A $6 billion proposal to acquire three new air warfare destroyers by the end of the decade to dramatically boost the nation’s missile firepower is gaining support in defence circles as strategists grapple with increased political tensions in the Asia-Pacific region.
The option to build three new AWDs as a means of getting new warships more quickly and cheaply is among those being examined by the defence strategic review team, headed by former defence minister Stephen Smith and former defence chief Angus Houston, which will deliver recommendations to the government by next March.
Support has grown in the navy for the proposal as its existing $45 billion future frigates program faces delays creating the potential for a gap in the capacity of the nation’s naval fleet. The push to bolster missile capacity follows the Morrison’s government’s decision last year to pursue nuclear submarines from the US and Britain in the AUKUS pact, a deal that has been endorsed by the Albanese government. Efforts to increase Australia’s defence capacity come as strategic competition intensifies between the US and China in the Asia-Pacific region, particularly over China’s military program in the South China Sea and tensions over Beijing’s plans to force reunification with Taiwan.
Support within the navy for the option to build the three new AWDs has grown in the wake of delays in the project to build nine Hunter-class frigates and concerns about the ability to extend the life of the ageing Anzac frigates.
The new AWDs would not replace the Hunter frigates but would be delivered before the first frigate was built. Defence Minister Richard Marles has not said if he would back the proposal.
Australia already has three Hobart-class AWDs that were built in Adelaide. Spanish shipbuilder Navantia has met Defense to discuss its $6 billion proposal to build three new Hobart-class boats, at $2 billion per ship, saying that it could deliver all three warships by 2030.
Navantia says the ships would complement rather than replace the project to build the Hunter Class frigates which have been delayed by weight and design issues.
“Our proposal to deliver three more Hobart Class destroyers by 2030 would provide the additional firepower Australia needs and fill upcoming capability gaps,” Navantia says in its proposal delivered to defence.
Navantia has given defense three options: the first is to build all three ships in Spain the second is a hybrid build between Spain and Australia; and the third is to build all three ships in Adelaide.
The Australian build option is slightly more expensive and would delay completion of the third ship until mid-2032 but would benefit industry.
The 7000-tonne Navantia AWDs carry 48 guided missiles, compared with 32 missiles on the Hunter Class frigates, giving the navy an early boost in firepower if the option for three more destroyers was chosen.
At $2 billion a ship, the new AWDs would be substantially cheaper than the new Hunter Class frigates which will deliver nine warships for $45 billion. Mr Marles has committed to building the Hunter Class frigates and says the government’s priority was to get the project “back on track”.
The British-designed Type 26 frigates have design and weight issues, with the Australian version now heavier after modifications including to the radar, the combat system and all the weapons. The displacement of the vessel has ballooned from 8000 tonnes to more than 10,000 tonnes, a problem the builder BAE Systems is working to rectify.
The issues have delayed the start of construction of the project by about two years with the first ship now likely to be delivered in 2031 and operational by 2033.
The government says the aim is to catch up the slippage in production so that the fourth and fifth ships are delivered as originally scheduled in the mid-2030s. The final ship is not due to be delivered until 2044. If the government does not choose the option to build more AWDs, it will need to extend the life of all of its current fleet of eight Anzac frigates to avoid a capability gap.
The Anzacs, which at 3600 tonnes are much smaller than either the AWDs or the Hunter Class frigates, were originally scheduled to retire progressively from 2024 to 2032.
The navy hopes to keep the boats in service so that the first retires in 2029 and the last in 2042. However a 2019 audit report found “shortcomings” in defence’s plans to keep the Anzacs in service for so long.
If the Anzacs needed to be retired earlier than planned or if the Hunter frigates experienced further delays, there would be a potential capability gap in the navy’s surface fleet in the late 1930s.
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