• Ship's company of HMAS Parramatta farewell the Republic of Korea Navy ship Gyeongnam, a Daegu or FFX Batch II class frigate, during a cooperative activity between the two countries.

Credit: Defence

Credit: Defence
    Ship's company of HMAS Parramatta farewell the Republic of Korea Navy ship Gyeongnam, a Daegu or FFX Batch II class frigate, during a cooperative activity between the two countries. Credit: Defence Credit: Defence

The Royal Australian Navy’s (RAN) new general purpose frigate program – Project Sea 3000 – is something of an oddity as it’s the government, not Defence or the RAN, that’s in the driving seat.

The program emerged from the Independent Analysis of the Navy’s surface fleet, which stemmed from the government’s Defence Strategic Review (DSR). The Independent Analysis Team (IAT), led by US Navy Vice Admiral (Ret’d) William Hilarides, assisted by the former Secretary of the Australian Department of Finance, Rosemary Huxtable, and former Commander Australian Fleet Vice Admiral (Ret’d) Stuart Mayer, found that the RAN needed to grow and embrace a two-tiered structure.

The former HMAS Anzac (III) coming alongside HMAS Stirling under tow on 17 May 2024, ahead of its decommissioning on 18 May 2024. 
Credit: Defence
The former HMAS Anzac (III) coming alongside HMAS Stirling ahead of its decommissioning. The new frigates will replace the Anzac class. 
Credit: Defence

Instead of procuring 12 ‘Tier 1’ combatants as planned – three Hobart-class guided missile destroyers and nine Hunter-class frigates – the review recommended that the RAN instead acquire nine Tier 1 vessels and a fleet of 11 Tier 2 general purpose frigates.

The IAT also recommended what capabilities the new frigates should have, including: the ability to operate a helicopter; limited air and missile self-defence capabilities; a towed array sonar; lightweight torpedos; and the ability to undertake force protection, maritime strike and land strike missions.

Based on these mission sets, the IAT looked at more than 20 designs before selecting five – with two designs from the Republic of Korea incorrectly grouped together as one by the IAT. The “exemplar” designs are: Mitsubishi Heavy Industries’ Mogami-class, ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems’ MEKO A-200, Navantia’s Alfa 3000, Hanwha Ocean’s Daegu-class or the FFX Batch II, and Hyundai Heavy Industries’ Chungnam-class or FFX Batch III.

The government subsequently adopted all of the IATs recommendations around the general-purpose frigate and directed Defence to pursue what has become known as Project Sea 3000.

Project Sea 3000

Sea 3000 will see eleven frigates built for the RAN, with the first three built overseas at a foreign shipyard to allow for the first ship to be delivered to Navy in 2029 and enter service in 2030.

The remaining eight ships will then be built in Western Australia, likely by Austal as part of the Strategic Shipbuilder agreement - assuming Defence decides to proceed with that agreement.

However, while Defence has said that it plans to spend $7-10 billion on Sea 3000 out to 2034, testimony by the First Assistant Secretary Major Surface Combatants and Combat Systems, Sheryl Lutz, in front of the Senate revealed the actual acquisition budget is more like $5.5-8.5 billion, as the funding in the 2024 Integrated Investment Plan (IIP) includes a $1.5 billion sustainment spend.

“It was $1.5 billion for future sustainment in the IIP band for 10 years of $7 billion to $10 billion,” she told Coalition Senator Simon Birmingham on 6 June.

To achieve the projects goals within the short time frame and (relatively) modest budget, at least compared to other Australian surface combatant programs, Defence has stated that it has no tolerance for changes to the base design.

“The first criterion is speed to minimum viable capability. Therefore, you will have no design changes. Therefore, you will get your capability there,” Deputy Secretary Naval Shipbuilding and Sustainment Group (NSSG), Jim McDowell, said during Senate Estimates on 5 June.

HMS Tamar and JS Noshiro conduct Officer of the Watch manoeuvres during corporative activities with HMAS Choules while on a regional presence deployment. JS Noshiro is a Mogami class frigate. 
Credit: Defence
Credit: Defence
HMS Tamar and JS Noshiro conduct Officer of the Watch manoeuvres during corporative activities with HMAS Choules while on a regional presence deployment. JS Noshiro is a Mogami class frigate. Credit: Defence Credit: Defence

Indeed, the competitors responses to the initial approach to market (ATM), which went out on 24 May and ADM understands is expected to close imminently, will be evaluated (in order of) their ability to commence construction in 2026, their ability to transfer the design to Australia, their ability to be maintained in Australia, their compliance with regulatory, class and legislative standards and finally their interoperability with Australian and allied systems.

No Design Changes

But what does “No Design Changes” mean in practice?

Sources close to Sea 3000 have told ADM that Defence has allowed the competitors to make changes to address safety and obsolescence concerns as required.

“The only thing we’ve been approved to [change] is if it’s in a different language,” Head of Navy Capability, Rear Admiral Stephen Hughes, told the Senate on 28 June.

Any other changes, he said, will require the project team to first go back to the Defence Committee – which is chaired by the Secretary of Defence - and then seek the approval of the National Security Committee of Cabinet (NSC).

In response to a question from Senator Linda Reynolds about the change threshold for NSC and Defence Committee approval, RADM Hughes said: “For this project any change.”

Despite these constraints, ADM understands that several competitors have at least discussed offering modified versions of their base designs to Defence though it’s unclear if Defence sought options as part of the ATM.

Unusually, while the Chief of Navy - who is the capability manager for the class - will assess the various proposal’s interoperability and capability, he hasn’t been invited to suggest or propose modifications.

“It will inform my advice to government as to which vessel is most fit for purpose. I'm not invited to propose modifications, but I do have an obligation, particularly with respect to workplace health and safety legislation, to make sure these ships are fit for purpose,” Chief of Navy Vice Admiral Mark Hammond said during Senate Estimates on 6 June.

Defence has also all but ruled out equipping the new ships with CEA Radars and the Saab Australia 9LV Combat Management System (CMS) – variants or derivatives of which are either fitted to, or slated for integration aboard, every current RAN combatant - including the Arafura-class offshore patrol vessels due to the government formally mandating its inclusion on all surface combatants.

“There is simply no way that we could design and redesign those exemplar ships to take a CEA radar or a 9LV and still get them in the water, commissioned in service with the Royal Australian Navy, in the time scales that were being recommended by government,” DEPSEC McDowell told the Senate on 6 June.

Despite the intent of barely changing the designs, Head of Navy Engineering, Rear Admiral Rachel Durbin, confirmed to ADM at the Royal Institute of Naval Architects (RINA) that the vessels will be designed and built in accordance with the new Australian Naval Classification Framework (ANCA).

This will make them the first Navy vessels - and the second class behind the Australian Army’s new Littoral Manoeuvre Vessel Medium (LMV-M) ships - to be procured under the framework that entered into force last year.

This raises a question: has Defence simply done away with one aspect of ‘Australianisation’, and replaced it with another via mandating the new framework?

The Competitors

While the IAT’s five designs form the basis of each offering to Defence, it isn’t clear in every case which design is actually being proposed for Australia.

The most notable example of this is MHI’s Mogami-class frigate. While the Mogami, which entered service in 2022, was listed by the IAT there have been suggestions in media reporting that Japan is interested in offering its successor – the ‘new FFM’ to Australia.

"The government has directed us to deal with warships that are already in use or developed by the countries and the groups that we're approaching,” Secretary of Defence Greg Moriarty said during the 6 June Senate Estimates hearing.

Unlike the Mogami-class, which was built fitted for but not, with a vertical launching system (VLS), according to media reports, the new FFM will be outfitted with one from the first ship.

Moriarty’s sentiment seems to also include Hyundai Heavy Industries’ Chungnam-class or FFX Batch III, the first of which is yet to be commissioned following its launch in April 2023.

The identities of the offerings from ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems (TKMS), Navantia, and Hanwha Ocean are much clearer.

The first Chungnam class FFX Batch III frigate with an integrated sensor mast. Image: HHI
The first Chungnam class FFX Batch III frigate with an integrated sensor mast. Image: HHI

Hanwha Ocean is offering the Daegu-class or FFX Batch II, while ADM understands TKMS is offering a derivative of the Egyptian Al-Aziz-class, which is the most modern member of the Meko A200 family.

Navantia’s proposal, despite being referred to by the IAT as the Alfa 3000, is based on the Avante 2220 corvettes the company is delivering to Saudi Arabia as the Al Jubail-class, ADM understands.

 What’s happened and what’s to come?

The overall Sea 3000 project is still in its early phases with the initial ATM yet to formally close. When it does, according to testimony by Defence officials in Senate Estimates, Defence will begin a process to determine which tenders are viable before moving forward to a down select later this year.

“We need to prove which are viable and which are non-viable, and the viable ones would then be put to government for a decision,” First Assistant Secretary Lutz said.

 ADM understands that once the down select is made, the program is expected to relax its aversion to transparency to an extent and move forward - as a normal RAN acquisition program.

The working goal, ADM understands, is for a contract to be signed in early 2025 ahead of the federal election, which must be held by May of that year. This would be followed by a brief period of detailed design before construction commences in 2026 for delivery of the first vessel to the RAN in 2029.

Given the compressed timeframe, ADM understands that vast amounts of information have been requested from each bidder about not only their vessel designs but also their capabilities to build and sustain the vessels in Australia.

Sustainment is a particular challenge as, according to RADM Hughes, the government has directed Defence to acquire a support system with no changes to support the new frigates.

“The government has directed a no-change program. As I have said both publicly and to my team, (it is) what I would call a genuine out of the box solution. Not just for the sensor systems and the combat systems, but also the support systems.”

“On 24 May 2024, Defence released the SEA 3000 General Purpose Frigate approach to market. Defence is unable to provide further detail while the evaluation is underway due to commercial, procurement and probity process,” Defence said in response to questions from ADM about Project Sea 3000.

ADM Comment:  Given the level of information sought and the relatively short timeframe to do it, have the competitors – particularly those not already established in Australia – had the time and opportunities to engage with local industry through the procurement process?



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