HMAS Ballarat prepares to launch her MH-60R Seahawk helicopter as ships from Task Group 659.1 (including HMA Ships Canberra, Warramunga and Ballarat and HMNZS Te Kaha) transit to Pearl Harbour, Hawaii to participate in Exercise Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) 2016. *** Local Caption *** The Australian Defence Force is deploying three ships, three aircraft and more than 1650 personnel to take part in Exercise Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) 2016 off the coast of Hawaii and California. The multinational activity held from 30 June to 4 August 2016 is the world’s largest maritime exercise and includes more than 25, 000 personnel from 26 countries. RIMPAC seeks to enhance interoperability between Pacific Rim armed forces, ostensibly as a means of promoting stability in the region to the benefit of all participating nations. The exercise helps participants foster and sustain the cooperative relationships that are critical to ensuring the safety of sea lanes and security on the world’s oceans.

Anzac class frigate HMAS Ballarat. (Defence)

The Government’s National Security Committee of Cabinet reportedly met on May 22 to consider the way forward for Defence’s $35 billion SEA 5000 Future Frigate project to replace the RAN’s eight Anzac class vessels.

Three designs were shortlisted in April 2016 for the project – BAE Systems’ Type 26 Global Combat Ship, the Fincantieri FREMM, and the Navantia F5000 development of the F100/Hobart class destroyer.

While some commentators have predicted a decision on the winning contender might be announced the week of the NSC meeting, others have predicted that the shortlist may be further reduced to two, and that the remaining two contenders may be asked to go away and come back with a ‘best and final’ price.

Commentators have pointed out that capability should be the prime consideration in making the decision, as long as the winning bid also conforms to project pricing and industrial requirements.

“It’s important that the Navy gets the best capability to deal with the proliferating number of quiet, lethal, modern submarines in our region,” an Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) The Strategist paper published on May 21 reads.

“But as important in a different way, who wins the project and how they work with Australian firms will define our shipbuilding industry for decades.

“From the information ASPI has about the three ships, all three do what the Navy wants pretty well, so there’s probably no clear winner just on capability.”

The FREMM (below) is the most mature of the three designs, with several vessels of the Italian design in service with the Italian Navy, and several more in service or on order with the navies of France, Egypt and Morocco. It also features two helicopter hangars compared to just a single hangar on the other two designs.

Italian Navy Frigate Carabiniere sails towards the entrance of Sydney Harbour in preparation for docking at Fleet Base East, Sydney, during the ships recent visit to Australia. *** Local Caption *** The Italian Navy FREMM (European Multi-Mission Frigate) Carabiniere will visit Australia from the 25th January until the 24th February 2017 with planned visits to Fremantle, Adelaide, Sydney and Melbourne. ITS Carabiniere’s deployment is aimed to strength the on-going cooperation activities with some transregional allies and develop relations with potential partners. Main themes of the naval campaign is thus maritime safety and surveillance, cooperation strengthening and naval diplomacy.

Fincantieri FREMM. (Defence)

The F5000 (below) will utilise the familiar hull and propulsion systems of the Hobart class, but will incorporate anti-submarine warfare-specific mission equipment and other modifications. Arguments that Navantia already has a workforce in place after recently completing the Hobart class major builds are somewhat misleading, as the workforce is employed by the Osborne Shipyard where the new vessels will also be built.

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Navantia F5000. (Navantia)

The Type 26 (below) has been reported as being the most expensive of the three, but it also arguably offers the most capability. The lead ship for the UK’s Royal Navy is currently under construction, and the RAN’s first ship will be the fourth of class.

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BAE Type 26 Global Combat Ship. (BAE Systems)

Perhaps most interesting are reports that, during the recent Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), BAE’s bid received extensive backing from the British government which is keen to engage in a free trade agreement with Australia in the wake of its exit from Europe. There are also reports that the UK is interested in acquiring military equipment of Australian origin which could also be linked to any Type 26 acquisition.