Marcus Hellyer, Australian Strategic Policy Institute, on the Way Ahead with Australian Frigates

By Robbin Laird

Last year, the Australian navy announced that they would build a new class of frigates, the Hunter class.

This new class will be built-in Australia with BAE Systems as the prime contractor.

The Brits and the Aussies will work together on this new launch platform and the Canadians have announced they will join in as well.

But one has to fight with the Navy you have while you prepare for the Navy to come.

In an interview I did with then Chief of Navy, Vice Admiral Barrett, the core challenge of transition was highlighted.

Question: How do fight with the fleet you have and prepare at the same time for tomorrow’s fleet, especially when you have several new programs in the pipeline?

Vice Admiral Tim Barrett: You have to fight with the fleet you have now.

That is not an option; it is a necessity.

My focus to do that better and to lay the groundwork for the future fleet is to focus upon availability of assets.

How do we get our availability rates higher?

How do we get ships to sea more effectively and more often?

They are not going to make much difference sitting in drydocks.

One can provide for enhanced deterrence through enhanced availability.

During my current visit to Australia, I had a chance to discuss the transition challenge with Marcus Hellyer, senior analyst with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and a well known analyst of defense systems.

Hellyer: “When we first got Anzac, it was intended as a low to mid-tier patrol frigate.

“It was never really intended to be a front-line combatant.

“The term used was that it was ‘fitted for but not with’.

“It didn’t have a lot of the things you’d really want in a real combat vessel and so they were nicknamed floating targets.

“But the ship has been through quite an extensive series of upgrades, primarily in the air warfare space, but at the self-defense end of the air warfare spectrum.

“It’s had anti-ship missile upgrade that included the CEA Technologies Phased Array Radar which, we think, is the leading Phased Array Radar in the world, made here in Canberra.

“And that radar will also go onto the future frigates.

“This means there is continuity in transition from Anzac to the future frigate with regard to the radar.”

Laird: Presumably the operational experience with the new CEA radar, that learning curve, can be applied directly to the new frigate, which is a plus.

Hellyer: That is correct.

“ANZAC also has  an upgrade to its SAAB 9LV combat management system which can now fully exploit the capabilities of the CEA radar and ESSM.

“We’re also a member of the International Consortium for the upgraded ESSM.

“And we’re also just starting the installation of a new, long range air search radar, again a version of the CEA Phased Array Radar.

“It’s no longer a floating target. It’s got a very high-level self-defence air warfare capability, operating within a task force.

Laird: Can you operate Romeo off of it?

Hellyer: It does now.

“We have replaced the old Seahawks with the Romeo, which has a dipping sonar. That, in itself, is a good upgrade.

“But the platform itself probably won’t get substantial ASW upgrades.

“That is another aspect of continuity to the future frigates, which will also have the Seahawk Romeo and ESSM.

“The new frigate will have Aegis unlike the Anzac. But the new frigate will also use the SAAB 9LV combat management system as the interface between the ship’s systems and Aegis.  Navy and the government made a very smart decision in mandating SAAB 9LV across all of Navy’s surface ships.

“So there’s a lot of substantial continuities between Anzac and the future frigate which, hopefully, will de-risk that very long transition over the next 24 years.”

Laird What about the sustainment side of the ANZAC frigates?

Hellyer: The location of the major sustainment activities where they take it out of the water, put it up on blocks, is done in Western Australia at Henderson Shipyard.

“Most of the substantial work is done there although our frigates are currently split between East and West coast.

“But manpower challenges are significant for the Navy.

“Essentially, we’re in a process of doubling the size of the navy in terms of tonnage. From where we were at the start of this decade to where we’re going to be once future frigates, air warfare destroyers, LHD’s, and future submarines are all delivered.

Laird: The challenge is that it will be a very different navy to operate,

Hellyer: As I noted, the Navy will operate at twice the tonnage of the current fleet.

“You can’t just assume you can operate that force, which is way more complex, with the same number of people we’ve got now.”

Laird: And both in terms of the operators as well as the people doing the maintenance?

Hellyer:  I’d say both.

“For example, HMAS Perth, which is one of the Anzacs, was meant to come out of its last maintenance cycle, which included a lot of the upgrades we’ve been talking about, a year ago.

“It’s actually still up on blocks because navy hasn’t been able to find a crew for it.

“It’s probably going to be out of the water for two years after it’s received its upgrades because navy hasn’t got the people.

Laird: And what you are saying as well is that the modernization of the ANZAC frigate has reached the limits of what the platform can deliver as well?

Hellyer:  “That is correct. We’ve increased the weight of the frigate from 3600 tons to 3900 tons as the upgrades have been added. And all of these new systems require additional power which stresses the platform as well.”

Hellyer emphasized that the government is going to face a significant cash flow challenge as it maintains its current fleet and transitions to the new one.

“As a relatively small defense force, we’ve always tried to transition as fast as possible to reduce that overhead of operating two different platforms in the same capability space.

“If you take the case of fighters we are retiring classic Hornets as we bring the F-35 because we do not want to maintain two different fleet.

“We’ll have our first squadron operational by the end of this year and we will be out of the classic Hornet business two years after that.

“We want to transition as fast as possible because we don’t want the overhead of operating JSF and classic Hornets at the same time.

“When you look at the frigate transition and, even more so, the submarine transition, there is a huge overlap. Extended overlap between the old and new classes of frigates and submarines will drive up sustainment costs significantly.

“But trying to transition faster to reduce that overlap will be very difficult. The real issue is cashflow.

“How much of our budget is now tied up in shipbuilding for all eternity because we’re now in rolling, continuous naval shipbuilding? We think it’s probably going to be 3.5 to 4 billion Australian dollars per year by the first half of the 2020’s.

“In our terms that’s potentially about 30% of our capital acquisition budget.

“This will reduce our flexibility to buy other things like aircraft or EW or whatever you wish to add to the force.

“But it also means if you want to deliver those ships faster you have to pump more cash through and so that number would get even bigger.

“Unless the government substantially increases the defense budget, I think it’s going to be hard to deliver frigates and submarines faster.

Editor’s Note: Marcus Hellyer is a Senior Analyst focusing on Defence economics and military capability.

Previously he was a senior public servant in the Department of Defence, responsible for ensuring that the government was provided with the best possible advice and recommendations on major capital investments such as the Joint Strike Fighter, Future Frigate and Future Submarine. He also developed and administered Defence’s capital investment program.

Marcus has also worked in Australia’s intelligence community as a terrorism analyst.

Before joining the public service, Marcus had a career as an academic historian in the United States.

The recent Australian National Audit Office report on the sustainment of ANZAC Class Frigates can be read below:


For his three part series on the challenges and opportunities with regard to frigate modernization, see the following:

Shaping the Future of the Royal Australian Navy: The Impact of Frigates

Can the Anzac Frigates Remain Relevant?

The ANZAC Frigates: The Challenge of Operating an Older Fleet