General purpose frigates as a means of beefing up Australia’s maritime capabilities
January 18, 2023
With a growing recognition that Australia’s naval capabilities are underprepared and “under gunned” in light of a rapidly evolving regional threat environment, does a fleet of general purpose frigates provide the solution to beefing up Australia’s naval strike power?
As the Royal Australian Navy prepares to receive the first Arafura and Hunter Class vessels this decade, and in light of growing commentary about the growing need for greater versatility, firepower and capability, the evolving regional and global dynamics have raised the question, can a fleet of ocean-going corvettes ease the operational burden on high-end warfighting platforms and expand the range and power of the Navy?
For the first time in the nation’s history, Australia’s prosperity, security and way of life is intrinsically linked to the ambition, stability and direction of its Indo-Pacific neighbours. This new paradigm echoes the environment America found itself in during the mid-19th century, which was best explained by American naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan in his 1890 work The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, which outlined that “whether they will or not, Americans must now begin to look outward. The growing production of the country demands it”.
Australia’s geographic location and the vast distances required for the Royal Australian Navy to transit in order to patrol across our northern approaches and through economically critical sea lines of communication necessitate a vessel larger and more heavily armed than the 80-metre, 1,640-tonne Arafura Cass offshore patrol vessels, yet smaller and not as complex as the 146.7-metre, 7,000-tonne Hobart Class destroyers or the 149.9-metre, 8,800-tonnne Hunter Class frigates.
Australia is not alone in facing this challenge of fielding a mix of major surface combatants. Both the US Navy and the British Royal Navy have in recent years commenced programs to develop and field a less-specialised, general purpose vessel that is capable of independent long-range deployments, while also bringing a degree of high-end warfighting capability to broader task groups.
While both nations operate fleets of high-end, specialised warships, like the US Navy’s Arleigh Burke Class destroyers and the Royal Navy’s future City (Type 26) Class frigates, their respective corvette-to-frigate programs have yielded results, with both the US Navy and Royal Navy preparing to field the Constellation and Inspiration Class ships, respectively.
In the Royal Navy’s case, the Type 31 Class of general purpose frigates, based on the Babcock Arrowhead 140, will provide the Royal Navy with a class of highly capable warship that sits in between the River Class OPVs and the City and Daring Class vessels, expanding the range and capability of the Royal Navy, without taxing the limited number of large, high-end surface combatants.
The Royal Navy plans on acquiring five vessels for itself, with an additional two for Indonesia and three for Poland, respectively, providing these smaller navies with comparatively high-end warfighting capabilities in a relatively compact package — these vessels weigh in at 5,700 tonnes, with a range of 9,000 nautical miles at 16 knots, and the pre-fitted capacity for up to 32 strike-length MK-41 VLS cells, a 57mm main gun and a core complement of 100, compared to the 177 of the existing Anzac Class frigates or 180 for the Hobart Class destroyers and Hunter Class frigates.
Additionally, the platform has wide growth margins for future mine countermeasures, undersea surveillance and manned/unmanned teaming options leveraging four large multi-mission bays for the launch and recovery of autonomous systems — this additional flexibility, combined with the increase in capability provided by additional modularity built into the design.