By Peter Roberts
Until now the talk in defence circles has been about the possibility that fewer than the planned nine Hunter class frigates might be built at a new shipyard at Osborne in Adelaide (pictured).
This is something that has kept Adelaide manufacturers, already reeling from Australia’s recent on-again, off again submarine policies, awake at night.
So much so that SA Premier Peter Malinauskas dashed to Canberra this week with a business and union delegation to make the case to save the Hunter programme.
But suddenly that has all changed – there could even be more, in fact as many as 16 Hunter vessels built at Osborne suggesting a major acceleration of naval construction (more of that later)
The uncertainty has come from the Defence Strategic Review and subsequent independent review of the future of the surface fleet led by United States Navy Vice Admiral (Ret’d) William Hilarides.
The latter is in many ways an outcome from an irresponsible campaign to undermine the Hunter by rival shipbuilders and some particularly vehement and hawkish journalists.
Their line has been that with the rise of tensions with China the Hunter, a capable anti-submarine vessel with some missile strike capability and an autonomous vehicle mission bay, is not the right vessel for the Royal Australian Navy.
Having already killed the French Attack submarine programme, killing the Hunter would be a colossal mistake that would decimate the defence industrial sector.
The critics seem to want all RAN ships to be land attack and anti-ship missile capable fortresses bristling with missile launchers, and in the most extreme cases of war fever, part of a nuclear weapons capable Australian Defence Force.
This ‘we must up gun’ mantra ignores the fact that the RAN must have a balanced fleet capable of a number of roles, including of course anti-submarine protection in waters to our north.
Hence the review of the fleet, with shipbuilder BAE Systems responding with an upgunned variant of the Hunter which adding missiles such that it would have 96 MK41 vertical missile launch cells and 16 Naval Strike Missiles.
No-one could say such a ship was undergunned.
Now according to a report on the Defence Connect news website, defence insiders claim the government will up the order for frigates to 16 ships – eight anti-submarine frigates and another eight of the up-gunned versions.
This would require tens of billions of extra funding and involve an acceleration of the pace of shipbuilding in Adelaide – something that would be welcomed by manufacturers.
I should say other reports talk of the Hunter frigate project being cut back to six or even three vessels, while others talk of a new smaller corvette vessel being built at Henderson in Western Australia (Cue more angst in Adelaide.)
Of course nothing is certain, but the government has promised to deliver its response to the fleet review, including how it will be funded, later this month.
Watch this space.
Picture: Australian Naval Infrastructure/Osborne naval shipyard