Sometime in June, the Australian government will announce which of the three contenders has won the competition for the programme to construct 9 anti-submarine frigates. Should BAE Systems’ bid be successful, it would be the most significant naval export success for the UK for decades with benefits for the Royal Navy.
The Royal Australian Navy (RAN) plans to replace its eight ANZAC class MEKO 200 frigates with nine new vessels. Seeking foreign assistance for a domestic construction programme, the competition is now between three contenders; from Britain, BAE System’s Global Combat Ship-Australia (GCS-A) based on the Type 26 frigate, from Italy the Fincantieri FREMM ASW variant and from Spain, the Navantia F-5000. The competition is tight and each of the options has merits as well as drawbacks. So far there have been no leaks or indicators that there is a clear official favourite.
Until well into the 1970s the vast majority of the Australian Navy’s fleet was either built in Britain or were derived from Royal Navy designs. Dismal industrial strategy saw the UK retreat almost entirely from the warship export market but this competition (and the Type 31 project) offer hope for a modest revival. BAE Systems is now a global defence manufacturing powerhouse and its CGS meets the majority of Australia’s requirements. The SEA 5000 is a big prize with an estimated value of around Aus$ 35Bn (£19.5Bn) over the 30-year lifetime of the ships.
The BAE Systems GCS-A
The GCS is the most advanced anti-submarine surface combatant design available anywhere in the world today. Its critics will say that it represents a risk because it will be several years before the first vessels are at sea and the design is unproven. You may be able to step aboard a Fincantieri FREMM or a Navatia AWD today but these vessels are based on a design that pre-dates the GCS by at least a decade. The Royal Navy’s Type 26 frigate programme has been exceptionally drawn-out but it is the most modern design and will be able to assimilate rapid technological developments happening now and even during the construction programme. Although the GCS is very sophisticated, it cannot be described as radical and is an evolution of the well-proven Type 23 frigate. Much of the technology is being de-risked aboard the Type 23 or before construction using land-based test rigs for the propulsion, electrical and transmission system. The Rolls Royce MT30 gas turbine is already at sea on HMS Queen Elizabeth and is designed to work in hot conditions. It is actually 15-20% more efficient operating in an ambient air temperature of 40º than the LM 2500 GT used in both of the other competing designs.
The entire GCS design has been rendered using a cutting-edge virtual reality platform. This networked VR system allows naval personnel, suppliers and engineers at dispersed locations to understand the vessel and refine internal ergonomics before manufacture. BAES is a world-leader in utilising this approach to warship design.
The GCS is an anti-submarine thoroughbred, designed from the keel up to be as quiet as possible. Building on the experience of the Type 23, every effort has been made to reduce self-radiated noise which might interfere with sensitive sonars or alert submarines to the ship’s presence. Primary acoustic hygiene measures include placing the diesel generators above the waterline, raft-mounting machinery, hull shaping and precise propellor design. Every potential source of noise is considered such as avoiding right angle bends in pipework or acoustic enclosures for auxiliary machinery. These measures increase the size of the vessel, adding to initial costs but cannot be effectively retrofitted into an old ship. All three competitors will have similar bow-mounted sonar and effective towed array sonars. Besides the sensor hardware in the water, what determines their effectiveness in detecting submarines is the quietness of the platform, the processing technology on board and the skill of the operators.
The GSC-A is also the largest of the 3 designs with ample space for future growth, in particular generating capacity to support directed energy weapons and high power sensors. A defining feature of the GCS-A lacking in the other proposals is the large central mission bay. This flexible space can be utilised for a variety of roles, especially to deploy & recover unmanned systems which are rapidly evolving and are likely to be central to naval warfare in future. UUVs and USVs offer the potential to further expand ASW reach and presence. UAVs can also provide long-range surveillance or targeting information for naval gunfire support using the 5-inch, Mk 45 Mod 4 gun. Alternatively, the space can be quickly reconfigured with mine hunting systems, medical facilities or aid supplies in support of humanitarian missions.
The reference GCS-A has a slightly different weapon and senior fit to the RN’s Type 26. The Artisan radar will be replaced by the CEAFAR active phased array radar developed in Australia. The European Sea Ceptor SAM will not be fitted, instead, the number of MK41 VLS cells will be increased from 24 to 36 and will carry US-made missiles while Harpoon anti-ship missiles will also be mounted. Potentially the most challenging technical requirement is the decision to fit the Lockheed Martin AEGIS system instead of the native BAES Combat Management System (CMS).
The plan is that the first steel would be cut in Australia in 2020 for the prototyping phase, designed to prove the processes and new production facilities. Full production would commence in 2022 with the first ship due to be delivered around 2027. Contrary to claims that the GCS-A would be “the first of class prototype” the schedule will see HMS Glasgow, Cardiff and Belfast in production ahead of the first Australian ship, making the lead GCS-A the 4th of class, with the Royal Navy taking the lead in understanding the design, developing its capabilities and addressing any snags.
GCS – mutually beneficial for the RN and RAN
Should BAE systems be successful, there would be considerable benefits for the RN and British industry. On a strategic level, Britain and Australia have similar a culture and interests, both are part of the Five-Eyes (FVEY) agreement for the sharing of classified intelligence. An exchange of highly sensitive ASW tactical information and experience would flow naturally from joint GCS ownership. The RAN has conducted personnel exchanges with the RN going back to the founding of the navy and this mutually beneficial joint experience would only increase. Success would also be a boost for post-Brexit Britain, looking to expand its exports on a more global basis and would fit well with a recent renewal of RN presence in the Pacific.
Although the armament, sensors and combat system fitted to the GCS will differ in some respects, there would still be a significant commonality of components that will come from the UK, especially the propulsion system. Economies of scale across the supply chain could help reduce both construction and through-life costs for both nations.
The Australian government has funded the cost of refining the Type 26 into the detailed GCS-A proposal and around 100 people have been employed in the project teams in Glasgow and Australia. Should the design be selected, there would be further work for these valuable specialists, with an emphasis on a transfer of engineering and project management skills to Australia. Success would vindicate the GCS design and help offset the disappointment of being eliminated from the US Navy’s FFG(X) competition, it could also encourage Canada to join the programme. Should both the RAN and RCN adopt the GCS, the three close allies will be operating a total fleet of 32 sister ships.
The Fincantieri FREMM-A
The successful Franco-Italian project to design a common hull for as a basis for several frigate designs has a confirmed programme of 20 ships so far. The FREMM (Fregata Europea Multi-Missione) design is mature and the ASW variant is the best in its class of any European navy, at least until superseded by the Type 26. The FREMM is a serious contender and the general purpose vision has already attracted export orders from Greece, Morocco and Egypt, with the USN navy considering the ASW variant for the FFG(X). Fincantieri is one of the worlds largest shipbuilders but has not constructed ships in Australia before, lacking the incumbency of Navantia and BAES but the ship design is seen as a safe bet. It is making great promises to Australian industry and can offer the example of a past technology and skills transfer to the US where they invested heavily in Fincantieri Marinette Marine (FMM) and now building ships for USN.
Claims that the FREMM design is now “combat proven” after operations against Syria on 14 April are rather stretching a point. Only one of the three French FREMM frigates deployed in the Eastern Mediterranean successfully managed to launch MdCN land attack missiles. Technical problems prevented further launches. It should also be noted that since World War II, the RN has accumulated far more combat experience than any other European navy.
The Navantia F-5000
The F-5000 proposal is essentially the Air Warfare Destroyer (AWD) hull design with a modified weapon and sonar fit. The big advantage from an industrial and cost perspective will be the commonality with equipment already in service with the RAN, potentially offering a seamless transition for personnel already trained on similar systems.
The AWD is not a quiet ship, the combined GT and Diesel propulsion is inherently noisy but it is expected that in the F-5000 electric drive modules will be added and coupled to the main reduction gears to offer a quiet running mode. Hull shaping and many other systems do not meet the acoustic quietening standards. Either the F-5000 will have to be substantially re-engineered or if there is little modification, then the RAN must accept an anti-submarine capability very much inferior to the other two options.
Theoretically, the F-5000 building process should be smooth as the yards already have experience constructing this type of vessel but the construction of the preceding AWD has not been without problems. The AWD Alliance and Navantia were criticised for construction errors, faulty drawings, delays and cost overruns. There were also considerable disputes over workmanship between Navantia and the Norwegians during their construction of the similar F-310 Fridtjof Nansen-class frigates. Navantia is owned and subsidised by the Spanish government.
Shipbuilding is always political
It would be unwise to assume the SEA 5000 competition will simply be won by the best ASW ship. Shipbuilding decisions are always made in the context of industrial and political factors that do not always provide navies with the ships it needs or wants. Navantia maybe seen as the home team, with an established shipbuilding base that is already delivering ships for the RAN and may also benefit from links to the RAN and the political establishment. BAE Systems (in its previous guise as GEC Marconi) has been working in Australia for 65 years, already has the largest number of employees in the region and are also well-versed in political lobbying. As in all types of business, personal contacts, relationships and trust may count for more than the product itself and each team will be maximising opportunities to influence the relevant officials.
What is not in the public domain is the approximate cost of each ship. The UK is known to be paying almost £1Bn per ship for the Type 26 but this includes development costs the Australians will not have to bear. The 3 Navatia AWD ships ended up costing around £1.7bn each while the Italian FREMM looks cheapest at around £600M. These figures are not much of a guide as final costs depend on many variables such as equipment fit and the level of government-supplied equipment
For the politicians who have the final say on the decision, funnelling employment and economic benefits to electorates may be the overriding factor. The Australian government wants to use the programme to expand the potential for its own future defence exports, while being seen to prioritise national security. The end-users in the Australian Navy seem to think the GCS-A is the best platform. Captain Duncan McRae, RAN said;
“The Type 26 provides the Navy with not only the most effective ASW hull, specifically designed for the role, considering noise signatures and sensor and weapon use, but also the clearest winner in regard to “future-proofing.”
China now has the second largest fleet of submarines in the world with new construction ongoing and step-change in the quality of new boats. Many other nations in the Asia-Pacific region are investing heavily in quiet new submarines. If an island nation like Australia is really serious about defending itself, only the best ASW platform will do.
- Sea 5000 and ASW capability – making sense of a complex picture (Australian Defence Magazine)
- The Future Frigate: An Opportunity to Not Miss a Trick (The Diplomat)
- De-risking the Type 26, Nigel Stewart, SEA 5000 managing director, BAES (Defence connect Podcast)
- Four major discriminators for Future Frigates decision (Defence connect)