Multi-billion-dollar German shipbuilder Lürssen is proposing a “more bang for your buck” C90 corvette for delivery to the Royal Australian Navy by 2028.
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The German shipbuilder, also known as NVL Group, operates across eight locations internationally for the building and refitting of luxury mega yachts and naval vessels. Within Australia it operates subsidiary, Luerssen Australia.
The proposed 90-metre-long C90 corvette design is based on two NATO-standard Multipurpose Modular Patrol Vessels (MMPV 90) already under construction for the Bulgarian Navy in Varna, Bulgaria.
Luerssen said each ship is designed for maritime security and combat scenarios, with a displacement of 2100 tonnes (2300 for Australia), crew of 60 (plus 25 embarked), powered by two diesel engines to a speed of 22knots and a range of up to 6000 nautical miles. The company has indicated two vessels would be built simultaneously with steel cut in 2024, the first finished and delivered in 2028 and one every ten months thereafter.
The C90 can be equipped with 3D search radar, fire control radar, two navigation radars, combat management system, electro-optical and IR sensors, laser warning system, Israeli DSIT Blackfish hull mounted sonar, towed array sonar (optional), a stern ramp launching system, a medium-size multi-mission helicopter and landing deck.
Each vessel could be armed with a 76mm super rapid cannon (120 rounds-a-minute), 35mm anti-aircraft and anti-surface secondary gun (1000 rounds-a-minute), sixteen VLS, eight surface to surface missiles (with the potential for 16 for Australia), torpedo decoys and flare/chaff countermeasures, two 12.7mm machine guns (for the Bulgarian Navy) and two triple torpedo launchers.
The C90 design would likely need to be extended with a larger helicopter hanger as the current Bulgarian AS565 Panther medium helicopter (13.68m length, 3.97m height) is more compact than the RAN MH-60R Seahawk helicopter (19.7m length, 5.18m height).
“First and foremost, a ship needs to be able to deliver a lot of bang, what you need is the capability to carry long range missiles,” said Lürssen chief executive officer and managing partner Peter Lürssen.
“You want to have good number of surface-to-surface missile and you need a very substantial range. The 90-metre ship that we have has a good range and the current configuration is anti-submarine, anti-surface. We can further enhance it by replacing a short to medium range vertical launch with a long-range vertical launch.
“The Bulgarian ship has a three-dimensional warfare capability (air, land, sea), is it a heavier ship? Yes, it is a few knots slower but it is originally designed for heavy and rough seas.
“You want a stable, strong platform, because you need to be at sea for a prolonged period of time. You can’t do this in a ship that is not offering the best human comfort, because then the capabilities of the crew will suffer. I think in the waters around Australia, you’re probably better off with a 90-metre heavy ship.
“We already put Australian built (SAAB 9LV CMS ) consoles onto the Bulgaria ship. We do have a high Australian content… The adaptations can be done in Australia (including Australian CEA radar), we have a supply chain. And I think we will be having a great Australian content. We really have all capabilities necessary to build the ship in the country without problems.”
Luerssen has indicated production of future C90 corvettes could be streamlined by extending existing supply chains used in the construction of Arafura Class offshore patrol vessels (OVP80) in Adelaide and Perth.
The Australian Government originally signed the contract for the Arafura Class in 2018, laid the first keel in 2019, delivered the first vessel in 2021 and has 12 offshore patrol vessels to be delivered in 2030.
University of Sydney, United States Studies Centre foreign policy and defence director Professor Peter J. Dean, who worked as a co-lead of the 2023 Defence Strategic Review Secretariat for the independent leads, said Defence will be assessing costs, schedule risks, workforce and maintenance in relation to any proposal for a new Navy corvette.
“As the (Defence Strategic Review) capability section says, it’s about speed to capability. Some (designs) are less mature, Defence is going to have to offset maturity of design, scheduling and costs,” he said. “The ultimate aim they’re looking at is doing things with less risk, less costs, and really a big emphasis on speed.
“They (Luerssen) have a workforce, they have a shipyard, they have a vessel that’s an evolution of the OPV that delivers as much capability on paper as an ANZAC Class frigate does; that can be done quickly. On the surface, that’s a strong combination of factors, a workforce, a shipyard, an evolved design… that is already under construction.
“Given the higher risk strategic circumstances, the need for as DSR says ‘an enhanced capability in things such as long range strike but also in air defense and anti-submarine warfare’… stepping up from an offshore patrol vessel or a patrol craft to a corvette or light frigate option gives you those are different capabilities.
“From the design Luerssen put forward the C90 has 16 vertical launch system cells, each of those VLS cells can carry four evolved Sparrow missiles. That is a significant advantage over where the offshore patrol vessel, our Armadale and Cape class patrol vessels sit at.
“It can take a towed sonar array, has torpedo tubes and can operate a helicopter at the back. So in terms of anti-submarine warfare, it’s a massive step up from our patrol boats which have basically no capability in this area.”
Luerssen’s design could potentially compete against designs from British engineering company Babcock, Spanish state-owned shipbuilder Navantia and fellow German shipbuilder ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems (TKMS). Australia already has a contract signed with BAE Systems Maritime Australia to build nine Hunter class frigates under Project SEA 5000 Phase 1.
Prof Dean said Defence would have to consider whether other options are available.
“A Hunter Class from its sensor systems, its radar systems, its multi-mission capable and capabilities is much much larger, but it’s also significantly more expensive,” he said.
“According to what we know from Senate estimates and the Audit Office report, nine proposed Hunter class frigates currently sits at around $50 billion dollars and rising and will only get more expensive; we don’t know how much the hunter class will cost.
“We also conversely don’t yet know exactly how much a corvette or light frigate option from the Navantia, Luerssen or TKMS or anyone else would offer.
“As a ballpark figure, you’re going to get considerably larger number of Corvettes. If you look at a price estimate around $5 billion, which potentially could be the cost of one Hunter Class frigate, you could get somewhere between six to ten corvettes for that price range.
“Now if you’re looking at ten corvettes with 16 VLF cells in them. That’s 160 VLF cells across those ten corvettes, there’s only 32 VLS cells in one Hunter Class frigate, so there’s a return on your bang for buck but also ten corvettes can be in a lot more places at the same time than one Hunter class frigate.”
Mr Lürssen said the company was also willing to transport one of their floating maritime docks (dock 11) for the Henderson shipbuilding precinct in Western Australia. That dock (65000 ton lift capacity) would be moved from Hamburg, Germany to the site in Perth, allowing a viable option for maintenance on navy warships, large commercial vessels and even Virginia Class submarines.
“That proposal is over a year old, (but) we stand behind the proposal,” he said. “Would I think that it’s sensible to have a large dock there (in Perth); absolutely.
“I think as overall deal with AUKUS, you should try to get the American position ships in Australia. I mean, talking as industry, you want them to be in Australia and not in Singapore because they have lots of maintenance that need to be done and you can do it as good as your Singaporeans can.
“We stand behind the proposal to move the dock there if so wanted, and offer them the possibility to actually lift very large ships.”
Disclaimer: Robert Dougherty travelled to shipyards in Hamburg and Varna as a guest of Luerssen Australia.