Could Australia’s big new $70 billion submarines sink its big new $35 billion frigates? Could the frigates sink the subs? The questions are worth answering before we spend these huge sums on potentially vulnerable frigates and subs. The subs cost, in particular, is unnecessarily high due to the political decision to design and build bespoke subs in Australia.
Smaller submarines built to proven designs have had no trouble “sinking” US aircraft carriers and their escorts during exercises. The new subs should be able to sink the frigates, although improvements in sensor quality and data processing speeds will make them easier to detect than smaller, much cheaper subs and drones in future. Perhaps a frigate will get lucky and sink a sub. But a far less costly combination of sensors and aircraft-launched torpedoes would probably have a better, and safer, chance of doing so.
Unfortunately, the decision to spend so much on these new weapons systems have been taken with out proper outside scrutiny, nor anything like an adequate explanation from the government for its choices. The government also added a last-minute requirement for the nine new frigates, which had been previously been intended to perform primarily an anti-submarine warfare role. Referring to the North Korean threat, Malcolm Turnbull announced on Tuesday that they would now be fitted with a long-range anti-missile capability.
Understandably, Turnbull was widely seen as saying Australia would have an ability to shoot down intercontinental ballistic missiles. However, the navy chief Vice Admiral Tim Barrett made it clear at the announcement that this was not what was being acquired. He said the decision was confined to getting the Aegis combat management system for the frigates at this stage. The Navy is looking at possible enhancements over a number of years, one of which he said “may well be in missile defence”. But the current decision is only to develop a baseline capability for the Aegis system to operate jointly with another combat management system from Saab and an improved phased-array radar developed by a different Australian company CEA.
Although integrating the two systems could prove difficult, most observers see this combination as a worthwhile step. But the requirement should have been included in the bid specifications that recently closed for the Spanish, British, and Italian entries in the frigate competition. The government wants to decide on the winner in 2018 and start cutting steel in 2020. Given that the existing eight Anzac class frigates were recently upgraded and three new air warfare destroyers (AWDs) are just arriving, the rush is solely to help the defence industry minister Christopher Pyne hold his seat in Adelaide where the new frigates and subs will be built.
The navy describes frigates as “workhorses”. The highly capable 3600 tonne Anzac class has done an outstanding job as a workhorse in the Middle East and elsewhere for many years. But the new 7000 tonne frigates will be extraordinary expensive workhorses that could be blown apart by small subs.
If a workhorse is needed, there are far cheaper options. In common with the Spanish and Italian contenders, the BAE’s Type 26 frigate is so expensive, the British government decided to supplement fleet numbers with a smaller Type 31 frigate with a fixed price of $A425 million. Although a final design has not been chosen, it will be a modern 4000 tonne ship that’s probably all the Australian navy needs. The 4,100 tonne FFG frigates the Whitlam government ordered from the US followed by the Anzac class formed the backbone of the navy for close to 40 years. They were supplemented for part for the time by Charles F Adams destroyers displacing around 4500 tonnes – far smaller than the 7000 tonnes displaced by the AWDs and new frigates.
If Australia wants six big destroyer-sized surface ships, it could buy three of the proposed new frigates to complement the three AWDs. It could then buy six Type 31s, or close alternatives, to create a 12 ship surface fleet, better than the earlier ones that served the nation well for many decades. The 12 ships would provide a mix of big frigates/destroyers and slightly less capable ones that would create a more powerful fleet than the Navy has possessed for decades. Yet it would cost well under half the $35 billion for nine giant frigates.
This article first appeared in the Australian Financial Review on 11 October 2017