Anzac 3600 tonne class frigates life-of-type currently expires in the mid-2020s (photo : Raul Moreno)
THE notoriously long gestation period of a major military capability means considerable effort has already been directed at the so-called Future Frigate that will replace the RAN’s eight Anzac-class workhorses sometime in the next decade.
Although the Sea 5000 program has yet to complete the requirements definition phase, there has been no shortage of debate on capability and construction issues within both Defence and industry — until recently.
One-on-one discussions in Sydney last year between Defence’s Capability Development Group and major industry players were to have been followed by a strong Defence team visiting ship designers in Europe and possibly the US.
However, that visit has been cancelled and industry informed that no further developments can be expected until after publication next year of the Defence white paper and its accompanying defence capability plan.
According to the 2012 DCP, the eight Future Frigates first proposed in the 2009 Defence white paper will be larger than the 3600 tonne Anzacs and will be designed and equipped with an emphasis on anti-submarine warfare.
6000 tonne Type 26 Global Combat Ship frigate (image : BAE Systems)
Collaboration at expert level is already under way with Britain on assessing the desirability of the Royal Navy’s Type 26 frigate, also known as the Global Combat Ship, as a Sea 5000 option. The Type 26 has been designed by BAE Systems with the potential to accommodate systems specific to the requirements of prospective international partners.
Certainly the timing of Type 26 development fits in with Australian requirements: the first of class will enter service with the Royal Navy around 2021, while Anzac life-of-type currently expires in the mid-2020s.
Another platform option is the FREMM European multi-role frigate under construction for the French and Italian navies. Italian shipbuilder Fincantieri has been active in Canberra promoting the merits of the slightly larger (at 144m and 6500 tonnes) and more capable Italian variant — as well as stressing the company’s ability to provide replacements for the RAN’s Armidale-class patrol boats and replenishment ships.
Other platforms of potential interest include the 7200-tonne Blohm and Voss F125 currently under development for the German navy, the Meko 600 escort frigate, the Norwegian navy’s 4600-tonne F310 Fridtjof Nansen-class anti-submarine frigates (built in Spain by Navantia, designer of the RAN’s Hobart-class Air Warfare Destroyers), and a possible development by Navantia of the Air Warfare Destroyer hull configured for ASW — an option understood to be gaining traction.
Fincantieri’s 6500 tonnes multi-mission frigate (photo : The Australian)
Australian shipbuilder Austal has also flagged its interest, drawing on its expertise in the design and construction by its US subsidiary of aluminium-hulled trimaran multi-role Littoral Combat Ships for the US Navy.
“What the customer wants is a lot of ASW frigate that can carry two helicopters with two hangars, anti-air to cover some level of area defence to help protect high-value units, and a land-attack capability,” says a senior industry source.
“For land attack they’re probably looking at TEAM (Tactical Land Attack Missile) and carrying 16 of them, so you end up with a hull in the region of 5000-6000 tonnes.
“Defence would love to be able to point to an in-service option and say we’d just like to modify a couple of things on it. But it’s the traditional problem: off-the-shelf you don’t get the capability outcome, and something more speculative might not work.”
Navantia's 4600-tonne F310 Fridtjof Nansen-class anti-submarine frigates (photo : regjeringen)
Commonality with other RAN major fleet units in systems such as gas turbines and weapons will be sought wherever possible to drive down through-life costs but this will not constrain studies into new and possibly more effective alternatives, says Commodore Robert Elliott, director general maritime development in the CDG.
One example is government-funded development by Australian company CEA Technologies of a high-powered concept demonstrator variant of the innovative CEAPAR phased array radar being installed on the Anzac class as part of its anti-ship missile defence upgrade.
But this too will face a series of assessments along the way to determine its maturity.
“Mandated is a strong word ... the only way the government will choose CEAPAR2 for Future Frigate is if we provide sufficient evidence to confirm it fits the requirements,” Elliott notes.
The process of determining the final choice for the Future Frigate involves an element of the chicken or the egg — what should be decided first, the platform or the systems it will eventually host?
7200-tonne Blohm and Voss F125 frigate (image : Arge F125)
One source close to the program refers to the hull as simply the envelope that wraps around the combat system, the propulsion and the accommodation.
“With Sea 5000, first you decide on what you want the ship to do, which will drive size. Then you decide on the combat system, the missiles, the radar, the underwater systems you’re going to fit, then you decide whether you’re going to do mechanical or electrical propulsion, then you decide on the number of crew and the standard of accommodation, and then you can work out the platform.”
Elliott simply says government must be given choices, with the possibility of new capabilities being trialled on Anzacs before being seriously considered for Sea 5000.
The current schedule for Future Frigate calls for a number of studies that will provide sufficient information for Defence to seek first pass approval from government in late 2017 or early 2018, with second pass anticipated two to three years later.
That would suggest construction starting around 2021-23, leaving two vital issues to be addressed — possible contention over resources with the Sea 1000 Future Submarine program, and the quality and quantity of those resources.
The concerns of senior industry executives regarding the Future Frigate program centre not so much on trade skills as on a scarcity of upstream design and engineering activity.
“Unless that void is filled somehow then we’re in for an extremely painful process of ships being assembled locally very expensively and very slowly. The AWD experience to date has not been great,” says one executive with broad international experience.
“No shipyards I know of, trying to produce modern deep sea vessels, have not invested tens and tens of millions of dollars in cadcam systems, computer-aided design, electronic cutting of structures, and producing a virtual prototype before anyone picks up a welding torch. That doesn’t exist in Australia. I think we’ll have to go shopping for some partners and get them to commit to transferring that technology and knowledge so we can do it ourselves.”