Thursday 20th Sep, 2018

DEFENCE: Frigates… just what are we paying for?

Image: RAN
Image: RAN

FOR those involved in commercial shipping, maritime security is always front of mind. So, the recently announced plans for a new Australian frigate fleet gives me much concern.

Australia is to pay $35bn for nine frigates from BAE Systems. The vessels are to form the basis of the RAN’s anti-submarine capacity. But, this British-designed Hunter-class vessel is still to take to the water and is unproven.

The fundamental mission of frigates is to protect against submarines. Submarines’ most obvious and proven threat is to commercial shipping. Attacking shipping helps starve the enemy country of crucial imports, including military supplies. This was clearly illustrated during both world wars with the attacks on allied convoys by German U-boats in the Atlantic.

Convoys were often handicapped by the slow speed of the oldest cargo vessels, which sailed at around 10 knots, rendering the convoys vulnerable to the much faster submarines that could travel at 20 knots or faster. Often these convoys would suffer more than 50% of losses with terrible loss of life.

To plan ahead, surely we need to take into account the potential technological developments to be adopted by potential adversaries. This certainly includes the speed and ranges of their submarines.

The existing ANZAC frigates are due for replacement after 22 years of service, which I will use as a benchmark. The last of the Hunters will be commissioned in 2042. Allowing for 22 years of service, it would be decommissioned in 2064. This is 46 years after today’s design date.

Are we to assume there will be no technological developments over 46 years that may require a rethink in order to keep the Hunter fleet up to date? Or, will a whole new ballgame develop, requiring radical changes to todays’ thinking? Maybe some entirely different defence technology will be revealed? Wouldn’t it be prudent and in accordance with due diligence to reduce the forward planning frigate orders to the ANZAC benchmark of 22 years, and then take it from there after proper and continuous reviews?

We are advertising full details already now including the new frigates’ 27 knots top speed over all these 46 years. It would be easy for any antagonist to design submarines for say, 35 knots, which would simply enable them to run away from the Hunters. The speed of 27 knots itself seems absurdly low. Future container ships are likely to be larger and faster in order to reduce the unit transport cost, minimise exposure of long transit times and reduce military action exposure times by virtue of being able to ‘run away’ from the submarines.

Danger of the Hunter
Any convoy escorted by Hunters would therefore be severely handicapped by their slow speed, exposing the whole convoy unnecessarily.

The specifications include provision for one only Romeo helicopter. In my experience, defence should always have fall-back duplication of such equipment incorporated from the start, not as a possible option. The cost of a Romeo may be $30m-40m which is only less than 1% of the total frigate unit cost.

It is unclear anywhere what number of Hunters would be required when and for what period? What are the numbers? But if deliveries commence in 2024 with one ship every other year, allowing for 22 years of service, then decommissioning would commence in 2046. In 2056 there would be just three frigates left further reducing up to the final decommission date of 2064. It means that just as the ninth and last frigate is being completed, the first one will be due for decommissioning based on the 22-year ANZAC-class formula.

What then? What replaces the Hunters and over what program? I have asked the government but I cannot get a reply.

The Australian and others state the BAE costs are the highest with Navantia lowest and Fincantieri intermediate. Unless this reporting is in error, the competitors would offer both shorter delivery times and cost advantages.

The BAE type doesn’t even exist, and all the bugs coming with a new model may take a few years to sort, which may hold up the Australian deliveries, a point made by Navy experts quoted in the media.

Workforce Issues
References have been made to the need to keep a workforce of 4000 employed until 2042. Surely this should be balanced against the actual timed needs of the Navy, not to appear as an “employment agency” solution aimed at retaining swinging seats in South Australia. This “unemployment welfare” side of things is surely to follow South Australian tradition and let us have a cost and time blowout of 30% each.

We have such precedents with the bitter experience of the Oberon-class submarines and the design faults of recent large transport additions to the RAN. Then there was the UK RN carrier with an angled bow which we pay for but will never use or need, just a discard from Britain as a kind of oceangoing RAN laughing stock.

Remember the federal minister who said he wouldn’t let SA “even build a canoe”? Why not use the far superior WA facilities with proven records? Ask about party politics, where the billions of taxpayers’ money don’t count where swinging SA seats can be saved.

The government keeps treating the electorate as fools. This entire program needs serious review. Otherwise, we could be faced with an already obsolete $35bn Hunter class half way through entirely unable to do the job.

This article appeared in the August edition of DCN Magazine

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