CSC, T26, Hunter class

Analysis of Australia’s Naval Shipbuilding Programs: Some Possible Implications for Canada

By Dr. Dan Middlemiss, 15 November 2021

Earlier this month, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) published a Special Report dealing with Australia’s equivalent of Canada’s National Shipbuilding Strategy (NSS).1 This Report by Dr. Marcus Hellyer, ASPI’s experienced Senior Analyst, touched upon many aspects of Australia’s two major naval procurement programs, but its findings should resonate here in Canada.

Hellyer’s central argument is that Australia’s two major naval procurement programs, the Hunter-class frigate and the nuclear-powered submarine, are progressing far too slowly. The first frigate is scheduled for delivery in 2033, and at best, the initial nuclear submarine will not be delivered before the late 2030s. This, coupled with evidence that the Hunter-class frigates will be built with a very minimal 32 vertical launch systems (VLS), have only a bare minimum of land-attack missiles, will be overly heavy and underpowered, and will possess only the tiniest margins for future growth, will leave the Australian Navy with a serious capability gap over the next 20 years. These twin shortcomings require immediate hedging measures to forestall a dangerous situation developing.

Hellyer’s analysis bears striking similarities with the current situation in Canada. Thus far, Ottawa does not expect a construction contract for its equivalent of the Australian and British Type-26 frigates, the Canadian Surface Combatant (CSC), to be concluded before late 2023-24, with the first warship being delivered no earlier than 2031 or perhaps later. Furthermore, Jeffery Collins has discovered an Access to Information briefing note urging the Department of National Defence (DND) to “kick off without delay” a replacement plan for Canada’s 4 Victoria-class submarines or else face what Collins depicts as a defence gap in the arctic.2

To state that planning for Canada’s CSC lacks urgency is to grossly understate the obvious. Such plans first began in earnest in 2008, and the intent was to deliver the first frigate in 2020.3 Almost at once this overly optimistic target was slipped to 2025, and the estimate now is for the first of this class to be delivered in the early 2030s.

As Hellyer notes of the Hunter-class, “wishful thinking has reigned” in the Australian fast frigate program, its schedule has been “moribund,” and costs have increased to the point that the total number to be built is in question. The Australian government has decided “to choose the least mature design and then to perform fundamental modifications to it.” The result has been “instability in the reference ship’s design” and a weight growth from about 8,800 tonnes to over 10,000 tonnes. He notes that there will be challenges to integrate the various systems, and all this will add to prospect of further schedule delays and the injection of “additional risk into the program.”4

Tellingly, Hellyer notes that the Hunter-class, when it finally materializes, will be slow, possess an inadequate number of VLS at 32, carry only 8 maritime-strike missiles, and will have only a 2.5 percent future growth margin.5

Of course, it is difficult to compare the Australian Hunter-class to Canada’s CSC, because in the latter case, we have no firm contractual information because there will be no contract for several years. But similarities to the Australian case abound.

Canada, too, picked the least mature frigate design and has evidently modified the original reference ship design extensively. There will certainly be challenges in integrating several new sensor, communications, and weapons systems from the UK, the US, and from Canada. The original design has increased from around 5,500 tonnes to approximately 9,400 tonnes. We do not know what design margin will be available for future growth, but the Hunter-class data provide a cautionary tale. As Hellyer alludes, unless the basic principles of hydrodynamics have magically changed, the power required to propel a 9,400 tonne ship at a given speed will be much more than that required for a 5,500 tonne ship, yet the proposed UK power plant remains the same. Mikael Perron argues that, while the current power is adequate for a 7,800 tonne CSC, if the full displacement weight is actually 9,400 tonnes, “(T)hat would be a totally different game.”6

The CSC will also feature only 32 VLS – at the low-end for most current frigates, and will be fitted for but not with Tomahawk land-attack missiles. Finally, and indisputably, Canada’s CSC is certain to eclipse Hellyer’s claim about the Hunter-class: “Overall, of all contemporary warships, it seems to be the most expensive for getting missiles to sea.”7

Space limitations prevent a discussion of Hellyer’s proposed solution to the naval capability gap in Australia. However, it remains clear that without a vigorous sea change in approach to both Canada’s CSC and submarine procurement programs, Canada will be left to face 21st century threats with increasingly obsolescent technology.

Notes:

1. Dr. Marcus Hellyer, “Delivering a stronger Navy, faster”, Special Report 177, (Barton, Australia: November 2021). Accessed at: https://www.aspi.org.au/report/delivering-stronger-navy-faster

2. Jeffrey F. Collins, “Without plan for new submarines Canada faces defence gap in the Arctic”, Financial Post (8 November 2021). Accessed at: https://nationalpost.com/opinion/jeffrey-f-collins-without-plan-for-new-submarines-canada-faces-defence-gap-in-the-arctic

3. Assistant Deputy Minister (Review Services), DND, “Audit of the Canadian Surface Combatant Project”, (November 2015), iii-iv.

4. Hellyer, 7-9.

5. Hellyer, 13.

6. Mikael Perron, “Long-term Operations and Sustainment Costs for the CSC”, Canadian Naval Review, 17:1 (2021), 32.

7. Hellyer, 13.

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