Australia is once again considering Spain for a new warship program after ruling out the UK and France

For the first time in nearly twenty years that Australia has not entrusted Spain's Navantia with one of its purchases of large warships, it has been forced to make amends.. It broke the rule in 2018, choosing British firm BAE Systems to replace its aging Anzac-class frigates with nine ships, called Hunter, based on the Type 26 model the UK developed for its Royal Navy. The result was not as good as expected and Canberra is now trying to compensate He cut the order to six ships, allowing her to free resources to more quickly and effectively acquire an ambitious new class of eleven replacement frigates for the Anzacs. In the process, Australia once again granted options to the Spanish company, while no longer including any British proposals.

Criticism has come at all levels since the UK won the initial competition six years agoAmid a strong campaign in which London tried to find new international successes in the context of the difficulties presented by its exit from the European Union. Even before that election, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) published a report highlighting the risks of having a design, the Type 26 frigate, that had not yet been tested. This defect did not affect the two competitors that BAE defeated: the Italian Fincantieri, which presented a model based on the Fremm frigates developed in cooperation with France, and Navantia, with a ship based on the F100 of the Spanish Navy.

It so happens that Australia has already chosen a design derived from the Spanish F100 to build its three Hobart-class destroyers, which are now in service. For this reason, the Spanish nomination was considered the cheapest and least risky of the three.

Problems from the beginning

Finally, the British option, “more modern” but at the same time less mature, chosen for the hunters turned out to be a headache for the Australian Department of Defence. A report prepared by the program's engineering team revealed that “the design is far from cohesive,” as ASPI reported a year ago. Specifically, it exceeded the need to increase the size of each British-built vessel, from 8,000 to 10,000 tons of displacement, in order to comply with modifications requested by the Ministry once their defects were known. The problem is that an intervention of this magnitude would inevitably degrade the ship's performance, which would consume more fuel, increase operating costs, and, most seriously, its combat capability would be compromised. The breakdown will be such that in the event of a standoff, the crew will have to choose between keeping the ship at full power or making extensive use of radar. Both things at the same time would not be viable.

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“The list of problems goes on, suggesting that a feasible ship design may not be possible after all,” added the ASPI article, signed by specialist Marcus Hellyer. The document includes records from the Ministry of Defense revealing that the Ministry concluded, in a preliminary assessment, that the FREMM frigates, supplied by Italy, and the Spanish F100 were better options than the British Type 26 design.

At that time, the program had already exceeded its planned cost of 35 billion Australian dollars (21.1 billion euros at the current exchange rate), specifically by 10 billion (more than 6 billion additional euros). In addition, it has accumulated an estimated delay of a year and a half, “due in large part to design immaturity.”

The Australian National Anti-Corruption Commission ended up taking action on the issue last summerThis is after the Auditor General revealed in his report that officials involved in selecting BAE Systems did not retain documents justifying their decision.

In addition, the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) also noted in a document that the Australian Navy has stated its preference for Spanish or Italian frigates, and that the British choice is causing more and more problems.

As an alternative solution, several Australian experts suggested “building more Hobart-class air warfare destroyers, which has already been proven”.. Hobart, also known as AWD, is derived from the Spanish Alvaro de Bazán-class (F100) frigates, developed by Navantia. These are three ships that have already been in service with the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) since the end of the last decade. A few years ago, the Royal Australian Navy had the largest military ships in its history: the amphibious assault ships (known by the designation LHD) HMAS Adelaide and HMAS Canberra, 231 meters long and 27,000 tons each. Their appearance reveals that they are designs based on the Spanish Navy's flagship ship, the amphibious aircraft carrier Juan Carlos I. It is therefore the result of another program introduced by Navantia. Such as the twelve LLC landing ships, based on the Spanish LCM-1E, measuring 23 meters long and weighing 110 tons each, which Spain supplied to Canberra so that they could operate from their own LHD engines.

Our country's latest major order from the Australian Navy is also noteworthy: two supply ships (HMAS Stalwart and HMAS Supply) are 174 meters long and have a displacement of 19,500 tons each. Its design is again derived from a Spanish Navy ship: the A-15 Cantabria.

In total, taking into account that each Hobart-class destroyer displaces 6,250 tons with its length of 147.2 metres, the supply of Navantia ships to the oceanic state, most of which are locally made, amounts to 110,000 tons in the last decade. With these numbers, Spain has become Australia's main supplier of large offshore platforms. Only the United Kingdom, with the aforementioned Hunter class, marked these years of success with the ambitious program to replace the Anzacs with nine frigates of the problematic design based on the Type 26.

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In parallel with the difficulties that became known regarding the British ships, Navantia made a series of proposals To Australia, then without request, which is very much in line with the plan ultimately chosen by that country's ministry. First, a year and a half ago, the Spanish company showed off three new all-wheel drive destroyers, which will actually be delivered in 2030, years earlier than current estimates for the first Hunter aircraft. The company warned that it is merely a supplementary offering, and in no way a replacement for the Hunter program. Navantia has insisted on this argument in all the proposals it has put forward since then. A year ago, it doubled its offer by proposing a full fleet of six Avanti 3000-designed corvettes and three additional Hobart-class destroyers. It specified that the frigates would be ready in 2029, if built in Spain, and later, in 2032, and also somewhat more expensively, if built in Australia.

Last September, Australian Defense Minister Richard Marles received a surface fleet review report that recommended reducing the number of future Hunter-class ships to six, the cost of which at the time was already estimated to exceed A$20 billion (more than €12 billion at current exchange rates). At the same time, consideration was given to purchasing between three and six smaller ships, so that the fleet would include both larger and smaller ships. At that point, BAE Systems also considered submitting a new design, also derived from Hunter, for the potential add-on.

At the same time, the British company published a report and two articles by its general manager, Craig Lockhart, in which it tried to confront the accumulated series of criticism. “Australia is unique in the way it discusses its defense programs publicly,” Lockhart noted. He added: “The problem with the Hunter-class frigate program is not the programme, but the lack of understanding and celebration of the extraordinary work done by Australians and for Australians.”

Meanwhile, Navantia continued to take positions. In November, it announced an alliance with local shipyards Austral and Civmec to offer the construction of six corvettes to the country, based on Avante designs. He also proposed a new 10,200-ton destroyer capable of accommodating 128 vertical missile launch cells (the F-100 and Hobart have 48 cells).

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Finally, the new plan, which Minister Marles himself became aware of a few weeks ago, confirms that six fishermen will be built. The replacement of the Anzacs will be complemented by the new program which includes an international partner to quickly acquire up to eleven frigates. The Australian Defense Minister describes the solution as “immediate and timely action to address the Navy’s surface combat capability.” He points to four specific candidates. This is the German shipyard Thyssenkrupp Marine Systems (TKMS), which is selecting the Meko A-400 for its frigate; Japanese companies Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Mitsubishi Engineering and Shipbuilding Company, with the Mogami 30FFM model; The Korean company Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering, which offers the Daegu FFX Batch II and III classes, and Navantia, which is interested in the Australian design of the Alfa 3000.

The minister explained that the strategy “takes into account the current and deteriorating status of the Anzac class frigates, and accelerates the acquisition of a new, more capable general purpose frigate to replace them.” In this context, “the government ordered the acquisition of these ships quickly with an international shipbuilding partner through a hybrid strategy of building at sea and then on land,” which means that the first units must be built abroad: Spain, if the Navantia option wins.

What the Australian department is not considering is the British option for the new frigates. It also did not choose the semi-public French company Naval Group among the candidates, although its catalog includes a foreign direct investment model, which is a likely candidate for a competition of this kind. Naval Group is the company from which Canberra ordered dozens of submarines for A$50 billion in 2019, which it later canceled in favor of a new project with the UK and US to develop nuclear submarines, called Aukus. This in turn, logically, led to tension in relations between the two countries. Incidentally, years ago, the Spanish S80 submarine was also considered a favorite for modernization of the Australian fleet, largely due to its ability to integrate certain systems of interest to Canberra. The delay of this programme, which has now delivered its first ship to the Spanish Navy, has left this option without prospects.

Now, with the French and British out of the game, Spain's chances of supplying Australia with eleven more large warships doubled.. The competition is tough, but the string of wins Navantia has already achieved in the country makes it a serious contender.

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