mountain.