Attempting the Impossible?

By Dan Middlemiss, 28 May 2024

The Australian government recently confirmed plans to procure 11 new, Tier 2 warships as part of the force mix structure outlined in its Enhanced Lethality Surface Combat Fleet design study. These smaller and lower capability ships will operate independently with the Royal Australian Navy’s (RAN) existing Hobart-class air warfare destroyers and also its new Hunter-class frigates now being constructed.

            To lower the procurement risk and to fast-track the introduction of what the government sees as urgently needed naval capabilities, the government will adopt a ‘zero design change’ approach to this Tier 2 acquisition. Rear Admiral Stephen Hughes, Head of Navy Capability, has been quoted as saying that “acquisition of a ‘zero design change’ solution was the only way which to have an acquisition programme underway and on contract before the end of 2026, with a first ship delivery to follow in 2029.”[1]

            This new shipbuilding approach will entail a clear change from the traditional ‘Australianised’ military-off-the-shelf (MOTS) model previously used for RAN surface combatant procurements. The navy has stated that it will develop no requirements for the procurement plan, and has stated that it will be happy with whichever warship design is selected from the four ‘exemplar’ designs under consideration.

            Australia will also employ a hybrid ‘offshore then onshore’ build strategy. As Rear Admiral Hughes elaborated: “We’re going to build initially three offshore, and then we’ll build three [more] of the same baseline onshore. And then what happens for ships 7 through 11 is something for future decisions around where that design goes.”

            It will be very interesting to watch how this plan unfolds. The logic seems to be sound, but navies and naval shipbuilders always seem to find ingenious ways to justify at least some design customization, and this in turn always introduces risk, delays and higher costs.


[1] Richard Scott, "Australian Navy capability head : ‘zero-change’ is right strategy for Tier 2 general purpose frigate",, 28 May 2024. (accessed at:


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