Some Comments on CSC Armaments & Aussie Comparisons

By Timothy Choi, 19 November 2021

Earlier this week, my fellow CNR colleague Dr. Dan Middlemiss published some thoughts on a latest report on the Australian Hunter class frigate program and what lessons they may impart for Canada. Although I agree with his broader observations regarding the general difficulties and challenges both countries will continue to face in their quest to adapt the base Type 26 design for their respective frigates, I would like to address - and dare I say to such a distinguished figure in Canadian naval history, correct - a few points brought up in his post.

1. One of the observations brought up was the notion that the Canadian CSC, like the Aussie Hunter, has only "32 VLS - at the low-end of most current frigates." In actuality, very few frigates in service have more than 32 VLS. Indeed, many frigates have fewer. The following selection of in service and in-progress frigates should suffice to demonstrate the point:

Italian FREMM: 16 VLS

French FREMM: 32 VLS

UK Type 23: 32 VLS, single Sea Ceptor per cell only

UK Type 31: 24 VLS, single Sea Ceptor per cell only

Danish Iver Huitfeldt: 32 VLS, currently empty (though SM-2s are on their way), operating in the mean time with modular ESSM launchers, totalling 24 missiles.

US Constellation class: 32 VLS

German F125: none (!)

German MKS-180/F126: 16 VLS

Spanish F-110: 16 VLS

Norwegian Nansen class: 8 VLS (3 ships), 16 VLS (1 ship)

Netherlands De Zeven Provincien: 40 VLS (note this is the only Western ship classed as a "frigate" with more than 32 VLS!)

Netherlands/Belgian joint Future Surface Combatant: 16 VLS

India Shivalik: 32 anti-air VLS, 8 cruise missiles

And moving over to East Asia's arms race central, we have the following:

Japan FFM-1/30FFM: 16 VLS

Japan Akisuki (formally classed as a destroyer): 32 VLS

South Korea FFX Batch II: 16 VLS

PRC Type 054A: 32 VLS

Russia's Admiral Gorshkov class is perhaps the only class of "frigates" with substantially more VLS cells than the CSC/Hunter, though that number varies greatly depending on the particular generation, and some of those missile cells are dedicated to cruise missiles rather than universal ammunition choice.

There are ships classed as destroyers which may or may not have more cells, but the line between frigate and destroyer is quite blurry these days and I won't get into that here.

2. Secondly, the CSC actually has 38 VLS, not 32 (officially, anyway: the latest CGI graphics showing only 24 Mk 41 cells are a cause of some concern). This is because of the 6 Extensible Launch System (ExLS) cells aft of the funnel. Each of these cells, just like the Mk 41, can quad-pack smaller anti-air missiles (but, unlike the Mk 41s, not larger missiles). In the CSC's case, the missiles in the ExLS will be the Sea Ceptor, intended for use in the close-in defence role. Yes, the CSC's last-ditch armament of 6x4=24 Sea Ceptors is the entire air-defence armament of Britain's Type 31 frigates! No wonder the massive savings predicted by the PBO earlier this year for the Type 31 option.

Indeed, to use an overly simple, but perhaps the most straightforward, comparison of combat capabilities that can be brought to bear by the CSC versus the current Halifax class, one can count the maximum number of air-defence missiles carried by each: a CSC, with 32 Mk 41 and 6 ExLS, can theoretically carry 152 quad-packed ESSM/Sea Ceptors, while the Halifax class carries only 16 ESSMs. This is an ENORMOUS change in the defence capacity of the new ships, and should not be downplayed. Obviously, in actual employment, many of those Mk 41 cells will be employed for single missiles like the SM-2s or Tomahawks, but the point still stands that the new ships have a defensive capacity that are a huge step up from the current fleet. Even the 6 ExLS cells alone will have a fifty percent increase in anti-air capability versus the Halifax, regardless of what goes into the Mk 41s.

Is this order-of-magnitude increase in missile capacity enough for the future? That is debatable, but what cannot be denied is that the CSC is well ahead of the pack of current and in-construction frigates. If they are deemed "obsolescent" by virtue of their VLS count, then so are nearly every other frigate sailing the 21st century seas.

3. Tonnage is an uncertain beast: there is a vast difference nowadays, on the order a thousand tons or more, between a ship's light displacement and its full load displacement. Without knowing which one a given document or media quote is referencing (and I have yet to see one that makes this clear), the difference in displacement growth may well be less than currently assumed.

4. This isn't a point raised by Dr. Middlemiss, but it is always worth remembering the widely varying budgeting methods employed by different countries. Both Australia and Canada employ a program-based budgeting, resulting in the lumping in of infrastructure, ammunition, program management, testing facilities and contingency costs (15-20%!) outside of the actual construction of the ship itself. For navies like ours where only one program is going to make use of all those things, this "all in one" approach certainly makes sense. For larger navies like the US or UK, however, those costs and the things they pay for are used by other projects and ships, making it more useful for them to budget those items as separate programs. While this may seem a dismissive attempt to make mountains out of molehills to excuse the high figures we've been seeing, in actuality the construction costs of the ships themselves are estimated to be around only 65% of the program figures.1 So instead of the ~$60-$70 billion, the number we should be looking at is around $39-46 billion CAD. Converted to USD, that's currently ~$31-36 USD, or $2-2.4 billion USD per ship. This is still a substantial increase over the $1 billion USD Constellation class, but there's no denying the economic benefits of a superpower's supply chain and institutional experience. Furthermore, it should be reminded that these are all *budgeted* costs, which are merely estimates. None of the figures are proven as actual costs for their implementation. And, of course, the lack of spare capacity in the US shipbuilding industry is well-known: to take advantage of their lower costs, we'd have to buy from their yards, and the Americans simply do not have the ability to build ships for both themselves and us unless additional funds are provided to expand their yard capacity, which would eat into any savings from buying abroad.

  1. See Part a) to Q-556: https://www.canada.ca/en/department-national-defence/corporate/reports-publications/proactive-disclosure/pacp-national-shipbuilding-strategy-25-may-2021/reference-materials/order-paper-questions.html

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