To no-one’s surprise, the primarily anti-submarine warfare (ASW) role originally envisaged for the Future Frigate replacement for the RAN’s workhorse Anzac class fleet has been superseded by much broader requirements, including area air defence.

Confirmation of this change of direction coupled with a range of other information on Project Sea 5000, some previously not generally known, emerged from a presentation by Commodore Robert Elliot, Director General Maritime Development in the Capability Development Group, to a surface warships conference in Genoa in early February.

During his European visit CDRE Elliott also inspected potential Future Frigate platforms in Italy, Germany and Denmark, accompanied in Italy by Paddy Fitzpatrick, Director General Maritime Acquisition at the DMO.

Coincidental or not, at much the same time unconfirmed reports in Australia suggested that an government announcement was likely around mid-year on the commissioning from short-listed contractors of risk reduction studies that would assess the impact of Sea 5000 requirements on existing designs.

If correct, this would confirm government’s intention to broaden its Future Frigate options beyond the convenient but not necessarily optimal selection of the Navantia-designed F-105 Air Warfare Destroyer (AWD) hull, a funded study into which was announced last June by then Defence Minister David Johnston.

The top level requirements confirmed by CDRE Elliott for eight Future Frigates in the 6,000-7, 000 tonne range include force level ASW, a stand-off maritime strike capability fully integrated into a joint fires network, and significant Task Force air defence and Task Group anti-ship missile defence capabilities.

These drive a requirement for long range surface-to-air missiles, enhanced short range surface to air missiles, and the sensor-netting cooperative engagement capability. A Raytheon Australia submission to the Senate Economics Reference Committee into the future of the domestic naval shipbuilding industry suggested that a ballistic defence capability could also be feasible. For more on ballistics missile defence see PXX.

Other mandated needs include accommodation for two MH-60R helicopters and unspecified UAVs, a 48 cell Mk 41 Vertical Launch System (VLS) [the same as the AWD], use of the CEAFAR-S/X/L radar suite, “consideration” of the Saab 9LV combat management system and the Aegis fire control loop, use of modular mission payloads., and an efficient propulsion system, presumably electric, to reduce cost of ownership.

Add to this the requirement for embarked Commander Task Group facilities, and the Future Frigate starts to resemble something very similar to an updated AWD.

Although the term ASW frigate was commonly used within both Defence and industry after the type was proposed in the 2009 White Paper, no one could quantify what that really meant, CDRE Elliott told the Genoa conference.

“While the ships were seen as Anzac replacements, just bigger and with newer technologies, we were really looking at a paradigm shift in our thinking – and perhaps setting the scene for surface combatants of the future – that is multirole, concurrent role, ships capable of operating at extended ranges for sustained periods of time, offering greater flexibility to government than we have seen in the past.

“By this I mean that in addition to providing the high end, traditional warfighting capabilities, including a bias towards ASW, we need to design the ships to deal with asymmetric and non-state actor threats, while conducting the traditional maritime security interdiction operations that have become so common over the past 20 years.”

Although pursuing a new design would have delivered the best match for Navy’s requirements, this route had been rejected by government at Initial Pass last June for reasons of cost and schedule, he said.

Since initial investigation had concluded there were few if any proven MOTS (Military Off the Shelf) options with the potential to meet the RAN’s needs – particularly in the area of achieving commonality with US weapon systems – it was decided instead to begin work on assessing the feasibility of further evolving the AWD design for Sea 5000.

This Evolved MOTS option – taking a current design and modifying it to meet Australian needs – was one which provided plenty of alternative designs for consideration, CDRE Elliott noted.

What is not clear at this time is whether this option encompasses designs, however attractive, that would be unproven at the time of Future Frigate selection. This would include BAE Systems’ Type 26 Global Combat Ship, which will not enter service with the UK Royal Navy until the early 2020s but is being designed with the potential to accommodate systems specific to the requirements of prospective international partners.

The amount of modification permissible before a so-called evolution becomes to all intents and purposes a new design is also not clear; some sources suggest that depending on their complexity, changes of less than 10 per cent could justifiably be described as a new design.

A further query involves the ability of a hull within the mandated tonnage to accommodate all the stated requirements, bearing in mind the trend in recent naval construction is towards larger rather than smaller ships.

As presented by CDRE Elliott, the current Sea 5000 schedule involves First Pass in mid to late 2016, Second Pass (and presumably named solution) in 2019, and Initial Operational Capability in 2027.

Construction is not scheduled to begin until 2022, meaning a gap is likely between this and completion of the third and final Hobart class AWD, although that gap could narrow should problems persist with that program.

Revised AWD delivery dates disclosed jointly by Senator Johnston and Finance Minister Mathias Cormann in December 2014 put completion of Ship 3 back to June 2020 – three years behind schedule. But two months later the AWD Alliance told ADM that rebaselining work was still under way.

The general assumption among Sea 5000 contenders is that Future Frigate construction will take place in Australia. Confirmation of that may be included in the Defence White Paper due about mid-year, by which time government may be in a position to announce some improvement in ASC productivity following the insertion into the company in December of industry experts from Navantia, Raytheon and BAE Systems Australia.

Potential Future Frigate contenders – some more likely than others – include the FREMM European multirole frigate under construction for the French and Italian navies. Italian shipbuilder Fincantieri has been active in Canberra in promoting the merits of the slightly larger (at 144 metres and 6,500 tonnes) and more capable Italian variant, which boasts a double as opposed to the French single helicopter hangar.

Participants in the Genoa conference, including the two Australians, toured the latest ASW FREMM at Fincantieri’s Muggiano yard near La Spezia less than a month before its handover to the Italian navy.

Ten FREMMS – four ASW, six General Purpose – are destined for the Italian Navy and are currently being delivered by Fincantieri every six months. By way of contrast, CDRE Elliott told the conference that a theoretical rolling construction program aligning Australian shipbuilding with the requirements of the RAN’s present 12-ship surface combatant fleet would deliver a ship every 2.5 to three years.

The French navy will receive 11 FREMMS constructed by DCNS; six ASW and two anti-air, with a decision to be made in 2016 on the type of variant the other three will be.

Thyssen Krupp Maritime Systems (TKMS) stresses that the nomenclature of the F125 class frigate that is generally assumed to be its Sea 5000 candidate is reserved for the German Navy. The TKMS proposal is for the MEKO A-400RAN, the A designation indicating a new hullform featuring reduced radar and infrared signatures and improved survivability that includes box girder construction.

TKMS Business Development Manager Jim Manson describes the A-400RAN as a new concept based on the 149-metre, 7,000t F125, the first of which will enter service next year as a so-called stabilisation frigate capable of operating away from home support for 24 months.

The new concept is focused on the requirements of Sea 5000, Canada’s 15-ship surface combatant program, and Germany’s MKS 180 multi-purpose surface combatant project.

“We’re extracting things from those three programs, using the A400M as the baseline, and coming up with a generic specification that can be tailored for individual specifications such as Ceafar,” Manson said to ADM, who confirms that the lead F125 was inspected in Hamburg by CDRE ELLIOTT during his European visit.

While Navantia has had the inside running since last June with its funded study into the modifications necessary for its F105 AWD platform to meet Future Frigate requirements, concerns have been expressed about the impact of further changes to an already significantly-modified design that is now about 20 years old. These would of necessity include the work necessary to provide a second helicopter hangar and UAV facilities.

The modification studies are understood to also include the possibility of changing the present combined diesel or gas turbine (CODOG) propulsion system – similar to that powering the Anzacs - to a modern diesel-electric configuration.

Added to this are the delays in AWD construction which to date have prevented Defence from looking at a completed AWD, let alone taking one to sea.

Navantia potentially could have another iron in the fire with Norway’s Navantia-designed Fridtjof Nansen class frigate, based on the same Alvaro de Bazan class as the F-105. However the 5,100 tonne, 133-metre long frigate is relatively lightly armed, optimised for cold weather operations, and is unlikely to have the real estate to provide a second helicopter hangar and upgrade from a 32 to a 48-cell VLS.

Denmark’s sleek Iver Huitfeldt 6,654 t air defence frigates also received a visit from CDRE Elliott, possibly not so much as to check their potential – they lack a second hangar, ASW capability and a 127mm main gun – as to inspect their Stanflex modular mission payload system. The three-ship class is also noteworthy for each having been built for about $350 million, well below the usual cost of comparable vessels.

But little support could be expected from the parent navy and the Odense yard in which they were constructed closed after delivery of the final ship in 2011. Nevertheless the design team remains an entity and is now working for the Canadian government on requirements for the Single Class Surface Combatant.

The question mark hanging over Type 26 acceptability given the design has yet to enter service may involve this guideline being stretched.

Collaboration at expert level has been underway with the UK since 2013. Both UK and Australian defence ministers have noted the potential benefits accruing from the economies of scale, primarily in through-life support, should Australia choose to combine its eight-vessel requirement with the Royal Navy requirement for 13 vessels.

As of late last year a RAN officer was on exchange with the Type 26 program “actively contributing to outputs” and in February Defence Minister Kevin Andrews – admittedly new to the portfolio – referred to a UK program with a new vessel “about three or four years away from completion and we’ll be having discussions about that”.

Certainly the timing of Type 26 development slots in with Australian requirements; the first of class will enter service with the Royal Navy around 2022, while Anzac life-of-type currently expires in the mid-2020s. Final design of the Type 26 has yet to be signed off, but current planning is believed to be for a 5,400 tonne, 149 metre ship with accommodation for 200 but a core crew of about 120, a top speed of about 28 knots and a range of 7,000 miles at 15 knots.

To promote mission adaptability through-life and across roles, the Type 26 design will incorporate a flexible mission space in the main superstructure just forward of the hangar able to embark boats, unmanned vehicles and other containerised payloads.

The USN’s decision to designate as frigates, the new upgunned variants of the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) that are likely to enter service in 2019 seems unlikely to excite additional RAN interest given its requirement for distant and sustained blue-water deployments.

The uncertainty surrounding the Future Frigate platform does not extend to its major weapon systems. The decision to pursue commonality with US systems has seen the mandating of the Lockheed Martin Mk 41 VLS and a missile portfolio likely to comprise SM-6 long range air defence weapons,  ESSM Block II medium range anti- missiles – expected to enter service around 2020 – and Block 1V Tomahawk land attack missiles.

The drive for commonality could conceivably see an eventual decision linked to the Anzacs’ retirement to standardise the ADF’s lightweight anti-submarine torpedo inventory on the Raytheon Mk 54. This equips the RAN’s new MH-60R combat helicopters and will be deployed on the RAAF’s PA-8 Poseidons, leaving the three AWDs the only user of the in-service Eurotorp MU90 after the Anzacs’ departure.

The BAE Systems Mk 45 5" 62 calibre gun also equipping the Hobart class AWDs is a virtual certainty.

Also favoured is a development of Saab’s well-regarded 9LV combat management system, although much will depend on its ability to integrate the mandated Aegis fire control loop – described by the manufacturer as the component of the Aegis weapon system that detects and defeats guided missile threats – with the long range, high power active phased array S, X and L-band radar suite under development by Canberra company CEA Technologies.

This aims to leverage technology from the Ceafar S-Band radar and Ceamount X-band multi-channel illuminators installed on the Anzac fleet under the anti-ship missile defence upgrade, by utilising gallium arsenide-based modules to improve power, efficiency and bandwidth performance.

While there’s already no shortage of debate on other systems great and small, the general consensus appears to be that the program’s current level of development renders this premature.


This article first appeared in Australian Defence Magazine VOL.23 No.3, March 2015

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