Australia’s troubled Hunter-class frigate program has avoided being axed following a sweeping review of the navy’s combat surface fleet, with at least six and possibly several more of the large and expensive warships to be built over coming decades.
Next week the Albanese government is scheduled to unveil a “Future Navy” plan that emphasises “continuous naval shipbuilding” and confirms British-owned BAE Systems will proceed with the $45 billion project to replace Australia’s aging Anzac-class frigates.
Last year Labor announced former US admiral William H. Hilarides would lead a review of the Royal Australian Navy’s warship fleet to ensure it “complements” the new AUKUS nuclear-powered submarines, with the government’s response to be released at Osborne shipyard.
In 2018 BAE Systems was controversially selected to construct nine anti-submarine vessels based on the UK’s Type 26 warship, but the program based in South Australia has been beset by delays and design problems, with the first frigate not expected until the early 2030s.
Naval figures have pointed to only “minimal penalty clauses” in the massive SEA5000 shipbuilding contract and the immature design of the British Type 26 as some of the key contributing problems but acknowledge the company has resolved many issues.
Defence and industry sources claim British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has personally advocated for the future of the project directly with PM Anthony Albanese, while Navy Chief Vice Admiral Mark Hammond is said to also strongly back the program.
Over recent days industry figures have speculated that BAE Systems could be asked to build as many as 16 warships, under a scenario where the hulls in latter batches would be modified to eventually replace Australia’s existing and smaller Air Warfare Destroyers.
“At more than $4.5 billion each — the Hunter Class frigate could end up being the most expensive surface combatant in the world,” a figure closely involved with the project said.
Warnings about the lack of firepower on the current Hunter-class design prompted BAE Systems to last year unveil a proposed dramatic modification of the warship to boost the number of vertical launch missile cells from just 32 to a configuration of 96.
A meeting in Canberra last week between South Australian Premier Peter Malinauskas and Defence Minister Richard Marles to “ensure Adelaide has consistent, continuous shipbuilding work” was seen by many in the navy as a signal the Hunter class program was safe.
Future of troubled German offshore patrol vessel program uncertain
Work is also continuing to resolve problems associated with Australia’s troubled Offshore Patrol Vessel (OPV) project as the government quietly examines options to instead build larger and more lethal boats known as corvettes, as a Tier 2 warship for the navy.
The ABC has also learnt respected shipbuilding figure Richard Liley, who left Western Australian company Austal last year, has recently been contracted by Defence to help assess how the troubled $4 billion project involving German company Luerssen can be fixed.
“Defence routinely contracts specialist and technical expertise to assist with the delivery of projects,” a Defence spokesperson told the ABC when asked about the OPV build, which was last year placed on the department’s Projects of Concern list.
“Defence has not ordered Luerssen to stop cutting steel. Defence is working collaboratively with Luerssen to remediate this Project of Concern.
“Determination of seaworthiness is an ongoing process as part of the ship acceptance process — this work is ongoing and will be completed prior to acceptance by Defence,” the spokesperson added.
While Defence works to resolve problems on the Perth-based OPV program, the Independent Analysis Team conducting the review of the navy’s Surface Combatant Fleet has examined several international designs for building corvettes in Australia or overseas.
Industry sources say options being assessed include warships from Spain, Germany, Korea and Japan, but Defence says it has not issued its own specific “Request For Information”.