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Surface fleet review carries Hunter Class changes in February release, say industry insiders

HMAS Warramunga sails in company with HMAS Canberra in the Coral Sea as the ships travel to take part in RIMPAC 2022 at Hawaii, USA. Photo: LSIS Matthew Lyall

The Australian federal government is preparing to release its “Surface Fleet Review” recommendations in mid-February with significant changes to the Hunter Class frigate program, according to industry insiders.

The Australian federal government is preparing to release its “Surface Fleet Review” recommendations in mid-February with significant changes to the Hunter Class frigate program, according to industry insiders.

The strategic document, following an independent analysis of Royal Australian Navy’s surface combatant fleet capability, will detail Royal Australian Navy surface combatant fleet size, structure, and composition as well as capabilities provided by future conventionally armed, nuclear-powered submarines.

Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defence Richard Marles, while speaking to a Sky News interview on 7 February, said the review recommendations will be released very shortly.

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“We’ll be releasing the review itself and the government’s response to it very shortly,” he said.

“It is a really significant piece of work and the decisions that go with it are as big a decisions, really, as we make … next to the decisions that we made a year ago in relation to acquiring nuclear-powered submarines.

“Beyond submarines, our surface fleet is the most expensive assets that we have within the Australian Defence Force. So this is a really big call.

“We want to make sure that we take all the time we can to get this right. We said in September that we would be announcing this in the early part of this year and that’s what we’ll do.”

The surface fleet review independent analysis provided to government last year was led by United States Navy Vice Admiral (Ret’d) William Hilarides, assisted by former secretary of the Department of Finance Rosemary Huxtable, and former Commander Australian Fleet, Vice Admiral Stuart Mayer.

Industry insiders, speaking to Defence Connect, have flagged incoming major changes to the SEA 5000 Phase 1 Hunter Class Frigate program with BAE Systems Maritime Australia, and an expected announcement date on 19 February.

Under the current program, the Australian Defence Force would receive nine anti-submarine optimised frigates (based on modified UK Type 26 Global Combat Ship designs) built at Osbourne South Australia. The modifications include incorporating Australian CEA phased-array radar, Aegis combat management system and integration of a Seahawk Romeo Maritime Combat Helicopter.

In addition, BAE Systems Australia announced a newly designed Hunter frigate at the Indo Pacific 2023 International Maritime Exposition late last year. That model featured an additional 64 MK41 vertical launch cells and eight more Naval Strike Missiles (96 total VLS and 16 NSMs).

Following the review, the program will instead deliver 16 Hunter Class frigates including eight in the new “up-gunned” variant and eight in standard anti-submarine variant, according to the experts speaking with Defence Connect under the condition of anonymity.

“The commitment we’ve given to the premier (South Australia’s Peter Malinauskas) which is the same commitment that we’ve given to the Australian people is for continuous naval shipbuilding in this country, which includes very much at the Osborne Naval Shipyard as it does in Western Australia as well,” said Minister Marles, speaking to an ABC television interview on 7 February.

“All that we are doing in responding to the surface fleet review is all about how we can do that in a way that does continue to maintain continuous naval shipbuilding in this country in South Australia, in Western Australia.

“Putting in place a sustainable surface fleet which sees the capability and lethality of assets to grow is a difficult question to answer.

“We are answering it and will come in the release of not just the surface fleet review but the government’s response to it, which includes funding.

“What we’re not going to do is what the former government did, which is make a whole lot of announcements without putting the proper allocation of funding behind them. Indeed, we saw $45 billion dollars’ worth of announcements made by the former government without money behind it.

“You know what that does, firstly is engage in make believe, but greatly compromises the ability for the country to engage in strategic focus and to make the decisions that we need to make to increase the lethality of the Australian Defence Force and the capability the Australian Defence Force.

“We will absolutely make sure that in releasing the review, but more importantly releasing the government’s response to the review it comes with the funding required for that response.”

Member for Sturt and Liberal Party member James Stevens, speaking in the House of Representatives on 6 February, questioned whether government is going to cut loose the Hunter Class Frigate program entirely or if the fleet review would even be released this month.

“I’m sure members are aware that there is a commitment, which we expect to be honoured by this government, to build nine new Hunter Class frigates in my home state of South Australia at the Osborne shipyard,” he said.

“So it is with heightened concern that just this week we’ve seen the Labor Premier of South Australia travel to Canberra and indicate that there might be a risk to this program continuing.

“Now, even more frighteningly, the Labor Premier has said that the commitment needs to be for at least six vessels built in Adelaide. It didn’t take much for him to knock out three vessels, billions of dollars and thousands of jobs for many years at the mere utterance of that sentence. Nonetheless, even that commitment couldn’t be secured this week.

“We’ve had this concept of the surface ship review, which some reports indicate could see the whole program scrapped. There’s been no denial of that from the defence minister and no confirmation of that program going ahead.

“It’s frightening for people who rely on this opportunity into the future. That’s thousands of direct jobs and thousands of indirect jobs in Adelaide underpinning the industrial capability of not only shipbuilding but also a whole range of other industries.

“We are even told that the surface fleet review might not be released on time this month, in February. This is getting to be absolutely ridiculous. The government has that report, and thousands of jobs are on the line.

“If they’ve got a plan to scrap that program or scale it back, they should come clean. I hope that’s not the case, and if it’s not the case then give us that certainty and those guarantees because in Adelaide, we’re sick of people playing games with these things. That’s all we’ve got from this minister and this government and it’s just not good enough for the workers involved.”

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