AUKUS navies ramp up frigate plans

Aside from Australia’s nuclear submarine development, AUKUS nations are also focused on their new frigates as the coalition counters growing threats in the Indo Pacific. John Hill reports.

An artist’s rendering of the US Navy guided-missile frigate FFG(X), Constellation-class frigate. Credit: US Navy.

The term ‘AUKUS’ – which denotes a trilateral alliance between Australia, the UK and the US – continues to evolve well beyond its core intention to provide Australia with nuclear submarines under its Pillar I phase. 

Initially a purposeful security policy instituted in September 2021, the programme has risen to something far more substantial. The concept also includes uncrewed systems, electronic warfare, hypersonics, artificial intelligence and quantum technologies among other advancements under AUKUS Pillar II. 

On the periphery of their joint endeavours, the three nations are also pursuing their own respective frigate programmes: Australian general-purpose frigates, the British Type 26 and 31 fleets, as well as the US Constellation-class platforms. Critically, the development of these next-generation frigates should not be viewed in isolation.  

Although they are not jointly developed under the auspices of AUKUS, these surface combatants will need to be closely interoperable given the fated path of a future conflict in the Indo Pacific theatre. The similarities and differences of these frigates indicate the form of warfare that we can expect from frigates today in such a conflict. 

LCS makes way for the Constellation class

In an interview with Global Defence Technology, Mark Cancian, a senior adviser at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) International Security Program, observed that surface combat would provide an essential basis for a conflict centered around Taiwan, based on 25 wargaming outcomes

CSIS’ project was based on an examination of historical experience and objective data that could be considered in the light of day, in contrast to the US Government’s highly classified lessons, analysis and expectations of a conflict with China. 

“A problem for surface ships will be Chinese missiles, and there are so many of them,” Cancian suggested. “Now their ranges are so long that US surface ships can get pushed out, really past Guam.”

Missiles and missile defence systems are China’s largest sector by forecast value, according to GlobalData intelligence. The cumulative market value is $35.4bn, with a positive compound annual growth rate of 5.3%. The market is expected to grow from $5.1bn in 2023 to $6.6bn in 2028.

As part of the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN) modernisation efforts the service will equip its Type-055 destroyers and Yuan-class submarines with YJ-18 anti-ship missiles. The missile is said to reach 78 kilometres, which is up to three times the range of its earlier 3M-54 and YJ-83 missiles.

The Freedom-class littoral combat ship USS Detroit (LCS 7) conducts high-speed operations while traveling at speeds of more than 40 knots. Credit: DVIDS.

Its range and lethality support China’s broader ‘anti-access, area-denial’ (A2/AD) strategy to defeat US forces in a regional military conflict.

This prompted the US to come up with the Constellation programme, which, he added, “the Littoral Combat Ship [LCS] was supposed to respond, [but] of course, this programme did not work out very well.”

While the LCS does provide the US Navy with a range of capabilities, many vessels in the class – particularly the monohull Freedom variant – have been decommissioned only a few years after entering service.

“It was not really designed during the current focus on China, although China was coming up over the horizon. The fall for the LCS programme was that they would deal with Chinese capabilities through speed, and they gave up on that.

“So now there’s the Constellation programme, which is not slow by any means, but originally they were thinking of sustained speeds of more than 30 knots (kt) for LCS,” compared to speeds of 26kt on the Constellation frigate. “So, having a less expensive ship type that you might be able to risk was one of the big drivers for the Constellation programme.”

A problem for surface ships will be Chinese missiles, and there are so many of them.

Mark Cancian, senior adviser at the CSIS, International Security Program.

At between $500-600m per ship, the Constellation-class is around 50% more expensive per ship than the LCS, although as a much larger warship (7,200t fully loaded) than the Independence variant (3,400t full loaded) and Freedom variant (~3,500t), it necessarily has greater capability, and crucially, survivability.

The Constellation class design will derived from a modified version of Europe’s FREMM design to meet the mission-specific requirements of the US Navy. The fleet will have the capability to carry out multiple missions, including anti-air warfare, anti-submarine warfare (ASW), anti-surface warfare, and electronic warfare.

It can operate independently or as a part of a strike group and is designed to perform operations in littoral (coastal) as well as deeper, blue water (oceangoing) environments.

The first of the class, the USS Constellation, is scheduled to be delivered in 2026 and all 20 vessels are expected to achieve initial operational capability by 2030.

Cancian gives attention to the challenge of contested logistics, “which is something the United States has not had to deal with since 1945 – that they’re going to have to escort ships across the oceans.”

“That’s going to take a lot of ships and it’d be nice to have three or four DDG 51s in a convoy, but that’s just not going to happen because there’s not enough of them. I think that was another driver for the Constellation frigate programme.”

Australia restructures it surface fleet

Australia made some changes to its surface fleet at the beginning of 2024 to deliver “a larger and more lethal fleet sooner,” Pat Conroy, the Australian Defence Minister said at the time. 

Curiously, the Royal Australian Navy is taking a slight deviation from the US preoccupation with air defence as the service cultivates a balanced fleet split between a ‘Tier I’ air defence fleet and its ‘Tier II’ ASW fleet. 

Tier I comprises three Hobart-class destroyers and six new Large Optionally Crewed Surface Vessels (LOSVs). Tier II consists of a reduced number of Hunter-class ships – from nine to six – besides 11 brand new general purpose frigates based on a model yet to be determined. Although, a type-down selection is considering the Meko A-200, Mogami 30FFM, Daegu-class FFX Batch II/III, or Navantia’s ALFA3000.  

From front to back: US LCS 26, Independence-class frigate, USS Mobile; Japanese ship Akebono; Australian Anzac-class frigate, HMAS Warramunga; and Phillipine ship, BRP Antonio Luna during a multilateral maritime co-operative activity within the Philippines Exclusive Economic Zone, and area contested by China. Credit: Australia Defence Force

The Commonwealth’s A$11.5bn ($7.5bn) restructure – bringing net spending on acquisition and sustainment in the fleet up to A$54.2bn – places more concern on undersea warfare, according to the British think tank, the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI). 

“Interestingly, the review sees a shift away from the government’s initial emphasis on coming into office on ‘impactful projection’ – the application of strategically meaningful military power at great distance from Australia using long-range missiles. Against this, all but three of the new 20-ship fleet will now focus on ASW – a significant change,” RUSI stated in a February 2024 commentary. 

Stress has been placed on getting the ASW general purpose frigates into service as quickly as possible. The first three will be built offshore at the shipyard of the builder whose frigate design wins the tender. Production will then shift to Perth, where the building of the remaining eight will form a major element in the continuous build concept.  

The problem you have with a submarine is that they’re great in warfighting because of their stealth and their ability to operate inside, in this case, the Chinese defensive bubble.

Mark Cancian, senior adviser at the CSIS, International Security Program.

“I will say that in the [war] game, the submarines are hugely important,” Cancian reminded. “The problem you have with a submarine is that they’re great in warfighting because of their stealth and their ability to operate inside, in this case, the Chinese defensive bubble. They’re very helpful and in a way that surface ships have a hard time surviving.” 

Australia’s balancing act is understandable given the importance of submarines in an Indo Pacific conflict. GlobalData observes PLAN’s efforts to modernise its nuclear Sui-class, or Type 095, to a third generation of nuclear submarine. Furthermore, it is speculated that the class will be propelled by a Rim-Driven Thruster for even greater stealth. 

PLAN’s upgraded Type 095 boats will operate alongside the next-generation nuclear Type 096, or Tang-class submarines. China is said to be developing six boats with improved sensors and weapons, a large pressure hull diameter, with longer endurance and the ability to carry up to 16 missiles. 

In response, all six Hunter-class frigates will benefit from ASW systems such as Thales’ CAPTAS-4 low-frequency variable depth sonars, which have proven their operational superiority to cope with any environmental (i.e. bathythermal) condition to detect, locate and classify more and more stealthy and capable submarines. This is the same system used on the versatile Constellation class; the first system was delivered to the US Navy in March. 

British Arrowhead 140 model grows in popularity

For the UK, the Type 31 multi-mission frigates will serve as a critical contingent within the country’s surface fleet as the Kingdom ‘tilts’ its attention toward the Indo Pacific theatre.

Based on the Arrowhead 140 (AH140) model, put forward by the indigenous manufacturer Babcock, the Type 31 is a general purpose ship used for maritime surveillance and interdiction, counter-piracy, military presence and deterrence, humanitarian aid and disaster relief, task group support, consort protection, as well as ASW. 

Type 31 has a growing following, with numerous navies adopting the model around the world. In 2021, Babcock signed an AH140 frigate licence agreement with Indonesia’s state-owned enterprise, PT PAL Indonesia, allowing the firm to produce the ships’s structure. More recently, Poland’s defence consortium PGZ opted for Arrowhead in August last year, announcing a framework agreement for the Polish Navy to use the model for its Miecznik frigates.

British Arrowhead 140 frigate model. Credit: Arrowhead 140.

Britain’s configuration – the Inspriation class – features a large aft flight deck that can accommodate an AW101 Merlin or MH-60 Seahawk helicopter or a smaller rotorcraft such as AW159 Wildcat plus uncrewed aerial vehicles (UAVs).  

Meanwhile, the upper deck will be installed with gun mounts to house 40-millimetre (mm) small calibre guns to 127mm medium calibre guns.  

For firepower, the large deck area can accommodate eight canister-launched surface-to-surface guided weapons. It can also accommodate the Mark 41 (Mk41) vertical launching system (VLS) with up to 32 variable length tubes. However, the programme has faced a slight hurdle when it comes to these air defence systems. 

The integration of the Mk41 will come in the form of capability insertion periods carried out after the fleet has been delivered to the UK Royal Navy, rather than during construction.  

The decision in May 2023 that the UK’s Type 31 frigates, originally envisaged as light patrol platforms, were to be fitted with the Lockheed Martin Mk41 VLS system offered the prospect of a significant capability increase through a wider range of anti-ship and anti-air missiles. 

There is a push for both [air defence and ASW]. Probably more on the air defence, just because the Chinese missile capabilities are so extensive.

Mark Cancian, senior adviser at the CSIS, International Security Program.

Pressed by time, Babcock revealed at the end of 2023 that it was key that any decision should not “disrupt the delivery” between 2027 and 2028.  

As a result, the fleet may be split into different mission-specific variants – a tendency that is becoming increasingly common among navies. Should this be the case then the Royal Navy’s Type-31 fleet will operate in a similar manner as Australia’s balanced fleet. For AUKUS, this raises slight concern given China’s long range missile focus. 

When it comes to air defence versus ASW, Cancian reflected on China’s focus, noting “there is a push for both. Probably more on the air defence, just because the Chinese missile capabilities are so extensive. 

“Although they have submarines most of them are coastal and, are not going to be free ranging around the Pacific – it’s not going to be a second Battle of the Atlantic [during the Second World War] done in the Pacific. 

“Now, that doesn’t mean that they won’t have any, because they only certainly have some nuclear submarines with a considerable range. But I think that, at least in the immediate near term, that the anti-air is going to be more important.” 

Australia could be one of the main beneficiaries of this dramatic increase in demand, where private companies and local governments alike are eager to expand the country’s nascent rare earths production. In 2021, Australia produced the fourth-most rare earths in the world. It’s total annual production of 19,958 tonnes remains significantly less than the mammoth 152,407 tonnes produced by China, but a dramatic improvement over the 1,995 tonnes produced domestically in 2011.

The dominance of China in the rare earths space has also encouraged other countries, notably the US, to look further afield for rare earth deposits to diversify their supply of the increasingly vital minerals. With the US eager to ringfence rare earth production within its allies as part of the Inflation Reduction Act, including potentially allowing the Department of Defense to invest in Australian rare earths, there could be an unexpected windfall for Australian rare earths producers.

Credit: US Department of Defense; Department of Energy (originally compiled by Neta Crawford)

Total annual production

$345m: Lynas Rare Earth's planned investment into Mount Weld.

Phillip Day. Credit: Scotgold Resources