Very soon, the Australian government is expected to have picked a derivative of BAE’s Type 26 (designated GCS-A), Navantia’s F100 (F5000) or Fincantieri’s FREMM to be the Royal Australian Navy’s future frigate under project SEA5000.
This article was contributed by Australia based Ross White-Chinnery.
The winning design must be first-off a good ASW ship, ideally with hanger capacity for two SH-60R helicopters. The Australian CEAFAR2 radar, Aegis combat system matched with Australian designed consoles and strike length Mk-41 VLS are a stated requirement so AAW capability is not a major point of competition, though the recent decision to include ballistic missile defence capability may favour the F5000’s large VLS capacity. More on that point below.
This competition is however more than the usual warship beauty pageant. SEA5000 along with projects SEA1180 (OPV) and SEA1000 (Future Submarine) forms part of a broader plan to put Australian shipbuilding on a sustainable footing out to mid-century.
Australia has a long history of building ships domestically, usually from foreign designs modified to the RAN’s requirements. As is the story in many other countries however, the Australian shipbuilding industry’s fortunes have waxed and waned with the cycle between major navy projects. The only export or civilian shipbuilding of any significance in the country being confined to fast ferry specialists Austal of Henderson, Western Australia and Tasmania’s InCat.
As in the UK, local political sensitivities are also a factor. Under project SEA4000 modules for the Hobart class destroyers were built by yards around the country, being consolidated at ASC’s yard at Osborne, near Adelaide in South Australia. Under SEA5000 however it is expected all major fabrication and certainly all assembly will be done at Osborne. The terms of the competition do not compel bidders to work with ASC, but they are obliged to locate the work at Osborne. The decline of manufacturing in South Australia, recently punctuated by the exit of all major car manufacturers, has put immense pressure on all sides of politics to be conspicuous in their support the state’s other remaining major manufacturing industry.
With the so-called “Valley of Death” looming after the completion of the Hobart class, a sense of urgency has been injected into the acquisition process. The design must be able to meet the needs of the RAN out to mid-century, yet also sufficiently mature for the first steel cut to happen by 2020.
With the above in mind, let us look at the contenders as if we were a procurement manager. What do we see?
This is the most promising ship from an ASW standpoint, but a harder sell as the UK doesn’t have a completed example to show off yet. It is also likely to be the most expensive.
However, it is also the newest and largest of the three designs. This is no small thing given that the ships produced under SEA5000 can be expected to form the backbone of the RAN’s surface combatant force into the second half of this century. It would be remiss of us not to consider where each offering is currently at in its design life, as well as its capacity to grow and adapt in what is likely to be a period of significant and rapid technological change.
In this regard the feature of the Type 26 design that really differentiates it from its rivals is the large mission bay amidships which opens both port and starboard, and aft to form a continuous space with the barn-like hanger. The significance of this is not to be underestimated. Far more than a glorified stores room it should be viewed as part of the ship’s fighting capability. From this space can be deployed USVs with lightweight fibre-optic towed array sonar in support of the ships core ASW role; or for surface reconnaissance, hydrography and mine counter measures in support of an expeditionary force.
From an industrial point of view, BAE benefits from significant presence and a long history in-country having expanded in Australia through acquisition of several local firms. Indeed, BAE Systems Australia is now the largest “local” defence company. BAE benefits particularly from their ownership of two yards in Australia: one at Williamstown in Victoria, and a facility at the Australian Maritime Complex in Henderson not far from Austal’s headquarters. Though the political impetus for the entire build to be done at Osbourne precludes significant utilisation of these yards, having this in-house cadre of skilled local personnel (many of whom have worked on previous RAN projects) can do BAE’s bid no harm at all.
BAE gets another tick on systems integration with key systems like the Mk 45 gun (not mandated, but likely preferred) and Mk.41 VLS already part of base Type 26 design. Even though it will be the first time these have been incorporated into a British warship, they will be old friends to BAE staff at Williamstown and Henderson who respectively built and upgraded the Anzac class frigates.
Likewise, Aegis has never previously been integrated on a British ship. This task is however more in the hands of Lockheed Martin, CEA Technologies and Saab Systems Australia than BAE. In any case BAE as an organisation is not totally bereft of experience with Aegis ships with the US subsidiary having performed modernisation of several Ticonderoga class cruisers for the US Navy.
The Australian government’s drive for defence exports has not gone unnoticed by the UK either with the British government to study the use of CEAFAR in future RN ships. The obvious implication being that the second batch of City class frigates could take after their Australian sisters – should they be built.
The Italian ASW-focused variant of the FREMM known as the Virginio Fasan class is very good at what it does. Something we know because the Italians sent one over to show the RAN what it can do, and according to all public accounts it did so impressively.
The main questions regarding Fincantieri’s bid will likely centre around systems integration. Notwithstanding the Italian-derived design of the Freedom class LCS built by Fincantieri-owned Marinette Marine, the Italians stopped putting American weapons on their own ships a long time ago. Furthermore, apart from a speculative model of a FREMM fitted with SPY-1 radars, neither Fincantieri nor any other Italian firm has to this author’s knowledge had any involvement with a project requiring Aegis integration. The Lockheed Martin COMBATSS-21 system fitted to the LCS is however part of the Aegis “pedigree”.
A point of interest is that rather than adapting the design to mount the Mk.45 127mm Fincantieri seems to be pushing a design with two Strales mounts, the latest version of the OTO-Melara 76mm, specifically designed to fire guided rounds. Given the Marina Militare’s is happy mount a 127mm weapon on their GP designated FREMMs, one wonders if on the ASW variant a 127mm in the “A” gun position, rather far forward on the FREMM’s somewhat crowded foredeck, is a little more proximate to the sonar not far beneath it than is ideal.
They might also consider a bit of history: the Anzac class frigates SEA5000 will replace were originally to carry the old OTO-Melara 76mm but this was changed to the US Mk-45 127mm weapon at the Army’s insistence. The Anzacs were replacing all then currently serving ships with medium calibre guns thus leaving the RAN with no ship capable of providing shore bombardment unless that capability was put on the Anzacs. The absence of a 127mm weapon on the SEA5000 would leave the trio of Hobart class destroyers the only ships capable of fire support
Perhaps it is reasoned on the MM and RAN’s shared emphasis on AA capability which comes from both services’ main areas of operation falling well within range of shore-based aircraft. Whatever the reasoning, it should be questioned whether it is the best use of the bid team’s time to burden them with having to sell a customer on a new weapon system (along with the associated training and logistics overheads) when they really need to be pushing the exceptional qualities of the platform and the benefits of the industrial package on offer.
That industrial package is nothing to sneeze at either. Prior to the SEA5000 bid Fincantieri had no in-country presence in Australia but are working hard to remedy the situation. Through their newly established local subsidiary the company anticipates a share of fabrication work on Fincantieri’s civilian order book being done in Australia.
On first impression, this seems to be both favourite and underdog at same time. Navantia’s recent track record in Australia has been overwhelming, and they are bidding a ship they have already succeeded in selling to Australia once before. Yet doubt hovers over the Spanish contender for it is the oldest of the three and the only one that is not a “native” ASW ship.
It is not known if F5000 is proposed with electric drive. The absence of this feature would be a significant disadvantage vis FREMM and T26. On the other hand, it potentially introduces a point of technical risk that undermine their key selling point of design maturity. Worse still, none of ships with electric drive Navantia has built previously is a high performance ASW escort.
However, the Hobart is a much better ASW ship than the original F-100 and it is Hobart that the F5000 design is building upon. Furthermore, the Australian force context may not require absolute maximum possible ASW capability achievable in the surface platform component. With the UK’s poverty of other ASW assets the RN cannot afford anything less than the best possible ASW ships it can get. The future Australian ASW force however will consist of nearly twice as many P-8s, eventually to be joined by nearly twice as many attack subs as the RN is ever likely to have again.
In any case SEA5000 is required to be more than just an ASW ship. High level AAW and BMD capability on 6000-7000 tonne hull was anticipated for the Anzac class replacement as far back as the 2009 Defence White Paper. F5000 inherits the 48 VLS cells of F-100 which should be just about enough to take a few SM-3s for the BMD role while still having space for a decent load of other weapons. The type 26 and FREMM designs for Australia have both been modelled with 32 Mk.41 cells. The type 26 could likely fit another two eight tube modules to match F5000, though the FREMM already looks a little crowded at the front. (Here we might recall that the RAN had originally wanted a ship with 96 VLS cells.)
As a direct derivative of the Hobart class F5000 is more than just familiar hull. It would run on the same Navantia/SAGE Automation integrated platform management system as the Hobarts, Canberra class LHDs and Supply class replenishment ships. This is probably the most important point in terms of day-to-day operability of the ship from a sailor’s perspective. It means smoother transfers between units and less retraining. For the navy it means savings from being able to consolidate multiple training streams.
It is worth considering that Navantia and Australia are at this point very much known quantities to each other. The difficulties with both the Hobart and Canberra classes are well known, and the decision to send the replenishment ship build overseas, again to Navantia, was met with some bitterness in Australia. Despite this, indeed because of it, Navantia is a company which we now have a much-improved long term working relationship across three classes of ship.
The choice of Aegis as the combat system for SEA5000 further plays to Navantia’s strengths. They have built ten Aegis ships at Ferrol and been closely involved with another three at Osbourne. They have done more work around Aegis than anyone else outside the US and smooth integration of specified weapons systems should be almost a given. There is no system in the specifications Navantia is unfamiliar with other than the radar and that is just as unfamiliar to Fincantieri. BAE will however enjoy some insight on this point having installed the CEAFAR X-band medium range search and S-band fire control arrays on the Anzac class and will soon be receiving those ships back at Henderson to add the L-band long range search array in place of the old SPS-49 2D radar.
Navantia are offering to make Australia the design authority for F5000 and Hobart. This tunes their bid well to the government’s export ambitions. In fact, Navantia already has CEA Technologies, SAGE and SAAB Systems Australia signed up for their bid on the Canadian frigate project.
We have a very tight schedule to navigate between design selection and first steel cut in 2020. Navantia’s hull has already gone through Australian engineering standards compliance – that is one very big and time-consuming job that doesn’t have to be done on this ship which does on the other two. This is no less a consideration than the freshness of the type 26 design.
In summary, Australian choice for SEA5000 must somehow balance all the usual near-term cost and capability considerations with choosing a platform that will be relevant through a period of rapid technological change while also satisfying conflicting political imperatives for the build to begin as soon as possible and for the project to play its part in ensuring the long-term sustainability of shipbuilding in Australia. Piece of cake.