Global Ship, Global Force
The recent announcement of BAE’s Type 26 Global Combat Ship as the preferred bidder for the Canadian Surface Combatant shipbuilding program continues a procession of strong, well-considered purchases of military hardware by Western governments. While undoubtedly pleasing for BAE and their partner for the Canadian competition, Lockheed Martin Canada, this selection, combined with the earlier Australian decision to purchase nine vessels, is further evidence of a renewed coalescence of strategic thinking among key nations.
The benefits to industry of a common ship type selected across three significant naval forces are unquestionable (see Kym Bergmann’s recent analysis in APDR for example). Considering the initial objectives of the combined UK-French-Italian Horizon Project and even the success of the FREMM-based designs and others, the idea of developing a multi-national customer base of a common hull-type has existed for some time. Given the inter-relatedness of European forces (largely through their membership of NATO) the prevalence of this idea in that theatre is easy to understand and of course for a global ship-builder it makes commercial and operational sense to be able to increase the numbers in a production run.
Considering this commonality from the perspective of naval strategy and operations however, one can see other benefits presented by a global force of, so far 32 ships bearing hallmarks of the US “1000-ship” maritime strategy of the early 2000s. More so, while the growing tendency to label Type 26 as the “Five-Eyes frigate” is apt, such nomenclature should not limit the appeal of Type 26 as the frigate du jour in a growing market.
While there will be many variations between the nation-specific classes of Type 26 (most notably in the incorporation of local or bespoke combat systems, radars and other sensors), the economies of scale should see a significant increase in the overall readiness of the Type 26 force, which in turn increases the threat to any potential enemy. An argument could be made that given commonality is greatest in less-expensive components (hull, superstructure and propulsion systems), initial project savings will be negligible, but the value will come later down the track when a truly global logistics chain can be accessed in support of operating and sustaining the platforms.
Given the relative ease with which the current customers already interact, accessing these support networks in both peacetime and war, in home or forward bases, would be unsurprising and should be pursued. Furthermore, this evolved interoperability will strengthen the respective nations’ own defence industries, generating an operational and strategic resilience to combat losses – the whole in this instance is far stronger than the sum of its parts.
Perhaps least obvious to outside observers but most critical to the navies who operate the Type 26 is the interoperability now possible involving not only platforms but also people. As is the case with armed forces of most western democracies currently, declining support for allocating money to defence budgets generated numerous reviews which caused significant reductions in manpower. While politically expedient at the time and attractive to modern liberal ideals, managing the limitations of this decline is now the key challenge to armies and navies facing a rapid growth in potential military threats from emerging powers.
Even acknowledging the significant differences between systems at the “technical” end, navies operating Type 26-based vessels will now be able to draw on each other’s pools of specialists in crewing their vessels in a physical realisation of the underlying intent behind existing inter-Navy personnel exchange programs. Exchanges of personnel in roles with less complicated skill sets could quickly be established and while Australia’s AEGIS/CEAFAR combination is vastly different to the British system and will be also to the Canadian solution, the human-machine interfaces for combat and even engineering systems these days possess sufficient commonality to allow operators to quickly assimilate to new systems. This is likewise enhanced by the greater adaptability of current and future generations of operators from a “gaming console” culture.
Comparisons with Australia and New Zealand’s Anzac-class frigates (based on the German Meko 200 design – another popular multi-nation vessel with Greece, Turkey and Portugal among the list of other global users) highlight the counterpoint to my argument so far but this should not deter Australia, Canada, the UK and likely future customers from pursuing the opportunities that I have described. The greater interoperability I envision here is undeniably supported by the strong cultural and historical links between customer nations which have led to existing similarities in areas such as policies, procedures and tactics. The current geopolitical instability provides a ripe context for this kind of synergy to be further entwined when nations can find common values and strategic objectives that they wish to pursue; a situation which exists in the current customer base.
The prospect of a fleet of 32 or more ships of common type operated by navies linked by culture, tradition, and associated values, presents significant benefits beyond industrial efficiency. With a truly global span, each navy acquires a resilience and flexibility much sought after in an increasingly uncertain strategic environment and very much in accordance with their contemporary strategic plans. The ability to interact with each other and to act in direct support of each other’s objectives through areas such as manpower, logistics, sustainment and industrial base gives real life to distributed lethality. The opportunity exists now to develop and implement these initiatives and it is an opportunity we would be wise to take.
Duncan MacRae is a current serving member of the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) with almost 20 years experience as a warfare officer. The opinions in this article are the author’s alone and do not represent the position of the Australian Government, the Australian Defence Force, or the Royal Australian Navy.