MELBOURNE, Australia — BAE Systems Australia ceremonially cut steel on the first batch of Hunter-class Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) frigates at the Osborne Naval Shipyard in South Australia on June 21.

The company also signed a production contract with the Commonwealth of Australia on the same day, for the first batch of three vessels.

The cutting of the steel, which is to be part of the understructure support for the port propeller shaft brake system, was initiated by South Australian Premier Peter Maklinauskas following the contract signature.

The first ship, HMAS Hunter, is due to be completed in 2032 and is expected to be fully operational by 2034.

“This is a proud moment for us all at BAE Systems Australia, and it comes at a time where the capability of the Hunter has never been so important,” commented the company’s chief executive officer, Ben Hudson. “Hunter will be one of the most technologically-advanced, stealth-capable anti-submarine warfare vessels in the world and its modular mission bay allows it to undertake a wide range of missions.”

The Royal Australian Navy (RAN) had initially planned to buy nine Hunter-class ships, based on the United Kingdom’s Type 26 Global Combat Ship (GCS) design, but an Australian government review into the navy’s surface combat fleet, announced in February, reduced this to just six.

Prior to the release of the review, undertaken by former U.S. Navy Vice Adm. William Hilarides, the Hunter Class Frigate Program (HCFP) had become the subject of criticism from analysts, who pointed out that the 32 Vertical Launch System (VLS) incorporated into the design was an inadequate number in modern naval warfare.

In response to these claims, BAE Systems Australia unveiled a Guided Missile Frigate (GMF) variant of the baseline design in September 2023, which would have increased the number of VLS cells from 32 to 96 at the expense of the high-end anti-submarine equipment, including the towed-array sonar, and the ship’s mission bay.

The government’s surface combatant review made no mention of the GMF type and instead recommended that the number of Hunter vessels should be reduced from nine to six, augmented by 11 new general-purpose frigates to be bought urgently to replace the Navy’s eight Anzac-class vessels.

Testifying before the Defence Senate Estimates Committee in Canberra on June 5, Chief of Navy Vice Adm. Mark Hammond said the decision to acquire the 11 smaller ships, cancel an extensive upgrade for the Anzac-class vessels, and reduce the number of Hunter-class ships is at least in part due to the reduced strategic warning time Australia faces.

“A recognition that flows from that is a requirement to prioritize speed to capability; extending the life of the Anzac -class frigates would just extend the duration of what we have (and that is) the oldest frigate force that we’ve operated,” Hammond said.

“Replacing the eight Anzac-class ships with 11 general-purpose frigates – which will have a small crewing liability, means I don’t necessarily need a bigger frigate workforce until the 2040s, when the Hunters are starting to come online in numbers. In terms of prioritizing speed to capability, additional lethality at sea, additional capability to maintain our economic connectivity with the world through sea lane communications, seabed cablets et cetera … it’s all related.”

Hammond added: “With respect to the future fleet, we’ll go from eight general-purpose (Anzac-class) frigates (which), prior to these decisions had very little offensive strike capability beyond the Harpoon missile, to a fleet of 11 general purpose frigates and nine tier-one warships.” The latter category is planned to consist of six Hunter-class ASW frigates and three Hobart-class air-warfare Destroyers.

Commenting on the reduction in the number of Hunter-class frigates being cut, BAE Systems Australia’s managing director of its Maritime division, Craig Lockhart, said that the company now has clarity around its future.

“Six ships is a lot of work and we’ll be building ships at Osborne for decades to come,” he said.

“We are building up the workforce, establishing a skills and knowledge base and uplifting the local supply chain to enable Australia to build and sustain its own complex warships for generations to come.”

Nigel Pittaway is the Australia correspondent for Defense News.

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