that we are surrounded by water, one of the big headaches for Australian strategic planners is the number of naval combat platforms that will be in service during the critical period of the 2030s.  This is the decade when it is assessed China will be at its most capable and most aggressive, after which profound demographic issues and leadership changes may see Beijing more internally focussed.  With the cancellation of the Attack submarine program, there is understandable nervousness about what is happening with surface ships.

On August 26 there was good news during a media briefing in Adelaide by BAE Systems Australia – Maritime CEO Craig Lockhart. This is that the Hunter class frigate program has been making better than expected progress and there is now a strong possibility that the build schedule can be accelerated.  However, this increase in pace has not yet been confirmed officially – at this stage it is the assessment of the prime contractor.  Given unexpected events such as Covid and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, everyone is wary about making promises that will subsequently need to be broken.

Unusually, the briefing also included representatives from the Defence customer, including RADM Tony Dalton who is responsible for National Naval Shipbuilding within the Capability Acquisition and Sustainment Group, and Sheryl Lutz, First Assistant Secretary Ships from the same organisation.  Another noteworthy participant was Vice Admiral Tim Barrett (retired), who is now an advisor to BAE Systems.

Without for a moment wishing to sound ungrateful for the positive news, it is still short of what the government of the day stated on November 18, 2018, when announcing the selection of BAE Systems as the combat system integrator for the project.  In the final sentence of his media release, Defence Minister Christopher Pyne stated without ambiguity or qualification:

“Construction will begin at Adelaide’s Osborne Shipyard in 2020 and the program will employ around 4000 workers.”

Earlier when BAE Systems and the UK Type 26 design were selected on 29 June, 2018, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, Finance Minister Matthias Cormann and Minister Pyne said in a joint statement:

“The Hunter class will begin entering service in the late 2020s replacing the eight Anzac Frigates, which have been in service since 1996.”

We will return to this history shortly, but nothing should detract from the efforts of BAE Systems and their Osborn workforce to recently accelerate the program, which will deliver a complex, exceptionally powerful platform to the RAN.  Nine of the 10,000 tonne anti-submarine warfare (ASW) ships will be acquired, with the first batch of three under contract.  They are being built to the highest possible standards and with a level of Australian Industry content that is tracking above expectations, and which is likely to increase further.

To understand how the schedule might now be brought forward it is necessary to canter through why it was initially pushed out.  The start of construction in 2020 was always going to be difficult and as the date drew closer the story from the government changed slightly and the public were then informed that “prototyping” rather than actual shipbuilding would begin in that year.  What that meant was that representative pieces of the ship would be cut, trimmed and welded for training and planning purposes, but they would be discarded when work on the real thing started.

In August last year an additional 18-month delay was agreed by all parties.  This was caused by several events, most noticeably the global disruption of Covid.  The factors directly related to the platform included the complexity of the Australian-specific changes – especially the radar and combat system that necessitated a slightly fatter hull of 0.6 of a metre – delays to the parent Type 26 program and a shipyard being developed.  Nevertheless, work had already started as promised on the prototype sections.

This has been moving along very well in the enormous new facility at Osborn that features several gigantic, interconnected construction, outfitting and assembly buildings with overhead cranes, welding machines as well as cutting and painting equipment. The final hall is large enough to accommodate an entire 150 metre long, 21-metre-wide Hunter frigate under full cover.  In fact, it could include two Hunter frigates side-by-side, but that will never occur in practise because of the need to have enough working space available to complete the job efficiently.

The protype blocks are huge – basically sections of the designed ship weighing up to 141 tonnes.  The original plan was to discard all of the prototype blocks after they had served their training purpose. The first two would not be suitable in any case because they are built to the Type 26 design (the only design available when work started), which has different cabling and piping cut outs in the steel sheets. Because of the quality and speed of the work now being performed at Osborn, the later ones designed for the Hunters will be good enough to be incorporated in them.

Work on these enhanced prototype blocks is now scheduled to begin in May next year, which means that if everything goes to plan that will mark the date of the construction of the first of class.  If none of the test sections had been suitable for inclusion, the build of the platform would have commenced at the end of 2024.  Further to this, on August 29, BAE Systems announced that:

“Equal to the size of two houses and taking 45,000 hours, the first steel ‘block’ has been constructed by shipbuilders working on the Hunter class frigate program. The largest surface shipbuilding program in Australian defence history continues to make strong progress at the Osborne Naval Shipyard in South Australia.

“Shipbuilders are initially manufacturing five prototype ship blocks to test and refine the processes, systems, tools, facilities and workforce skills ahead of construction of the first Hunter class frigate. There are 22 blocks in each Hunter class frigate. The first prototype block, known as Block 16, weighs more than 140 tonnes and its construction involved the expertise of 35 different trades, including engineers, boiler makers, welders, fabricators and project managers.”

BAE Systems Australia Managing Director – Maritime, Craig Lockhart, said:

“Throughout construction of the first prototype ship block, our highly-skilled workforce has been able to incorporate new, more efficient and effective ship-build methods and innovations into our processes. Already, the quality and productivity we are achieving is well above where we thought it would be at this stage of prototyping. This quality demonstrates the potential of a strong future for continuous naval shipbuilding in Australia.

“We are working towards achieving new benchmarks in manufacturing efficiency and quality and the new processes we are developing allow much greater engagement with Australian suppliers.”

Work has also been taking place in parallel on the combat system, with radar hardware from Australian supplier CEA at Moorestown in the US for integration testing at a shore-based Aegis facility, which Defence says is going very well.  At the same time, a prototype of the complex and distinctive aluminium mast is taking place at the BAE Systems facility in Henderson, WA, which successfully completed similar but smaller scale work as part of the ANZAC frigate ASMD upgrade.

It is probably coincidence, but the media visit took place against the backdrop of not only a lot of public criticism of the project – including by APDR – but more recently Navantia, the Spanish builder of the RANs three Air Warfare Destroyers, has made an unsolicited offer to supply more of this class to Australia.  The argument goes: “Why wait for the Hunters when we can have additional Hobart class in the water before the end of the decade.”  While it has no chance of success, the fact that the offer has been made might have ruffled a few feathers – especially as it was made directly to government, bypassing Defence and the RAN.

At first glimpse, the idea might have some appeal – and it has powerful backing.  The two ships are approximately the same size and the Hobart class are in service with the RAN and they have 48 critically important VLS cells compared with 32 for the future Hunters.  The list of specific Australian changes that BAE Systems need to make to the Type 26 parent design are:

  • the Aegis combat management system with the Saab Australia developed Australian Interface;
  • the Australian designed and built CEAFAR2 phased array radar;
  • integration of systems to support Australian weapons;
  • integration of the Seahawk Romeo Maritime Combat Helicopter;
  • Australian communications systems; and
  • Australian legislative requirements.

The Hobart class already incorporates the final four points on that list – and a lot of work had already been done by Navantia on the first two since a modified version of the ship was one of three contenders that was part of the Competitive Evaluation Process for SEA 5000.

Despite this, the task of installing and integrating the new CEAFAR mast and the Aegis Baseline 9 combat system would have been considerable. In addition, the Type 26 will incorporate the large Thales variable depth, active, towed array sonar that is an essential tool for ASW operations, while the Hobart class have a much smaller system. Replacing it would have required a redesign of the aft of the ship.

Anyway, it is all academic because Defence has as usual circled the wagons and will protect the Hunter program from competition, no matter what.  Life tells us that sometimes we get things wrong – that’s why divorces occur and why appeals courts exist and why journalists write corrections – but apparently that’s never the view from Russell Hill.  Perhaps a lesson from this is not to create unreachable expectations for a program, though to be fair that is often the speciality of Ministers responsible for the portfolio.

(Kym Bergmann travelled to Adelaide as a guest of BAE Systems.  He would particularly like to thank Kaye Noske for her help)

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Kym Bergmann is the editor for Asia Pacific Defence Reporter (APDR) and Defence Review Asia (DRA). He has more than 25 years of experience in journalism and the defence industry. After graduating with honours from the Australian National University, he joined Capital 7 television, holding several positions including foreign news editor and chief political correspondent. During that time he also wrote for Business Review Weekly, undertaking analysis of various defence matters.After two years on the staff of a federal minister, he moved to the defence industry and held senior positions in several companies, including Blohm+Voss, Thales, Celsius and Saab. In 1997 he was one of two Australians selected for the Thomson CSF 'Preparation for Senior Management' MBA course. He has also worked as a consultant for a number of companies including Raytheon, Tenix and others. He has served on the boards of Thomson Sintra Pacific and Saab Pacific.


  1. Sorry, “Life tells us that sometimes we get things wrong – “, When it comes to backing the wrong horse, defence has taken that to Olympic Levels. The clock is ticking on the age of the Hobart Class, and frankly having 3 or 4 Version 2.0s should be certainly considered on redundancy alone. As we know the Hobart is a AWd and the 26 is ASW, yet they can overlap.
    A far cheaper scenario would of couse be bringing the Arafuras to greater than Corvette status considering the Chinese Corvette could outperform the ANZAC on paper. The Arafura with its container mission moduals, a helipad and canister missiles would fill the gap and be in more places triangulating submarine positions. The Arafura really is the cost effective key to our navies success.

  2. Why the hell can’t we just add a few more cells to this this 10,000 ton ship??.Give it 96 cells to equal to a Burke it can survive against Chinese Ships with 100 cells.It badly needs more cells for Tomahawks and SM6 and SM2 salvos.

      • Elevated weight is the main problem with adding more VLS tubes & missiles – they are very heavy due to the strength requirements. Later batches could potentially have Mk57 VLS fitted along the sides of the flight deck as this would allow the weight to be kept low in the hull. The tubes would probably be shorter which would limit them to firing ESSM 2 missiles for air defence but it would free up the full length Mk41 VLS tubes for Tomahawks, etc

  3. There’s a lot of wishful thinking about the Collins LOTE & a potential gap until the SSN’s enter service as well as additional AWD’s before the Hunter class enters service. The limitation to all this speculation is MANPOWER – not only the manning of each vessel but also the design and logistics of supporting them.

    I think that the RAN could not introduce another class of submarine to bridge the gap without diverting a lot of capability away from the SSN program and causing even further delays to their entry into service. The planned Collins LOTE (timed to coincide with Full Cycle Dockings to maximise availability) will give them the capability of a new build submarine so they will be very capable for the additional 10 years service. The accelerated purchase of XL-AUV’s to augment the Collins (& subsequently, the SSN’s) will assist in mitigating any capability gap. The high quality of the steel used in the Collins hull means that there is a possibility that they could have a second LOTE if the SSN’s production is delayed.

    The introduction of an entirely new submarine (eg Korean or Japanese) would be beyond the capability of the RAN to support without delaying the SSN’s. To expedite their entry into service, they would probably be built overseas and this would result in major maintenance costs throughout their service life. The RAN’s experience (particularly with the British built Oberon class) is that submarines require more maintenance than surface vessels and to control the costs as they age, the main service components must be produced locally. This is why they were determined to set up the infrastructure and develop the skills to build the Collins class at Osborne – this is considered to be an essential requirement. The attempts by the Naval Group to lower local production of the Attack class from the contracted 90% to circa 40% lead to a lot of dissatisfaction and caused the Government to look for a Plan B.

    WRT the Hunter class, I have confidence that the designers will do a very good job integrating the various Australian & US systems into the Type 26 design. The main problem to deal with is the CEAFAR 2 active radar having its electronic components mounted on the back of the antennas thus, there’s a lot of weight high up in the mast adversely affecting the stability. I suspect that there are only 32 VLS cells being fitted to reduce the weight in elevated positions. As these vessels are primarily planned for ASW duties, this is adequate but, after the first batch (3), I expect more capability. After the 9 Hunter frigates have been completed, it’s possible that the AWD replacement could be developed on this hull which is 2,500 tonnes larger than the Navantia F100 based AWD’s.

    The unsolicited Navantia proposal to quickly build 3 additional AWD’s has a lot of merit but it comes back to having sufficient manpower to build and support these vessels in that timeframe without impacting the Hunter production. The AEGIS Combat system & SPY-6 Radar systems ordered for the current AWD upgrade could be used in the new AWD’s and the 3 AEGIS Combat systems ordered for the first batch of Hunters could be used to do a more basic upgrade of the current AWD’s (retaining the SPY1-D radar). This would provide them with the full interoperability with allied (USN) warships. This plan may cause the Hunters to be delayed if replacement AEGIS systems can’t be sourced in time. If this proposal was accepted (unlikely imho), I believe the hulls would have to be constructed in Spain with the combat systems fitted locally.

    Time will tell but, with the latest strategic developments, time is something that we don’t have a lot of.

    • Thank you very for that detailed explanation. There’s a lot to unpack there, so let me follow up on a couple of big issues that you raise: given that there will be a 20 year gap (at least) before nuclear SSNs can be acquired – let alone introduced into service – I struggle with the concept that the RAN doesn’t have enough personnel to do much in the meantime, particularly in an environment when the head count is going up. If CN believes that even more people are required, that would be an extremely easy case to put to government. At the moment the nuclear task force is +200 people, of whom only a small fraction are from the RAN. As I have pointed out, many other nations have no problems at all with three or more classes of submarine, at least one of them with a navy much smaller than Australia’s (Sweden).

      When you mention that introducing an interim submarine might delay the acquisition of a nuclear powered SSN it’s interconnected in the sense that I don’t believe there’s a firm date for a purchase and it’s always a good idea to have a hedging strategy. What do we do if a nuke isn’t available until 2060? What do we do if a Republican is elected US President in 2024 and completely scraps AUKUS? That might only be a 20% probability – but it’s still something that needs to be considered and factored in.

      I generally agree with what you write about the Hunter class. Regarding Hobart AWDs the time to have ordered more of them was 2015-2018, but whenever they RAN was asked even about a 4th ship the answer was “no thanks”. As an outsider, I found that bizarre. If the government had offered RAAF another couple of squadrons of F-35s or Army some additional SPH would they have said no? Of course all of these things need people to operate them – there’s no point buying lots of expensive platforms for them to be sitting around gathering dust – but basically this is bringing forward procurements that make sense. I fear that the Australian pipeline for the Hobart class has been atrophied – but it is still there because the ships are being supported. It all comes back to the RAN showing some lateral thinking and I don’t see much evidence of that. We can all come up with a myriad of reasons for why things cannot be done.

      • Thanks for your reply Kym.

        In the current work environment, labour is the most critical element with shortages everywhere. The recently announced increase in numbers for the ADF is very welcome news but, I think they are going to struggle to fill those positions as the criteria that makes a person suitable for a lot of defence positions are also in demand for a lot of businesses/industries with higher pay and less restrictions. One of the areas where we are currently limited is Naval Design, especially with advanced design on the Hunter program, AWD Upgrade, Collins LOTE, Anzac Upgrade & potential LOTE, preliminary SSN appraisals, etc.

        If another submarine type was purchased (eg Korean), there would have to be significant new design prior to construction to ensure sufficient range & habitability. These vessels would be required to undergo missions in excess of 70 days so the habitability is extremely important – much more than for operations in the Korean navy where they would mainly be operating in waters close to home and thus have shorter cruises. The other major issue would be fitting a combat system & weapons that we have experience with – potentially delaying construction further.

        If we were to purchase an interim conventional submarine, a “Son-of-Collins” would require less design work as the systems planned for the LOTE would be used in them and a lot of the design work has already been done. It’s sad that the Australian government & RAN have treated the Swedes so badly as their expertise with a very similar submarine class would help mitigate the risks in this plan (& also the Collins LOTE). If the SSN program has significant delays, 3 (or 4) of these could be built to fill the gap when the first few post LOTE Collins class are retired (the last LOTE submarine is expected to remain in service until 2048) and, as they would have a lot of common systems, the inventory & logistics to support them would be simpler & cheaper than introducing an entirely new type.

        You made a very good point about a change in US leadership – has to be planned for.

        I wasn’t aware that the RAN said no to the 4th AWD, I thought that Rudd government killed it off.

        • Again, thanks for the additional input. My solution to the 70 days endurance is build a refuelling stop on Christmas Island, which is 2,500km north of Fremantle on the way to and from the South China Sea. If we wanted to be really smart we would drill a tunnel in the side of the thing like the Swedes did with the island of Musko where submarines could arrive and depart without surfacing. That’s a lot cheaper and faster than any of the other options.

          Regarding the 4th AWD, I can state with certainty that the RAN simply would not take it. The 3 AWDs replaced the 3 DDGs and so in their way of thinking the number could not be changed.

          • Thanks Kym,

            The 70 days is more a crew R&R limitation than a refuelling requirement – extensive operations with the Oberon & Collins boats indicate that this is as long as a crew can endure in very close company.

            Some Navy personnel say that the 3 Perth class DDG’s were retired without replacement along with the first two Adelaide class FFG’s. The last 4 Adelaide class were upgraded (SM2) to take on a DDG role until their replacements, the AWD’s, entered service. Originally, that was one-for-one but, as we know the fourth one was never built.

          • I should have written Submarine Resupply Base. Christmas Island could hardly have been better designed for such a purpose. Plenty of space on the island for R&R activities – it has a decent airport, hospital, good accommodation etc etc. It’s surrounded by extremely deep water and has many cliffs – perfect for drilling a very large hole at the waterline. You could store vast quantities of diesel there – after all it supported phosphate mining for decades with all manner of heavy earth moving equipment; ditto stores.

            Just this one development would completely transform the basis of Australia’s submarine operations. You could even leave a submarine there – guarded of course – and have crews fly in and out from Freemantle. It could easily become Australia’s Guam.

  4. Some potentially promising signs for the Hunter program. However, I think how quickly you build the ship is only part of the current situation. The capabilities of the modified Type 26 are probably what need to be assessed against the changing strategic environment.
    Have the recently rumoured speed and range changes to the Hunter made enough of a difference to be concerning?
    On the weapons front, do the Hunters, despite their stated role as ASW platforms have the necessary capability to meet the tasks it may be handed in the future. For a 10k tonne ship not to have more than 32 vls cells is interesting. While it might be too late for the flight 1 batch, I hope this is addressed for the second batch. I would think if you can fit extra cells within the weight balance envelope, it’s probably better to have them there even if you don’t always fill them in peace times…
    A Hobart flight 2, with understandable necessary upgrades may be much lower risk than trying to modify the Hunters. At very least, it adds extra cells. It also allows for slip in the Hunter program.
    I have a feeling that any south east Asia conflict is going to be missile heavy.

  5. I’m concerned that the political hurdles of acquiring an SSN are not getting the attention they deserve.
    To state the obvious, for this project to succeed we will need to satisfy in full the politics domestically in conjunction with our AUKUS partners and also address any challenges from the international community.
    This is a big ask
    Not just for now, but also for the many many decades we seek to have this capability.
    I’m not saying we don’t pursue this endeavor as an SSN is certainly a potent weapon system.
    But maybe we should consider that we run with a mixed Nuclear and conventional fleet going forward.
    A lot of eggs in the one basket with solely a nuclear platform.
    Lose that capability for what ever layer of political intervention then we have no plan B and a big dent in our force structure.
    It may not be what navy want, but it maybe a prudent approach for the future.



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