Hunter-class frigates won’t meet the RAN’s needs

By and

April 19, 2022

BAE Systems has been selected as the preferred tenderer with the Global Combat Ship – Australia for the Navy’s future frigate capability. (Defence)

Since the British Type 26 was announced as the reference design for Royal Australian Navy’s nine Hunter-class frigates, the program has been controversial. The recent leaked report on the system design review was extremely negative, giving rise to calls to cancel the program.

So, what does the navy require of its surface combatants and will the Hunter be able to deliver it? This is a critical issue in an era where large warships have become a threatened species. Analyst Hugh White recently said, ‘Finding a ship is now a cinch and sinking it is now trivial.’ Some other experts agree.

Yet, despite these negative views, technologies to counter new threats continue to be developed and the navies of the world are commissioning new surface combatants at a rapid rate. The US Navy is building the latest Flight III version of its Arleigh Burke–class destroyer, a 40-year-old design, as quickly as it can while designing its even larger successor, the DDG(X). China’s navy is delivering large, heavily armed surface combatants at a rate of which the West can only dream.

The US Navy clearly believes it can counter the missile threat. Rear Admiral Paul Schlise, director of surface warfare, said recently that a fight against an adversary like China would be a ‘missile-to-missile game’. The US Standard Missile (SM) series of precision-guided weapons, which has provided the RAN’s main missile firepower for more than 50 years, now includes long-range anti-missile defence that can engage both ballistic and hypersonic missiles.

When evaluating the capability required by the Hunter in a missile-to-missile game, the similar-sized Arleigh Burke provides an object lesson. Its SPY phased-array radar detects incoming missiles, while the Aegis weapon system with a vertical launch system (VLS) of 96 full-size missile cells can engage them. Importantly, the US Navy’s development of network-centric warfare, represented by the Cooperative Engagement Capability (CEC), provides a significant force multiplier.

The CEC system of an Aegis-equipped ship will select the best quality tracks from the sensors of all ships and aircraft in the network to produce tracking data for the launch and control of missiles. Missiles are then fired from whichever ‘shooter’ in the network is best placed to give the highest probability of defeating an attack. All this occurs automatically, according to preset protocols, because a split-second delay even at great ranges can be the difference between life and death.

Australia’s Hobart-class destroyers, equipped with Aegis, SPY-1 radar and 48 VLS cells, are the only non-US ships that participate in CEC. The Hunter is designed to follow in the Hobart’s footsteps and, despite its limited firepower (32 VLS cells), will possess one significant advantage, not only over the Hobart class but over the standard-setting Arleigh Burke as well. The Hunter will employ the fully digital CEAFAR2 active phased-array radar, using leading-edge Australian technology.

Yet the selection of the Hunter to replace the Anzac-class ships was a mistake. The operational requirement for Defence’s Sea 5000 program took inadequate account of the magnitude and nature of the developing strategic threat to Australia. On the basis of the Australian Defence Force’s usual like-for-like approach to replacing platforms, the initial specification was for a lightly armed warship, albeit one that specialised in anti-submarine warfare.

While the addition of Aegis, SM systems and CEA radars to the Sea 5000 operational requirement was sensible, the selection of the Type 26 as the reference design then made it highly risky. These systems had never before been integrated on a British warship. Indeed, the obvious choice from among the competing platforms for Sea 5000 now became the Spanish F-5000, which was a development of the Hobart class and already embodied Aegis and SM weapons. It also had 50% more missile cells than the Hunter and we knew how to build it.

The question now is whether the Hunter’s obvious shortcomings can be rectified or if the program should be cancelled — at significant cost. There are four main areas of contention that need to be addressed.

First, deploying a frigate optimised for anti-submarine warfare is contrary to RAN doctrine and at odds with how anti-submarine warfare is conducted in the Indo-Pacific. While the British use surface ships to track submarines in the Atlantic and to protect their ballistic missile submarines from hostile subs, the RAN’s doctrine is similar to that of the US Navy’s in using aircraft and submarines as the main assets to track hostile submarines. Deploying a frigate to engage a submarine has been compared to sending a chicken to kill a fox.

Second, with a battery of 32 VLS cells, the Hunter would lack the firepower to contribute effectively in any great-power maritime conflict in the region. Although the requirement for the Hunter was changed to include both Aegis and American SMs, there was no consequent increase in firepower. Following his description of a future conflict being a ‘missile-to-missile game’, Schlise warned that even US destroyers lack the ‘magazine depth’ for that kind of battle. Acquiring three large warships to provide equal firepower to one similar sized Arleigh Burke, at a far higher cost, makes no sense.

Indeed, Australia is paying an enormous premium compared with other countries to put VLS missile cells to sea. US analysis based on publicly available information suggests that the cost of one missile cell on a new Arleigh Burke is US$22 million, compared with US$119 for the Hunter class. The South Korean Maya class is even more cost-effective.

Third, with the weight added to the ship to accommodate Australian requirements, the Hunter’s speed will lag well below operational standards. It appears to need significantly more power in order to keep up with the fleet, both in terms of maximum and economical cruising speed. Constant use of its gas turbine may be required, which will compromise both the ship’s vaunted stealth abilities as well as its range. A ship of the Hunter’s size should have two gas turbines to provide redundancy in case of failure or battle damage.

Last, a 3% design margin for growth in the weight of the ship is so low that it leaves no scope for future upgrades. At a time of rapid technological change, a new warship with a life of perhaps 30 years will require at least one substantial upgrade in its life.

Even if feasible, rectifying these problems would require a new design. In principle, the changes required could be accommodated in a 10,000-tonne design, as exemplified by the Arleigh Burke. Australia is already paying an eye-watering $6.27 billion for the redesign of a ship that Defence once classified as ‘mature’.

If the necessary design changes prove impossible, however, the government should move rapidly to cancel the Hunter and order more Hobart ships to an updated design. This must include the installation of CEAFAR2, and the contract with Lockheed Martin to integrate it with Aegis should continue. Alternatively, we could seek to construct in Australia the Flight III version of the Arleigh Burke destroyer, again with the CEAFAR2 and Aegis. We could then use that as a basis for seeking involvement in the DDG(X) program. But time is of the essence. If nothing changes, the navy won’t deploy a single additional VLS cell for another decade.

This article is republished from ASPI’s The Strategist.


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