The Philippine Navy band welcomes the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) vessel Her Majesty's Australian Ship (HMAS) Adelaide (III) upon arrival for a goodwill visit as part of the Australian Defence Force (ADF) Joint Task Group, Indo-Pacific Endeavour 2017, at the Pier 15, south harbor in Metro Manila, Philippines October 10, 2017. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco

Australia’s Future Frigate Program, or SEA 5000 Project, which is aimed at replacing its existing fleet of eight Anzac-class frigates with nine new Aegis-equipped anti-submarine frigates, is in high gear, with the three foreign contenders starting to move their pieces into place.

The winner of the US$26.9 billion frigate tender should be revealed in June. Construction of the new naval vessels is expected to begin in 2020, and the first warship should enter service in late 2020s.

As Canberra’s decision is not only guided by the search for the frigate that is closest to the operational requirements of the Royal Australian Navy (RAN), but also by the need to have a foreign partner able to boost its naval-industrial complex, competition among Italian Fincantieri, British BAE Systems and Spanish Navantia will likely be won by the shipbuilder that offers the best terms of cooperation for indigenous contractors and shipyards.

Fincantieri’s FREMM

Italian defense company Elettronica announced on Tuesday that it would partner with Thales Australia and Daronmont Technologies to provide Fincantieri’s European multi-purpose (FREMM) frigate with electronic-warfare systems if this were to be selected by the Australian government for the SEA 5000 Project.

Fincantieri’s FREMM is co-designed with France’s Naval Group. The two shipbuilders are working to integrate operations and create a naval-defense giant in Europe. Fincantieri chief executive Giuseppe Bono told Defense News this month that should his group win the Australian tender it could create synergies Down Under with the French naval manufacturer, which has been awarded a contract to design and build 12 Shortfin Barracuda diesel-electric submarines for the RAN. In this regard, Bono underlined that both Barracuda-class submarines and next-generation frigates would be constructed at a yard in Adelaide.

Among the three frigates in competition, FREMM is the only one in operation, while the other two do not exist yet, save as a design. The Italian and French navies have FREMM frigates. They have already been tested in the Mediterranean and in the Western Indian Ocean. A FREMM frigate proved capable of shadowing a Chinese submarine off the East African coast, according to an Australian media report.

A FREMM-based design has also been shortlisted by the US Navy for its next-generation FFG(X) guided-missile frigate. Fincantieri is cooperating with Lockheed Martin in this tendering process.

Navantia’s and BAE Systems’ pitch

Navantia will team up with Australia’s Century Engineering to develop the rudder arrangement and find innovative solutions for stowage lockers of the RAN’s future frigates. Navantia’s collaboration with the Australian group will materialize if Canberra chooses the Spanish shipbuilder’s F-5000 frigate design.

Navantia is ready to extend its cooperation with Century Engineering to undertake modifications to three Hobart-class air-warfare destroyers and two Canberra-class landing helicopter dock ships operated by the RAN – both these warships were designed by Navantia itself.

For its part, in an effort to prop up BAE Systems’ pitch for its Type 26 anti-submarine frigate, the British government has dangled the possibility of using the Australian CEAFAR radar for the Royal Navy’s future warships.

What’s more, BAE Systems Australia, in agreement with Saab Australia and Naval Ship Management Australia, recently signed a A$1.2 billion (US$925 million) contract to sustain and upgrade the Anzac-class frigates. It extends an eight-year deal that the three contractors signed with the Australian government in 2016. According to Australian Defense Industry Minister Christopher Pyne, the new arrangement will secure the jobs of around 1,700 workers.

Best frigate and/or best industrial partner

Fincantieri, Navantia and BAE Systems are trying to curry favor with Canberra by fostering the creation of a local supply chain for their proposed warships, also adding a robust transfer of technology and technical expertise. European and US defense contractors are attempting to do the same with regard to India’s current rearmament under the “Make in India” framework.

It remains to be seen whether Australian leaders will be able to have the best foreign partner for the local naval industry and, at the same time, the best anti-submarine frigate for the strategic needs of their country.

The RAN is particularly focused on deterrence against potential foreign intrusions into Australian waters, as well as the improvement of combined capabilities and interoperability with allies (the United States and Britain), traditional partners (Japan, South Korea and France) and new interlocutors (India, Indonesia, Singapore and the Philippines) in the Indo-Pacific region.

Needless to say, the potential foreign intruder is China, in Canberra’s view.

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Emanuele Scimia

Emanuele Scimia is a journalist and foreign policy analyst. He has written for Asia Times since 2011. His articles have also appeared in the South China Morning Post, the Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor, The National Interest, Deutsche Welle, World Politics Review and The Jerusalem Post, among others.