Navy’s eight ANZAC class frigates have
come a long way over the past two decades
By Max Blenkin
Floating targets – that’s how former Defence Industry Minister Bronwyn Bishop described our eight ANZAC frigates, a comment unlikely to inspire confidence in their crews or the rest of the nation.
Subtracting the politics – the minister was really having a shot at the Labor opposition – she was pretty much spot on.
The ANZACs were delivered with only basic defensive and offensive systems, with a vision that more could be added later when the money became available. In the language of the time, they were fitted “for but not with” the additional weapons.
From that uninspiring beginning, the ANZACs have been steadily upgraded, adding advanced systems which now make them among the best small warships in the world.
“We have gone well and truly above what people would have thought we were going to do. It would have to be one of the most capable frigates in the southern hemisphere,” said CDRE Rob Elliott, Director General for Major Surface Ships, CASG.
So why not the best small warships in the world? After all, few others, maybe none, feature the advanced capabilities delivered by the Australian CEA air defence and long-range search radars, coupled with the Saab Australia 9LV combat system and ESSM missiles.
CDRE Elliott notes that it’s not the Aussie way to get too carried away with telling the world of our cleverness.
He also says this is sovereign Australian capability, developed in Australia for Australia. Saab Australia is a subsidiary of the well-known Swedish parent but its 9LV combat system has software capability modules developed solely for Australia and not shared with anyone else.
A little bit about the description of ANZACs as small warships: these started at 3,600 tonnes, now 3,900 tonnes with all their upgrades. However, their successors, the new Hunter-class frigates will max out close to 9,000 tonnes.
The ANZACs are now past mid-life and will be replaced by the Hunters starting around end of this decade. The Hunters will feature the CEA Technologies CEAFAR2 radar system, US Aegis combat system and a Saab Australia-developed 9LV Australian interface.
So the substantial development work on integrating the CEA radar and Saab combat system into the ANZACs will go a very long ways towards removing the risk of integrating sensors and combat systems on the Hunters.
The Hunters are a variant of the UK Type 26 Global Combat Ship (GCS), the first of which is now under construction for the Royal Navy using a different radar and combat system to Australia. The same goes for Canada which chose GCS as its new surface combatant.
Stepping back more than two decades, here’s what Bronwyn Bishop had to say on June 2 1998 when she rose to answer a question from then Queensland Nationals MP Bob Katter in the House of Representatives.
“The policy that the previous government followed, of fitting platforms for but not with, has left us with a situation where we have built splendid new frigates – for but not with – which in fact are floating targets. It is up to this government to give them the wherewithal to be able to truly defend this nation,” she said.
Bishop added that if Opposition Leader Kim Beazley thought a five-inch gun and Sea Sparrow missile were enough armament, he’d better think again.
“What is clearly required is an upgrade of both missiles and radar, which are clearly in the area of defence industry. This is the government which will enable our defence force to adequately defend this country,” she said.
Beazley was Defence Minister in the Hawke Labor government which conducted the selection process and announced the winning ANZAC design in August 1989, then oversaw the start of construction.
By the time Labor was defeated and John Howard came to power at the 1996 election, two of the 10 ANZACs had been launched, one for Australia and one for New Zealand. Eight more were to follow, with the last, HMAS Perth, commissioned in August 2006.
This was an exemplary construction program, with the contractor, initially Amecon which became Tenix, now BAE Systems Australia, delivering on time and within budget, with negligible dramas along the way.
But in their original form, the ANZACs – based on the German Blohm and Voss Meko 200 design – had limited capability. They were fitted for but not with Harpoon anti-ship missiles, Phalanx close-in weapons system, torpedo tubes, a second eight-cell Mark 41 Vertical Launch System and a towed array sonar.
However, a project was under way to acquire a new anti-ship missile-equipped medium helicopter as a key component of Anzac capability. That was Seasprite, and we all know how that turned out.
As Bishop correctly noted in 1998, the ANZACs’ main offensive weapon was their five-inch gun – a very good gun system but in principle not much different to the principle weapon of warships a century earlier.
On the plus side, the ANZACs were a great improvement on their predecessors, the six River class destroyer escorts, based on the 1950s Royal Navy Leander class. The ANZACs were significantly larger with significantly greater range and endurance while requiring a smaller crew. CDRE Elliott said the government at the time was focused on replacing the destroyer escort which didn’t have much capability.
The government was also focused on doing a deal with New Zealand which needed to replace its two 1970s Leander class vessels. This was a matter of protracted and rancorous debate over what New Zealand really needed of its Navy.
The end result was that New Zealand acquired two vessels, ships two and four, but never exercised an option for an additional two. New Zealand’s involvement gave rise to the enduring class description ANZAC frigates and, while Australian and New Zealand vessels may have been substantially identical on delivery, they have followed quite different upgrade paths.
ANZAC shortcomings were well recognised and, in 1996, the Australian government approved the ANZAC Warfighting Improvement Program (WIP) which, in 1999, morphed into the Anti-Ship Missile Defence (ASMD) program, a highly developmental upgrade which proved deeply troublesome but ultimately spectacularly successful.
This involved installing the Australian CEA Technologies CEAFAR phased array radar and CEAMOUNT continuous wave illuminator, integrating with the Saab combat system and adding Vampir NG infrared search and track (IRST) and Sharpeye navigation radar.
ASMD was first installed on HMAS Perth, a modification process started in January 2010 and completed in October. Sea trials were completed in July 2011 and showed this was an absolute winner.
Where the original system featured a single fire control channel which would have worked against one or maybe two slow missiles, ASMD-equipped warships can detect, track and engage multiple fast-moving air and surface threats with ESSM missiles.
In November 2011, the then Labor government approved upgrading of the other seven ANZACs at a cost of $650 million, including what had already been spent on Perth. Upgrade of the entire ANZAC fleet, minus New Zealand’s two vessels, was completed in 2017.
CEAFAR is a solid state active phased array radar, visible on the upgraded ANZACs as the curious sceptre-shaped structure with radar facets in place of the original mast.
Unlike traditional rotating radar antennae, phased array radar uses fixed emitter and receiver elements, with the beam directed by adjusting signal phase. This has many advantages, including the ability to maintain constant 360 degrees surveillance, to track multiple targets simultaneously and to stare at a specific item of interest.
Solid state radar – technically, actively electronically scanned arrays (AESA) – are a step up on passive electronically scanned systems, such as the SPY-1D on US and Australian DDGs and other warships.
These offer far greater sensitivity and much improved capability to detect and track stealth aircraft and drones, swarming drones and the hypersonic weapons increasingly likely to feature in future conflicts.
Putting Australia’s achievements into perspective, future production US Navy DDGs, the Arleigh Burke Flight III, will be equipped with the Raytheon AN/SPY-6 AESA radar, with the first, USS Jack Lucas, set to be commissioned in 2023.
The US Navy is still deciding which of its large fleet of in-service DDGs and other vessels will be retrofitted with this radar. Australia’s three near-new Spy-1D-equipped Hobart class DDGs are also due for an upgrade, though the full scope hasn’t yet been outlined.
ASMD left the original Raytheon SPS-49(V)8 ANZ aerial search and long-range surveillance radar, with its rotating antenna, in place. But that is now being replaced under the next major ANZAC frigate upgrade program AMCAP conducted at Henderson, Western Australia.
That is being delivered under the umbrella of the Warship Asset Management Agreement (WAMA), an alliance of CASG, Saab Australia, BAE Systems Australia and Naval Ship Management Australia to sustain and upgrade the ANZACs.
AMCAP is the ANZAC Mid-life Capability Assurance Program. As part of AMCAP, the AN/SPS-49(V)8 radar is being replaced by the CEAFAR2 L-Band phased array radar system under project SEA 1448 Phase 4B.
Lead ship HMAS Arunta completed her 20-month upgrade in mid-2018 and then proceeded on extensive sea trials. She officially graduated from this upgrade program with the firing of a live ESSM missile off the Western Australian coast in March.
HMAS ANZAC is soon to start sea trials while HMAS Warramunga and HMAS Perth are now part way through. All eight vessels will be upgraded by end of first quarter 2024.
The headline AMCAP item is replacement of the legacy Raytheon radar with the CEAFAR2-L long-range search radar. Whereas the CEAFAR1, around which ASMD operates, is classed a medium-power radar, CEAFAR2-L is a high-powered radar with capability well beyond 100 nautical miles.
CEAFAR2-L is fully integrated into the ASMD fire control system with the ability to perform long-range air and surface search plus the ability to deliver missile firing solutions.
CDRE Elliott said the ANZACs formed the backbone to our major surface combatant fleet. “But they act in the bigger integrated picture through Link, whether that is Link 16 or Link 22 which is where we are heading to across the fleet,” he said. “We want to put a picture out there which is able to be shared with destroyers and so that we can actually use it for targeting.”
He added that one of the great capabilities of the CEAFAR radar is its ability to identify targets with extreme accuracy and provide that information to other warships, such as the DDGs, for targeting at extended ranges using SM-2 and maybe, further down the track, SM-6 missiles.
But does that amount to a Cooperative Engagement Capability (CEC), a much vaunted and very high-end ability of Aegis-equipped warships to share sensor information, with one providing target data and another firing the missiles?
“We would like to refer to it as that one day but of course that’s the American terminology. We would like to consider that this capability is like that,” CDRE Elliot said.
Moving to solid state radar provided other benefits. It removed a substantial amount of weight from high above the waterline and is much more maintainable and reliable.
“The CEAFAR2-L system in Arunta has been out there for over six months and we haven’t had one significant defect. Of note though, CEA designed into the CEAFAR system the ability to move power amplifiers and other things around. There are multiple levels of redundancy,” Elliott said.
AMCAP also featured other warfare system improvements. The stand-alone IFF system was replaced with an IFF system designed by CEA and integrated into the CEAFAR2-L system – another world first for the company.
ANZAC communications were significantly upgraded through Project SEA 1442 Phase 4. Original ANZAC comms were quite capable – the wags even referred to the class as very well-informed targets – but a decade on, the communications fitout was showing its age.
The government gave first pass approval for an upgrade in December 2010 and second pass in July 2013 with the work awarded to Leonardo Australia subsidiary Selex ES, now Leonardo MW. Total budget was $440 million.
This was a complex project designed to address Anzac communications system obsolescence through improved system management, secure voice and tactical intercom, tactical radios and a high data rate line-of-sight capability.
It also delivered support systems, a secondary Maritime Tactical Wide Area Network Shore Gateway and training system at HMAS Stirling.
What was called the NewGen MCS (modernised communications system) involved a mix of MOTS and COTS equipment, including ARC-210 Gen5 V/UHF multi-band multi-mode software defined radios, acquired through a Foreign Military Sales deal with the US.
All this required substantial integration, facilitated by Leonardo’s new integration and test facility opened in Melbourne in October 2017.
SEA 1442 Phase 4 was a very big deal for Leonardo. In 2017, the company declared Australia was now its fifth domestic market after Italy, the UK, US and Poland.
CDRE Elliott said for this project the original communications suite was completely gutted and replaced with the state-of-the-art Leonardo system. “It’s been proven in Arunta. All the testing is complete, and we are very impressed,” he said.
CDRE Elliott noted that the Navy doesn’t hand its ships to CASG for extended upgrades all that often. “So when we get them we do a lot,” he said.
In addition to the AMCAP enhancements to the radar and communications system, the modification program also included what was called the Platform System Remediation Project to enhance ship-enabling capabilities of power, air conditioning and chilled water.
CDRE Elliott said the ASMD project was directed to work within margins for power and cooling. “Operating in areas of the Middle East for many years we have determined that our chilled water and our air conditioning capability needed to be upgraded. It was never designed for those sort of waters,” he said. “We are now well within that and have extra margin.”
Chilled water is nice for the crew but it’s really required to cool electronic equipment, with the more electronics the more cooling required, especially at action stations.
There were also some engine mods to improve power and efficiency. Crew members weren’t neglected. As well as enhanced cooling, they get an upgraded galley and an improved sewage system.
“We basically invaded about 85 per cent of our compartments. These are areas which in ASMD we didn’t touch,” CDRE Elliot said. “This is building resilience into the hull and mechanical electrical components to provide the warfare system continued operation over a significant period of time.”
Ships undergoing AMCAP also emerge with one noticeable and distinctly low-tech change. They’re a slightly different colour, with the Navy moving from shipside grey to haze grey, the same as US warships. That features a slightly greenish tinge.
Research by the Defence Science and Technology (DST) group had examined what colour made ships least visible on the horizon. In our waters, shipside grey was most effective, but haze grey worked in the widest range of conditions everywhere.
Eventually all Australian warships will be painted this colour, with the Canberra class landing helicopter dock (LHD) vessels next in line for what will be a very big paint job indeed.
Upgrades to the ANZACs aren’t over yet. ASMD served as the baseline for AMCAP which is the baseline for the ANZAC Capability Assurance Program (CAP) to be conducted under SEA 5014 Phase 1.
This is a life of type extension to take the ANZACs out to the arrival of the Hunters. This doesn’t feature further capability enhancements, but it does mean ensuring onboard systems remain in good order, corrosion is kept in check and margins remain adequate. “This is about keeping the ship seaworthy until life of type,” CDRE Elliott said.
That will ultimately depend on the drumbeat of Hunter production, with a new vessel expected around every two years and an ANZAC departing service at the same rate.
This could mean more than a decade more service for the oldest of the ANZACs, HMAS ANZAC, launched in September 1994 and commissioned in May 1996, making an in-service life of more than three decades.
CDRE Elliott said the successful upgrade of the ANZACs was a good news story. “What we are doing with the ANZACs is all Australian. We are over 90 per cent in this sustainment,” he said. “Sustainment is very under-rated but it is the backbone of ongoing funding expense within defence, certainly in maritime.”