The long awaited announcement on the construction of nine new frigates for the Royal Australian Navy has been postponed as the Australian cabinet debates last minute changes to incorporate additional shipyards into the contract.
The project, codenamed SEA5000, currently has three major competitors. BAE Systems with the British designed Type 26, Fincantieri with the Italian FREMM and Navantia with an updated version of the Spanish F100. The nine frigates are expected to start replacing the current Anzac class vessels from the late 2020s.
Media speculation in Australia suggests that BAE are the current favourite. There are indications that a win for BAE with the $35 billion contract could push Australia to the top of the list for a Free Trade Agreement with the UK after Brexit. It is also believed a deal with the frigates and FTA could lead to further arms sales including exporting Thales’ Bushmaster vehicles to the British Army.
A successful export to Australia would also be viewed as a sign of confidence in the Type 26 program on the international market, with the Canadian government also actively considering the design as part of its Canadian Surface Combatant program.
The Australian announcement had been scheduled for last week but has been delayed following the exclusion of Western Australian shipyard Austal from the offshore patrol vessel contract. It is believed that Western Australian MPs are keen for Austal to be involved in the frigate contract instead to prevent any issues with manufacturing job losses in the lead up to the upcoming federal election.
Austal has been one of Australia’s most successful shipbuilding firms in recent years. They have been responsible for the Armidale and Cape class patrol vessels used by the Royal Australian Navy and are currently building the Guardian class vessels under the replacement Pacific patrol boats program. They have also been involved in the design for the US Navy’s catamarans of the Independence and Spearhead classes.
Despite a successful track record, last month they were cut from the $3 billion contract to build twelve new offshore patrol vessels after negotiations with the German firm Lürssen broke down. Lürssen’s design won the contract in November 2017 following an international competition which included a downsized version of the Independence class offered by Austal.
Speaking to ABC News Defence Industry Minister Christopher Pyne would not be drawn on the reasons for the delay or whether negotiations with Austal were underway.
“The Government has said that we will make an announcement about the successful tenderer in mid this year which is June and July,” Mr Pyne said.
“We will definitely do that. If any of the successful tenderers wish to subcontract to Australian shipbuilders like Austal, we’re perfectly open to them doing so but that is a matter for the successful tender.”