From Rocks to Tigers: advocating for Japan’s 30FFM frigate acquisition

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By CMDR Paul D Pelczar, RAN

Since the release of last year’s Defence Strategic Review, discussions regarding the composition of the current and future Royal Australian Navy (RAN) Fleet have elicited a broad spectrum of opinions, ranging from discerning maritime analysts to less credentialed commentators. This discourse has expanded to encompass critiques of the lack of progress in the Hunter-class frigate program, the delay in the public  disclosure of the Surface Combatant Fleet Review including confusion surrounding Tier 1 and 2 definitions; as well as the desired usage of the Arafura-class Offshore Patrol Vessel (OPV).

More recently, the debate has evolved into speculation on the Australian Government’s decision not to deploy a warship to support allied operations in the Red Sea, derived from the critical assumption of a current lack of spare capacity or required capability.

In November 2023, amidst the ongoing debate in Australia, Japan launched its eighth Mogami-class frigate and announced the planned construction of a more capable ‘Batch 2’ (30FFM) platform. Therefore, is it too late to (re) introduce the 30FFM into the aforementioned debate by yet another less credentialed commentator?

The original Japanese 30FF design was offered as a contender for the RAN’s SEA 5000 ASW Frigate Program. However, it was not successful in meeting the ambitious requirements currently invested in the now delayed and increasingly expensive Hunter-class frigate. Fast forward several years and the 30FFM appears to be a more attractive proposition for several reasons. Concurrently, the perceived challenges regarding Japanese military exports are gradually being alleviated through both the maturing of the bilateral relationship and amendments to Japan’s export controls.

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The Mogami-class frigate is an impressive platform, principally designed to address the various potential challenges posed by ongoing foreign military incursions around the Senkaku Islands. Equipped with advanced surveillance and electronic warfare suites, it has sufficient surface and mine warfare capabilities tailored for its intended mission. Featuring a towed array sonar system, a variable depth sonar, a hull mounted retractable sonar pod optimised for mine hunting; and a SH-60 sized hangar, it has all the accoutrements of a competent ASW platform. Notably, stealth characteristics are salient with Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI) installing portable radar reflectors for enhancing the radar cross section when necessary for navigational safety but creating a unique opportunity for electronic deception. The platform’s versatility extends to the rapid launch of uncrewed underwater and uncrewed surface vessels from astern and a large space on the portside below the flight deck offers modular flexibility to adapt to specific mission parameters. Despite a propulsion configuration similar to the aging Anzac-class frigates (a gas turbine and two diesels), it achieves superior performance in speed and endurance.

Criticisms of the current platforms’ 16-cell Vertical Launch System (VLS) are valid. However, the Batch 2 derivative is set to address this concern by increasing dimensions and standard displacement to approximately 5,000 tons. This adjustment allows for the incorporation of a 32-cell VLS configuration. Leveraging the Anzac-class familiarity with an analogous armament layout, a quad-pack system replacement emerges as a viable option. This capability enhancement offers a greater capacity to address the challenges posed by anti-ship-missile salvos or mass drone attacks; a scenario currently occurring in the Red Sea. The larger dimensions also provide the ability to include a UAV inside the extended hangar.

Additionally, responding to Japan’s declining population and challenges related to personnel sustainability, the Mogami-class has integrated several advanced technologies to reduce the size of the ship’s company. This includes an innovative Command Information Centre with a circular optical display and an integrated bridge system optimised for automated processes. While the frigates have been primarily designed for near regional operations, the Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force (JMSDF) envisions deploying the warships to the Middle East for CTF 151 counter-piracy duties in due course. To dispel any concerns about limited endurance for RAN requirements with an approximate crew of only 90 personnel, one option could be to use the modular space within the quarterdeck to accommodate additional personnel and victuals when operationally required.

The Department of Defence has a well-known history of challenges with major acquisitions. Going as far back as 2022, the Hunter-class frigate faced a four-year delay, and the program had exceeded the original estimate by AUD 15 billion, leading to its inclusion in the Defence Projects of Concern List. Similarly, life extension programs have historically encountered delays and cost overruns, yielding diminishing returns on investment, particularly when dealing with near 30-year-old platforms.

The 30FFM mitigates a considerable risk burden by successfully overcoming historical challenges associated with large, complex shipbuilding programs. Several Batch 1 vessels are already operational, and the Japanese have been progressively refining the design based on JMSDF feedback. This provides Australia the advantage of utilising established technology, a modular design, and demonstrated experience and expertise. By resisting the temptation to overextend by incorporating excessive indigenous modifications, Australia can leverage MHI’s capability to integrate approved US systems or adapt commensurate Australian designs. Hence adapting the domestic CEAFAR 2L system seems likely to be within tolerance levels.

MHI’s Nagasaki Shipyard is currently expected to deliver two frigates per year, supported by the construction of an additional caisson to expand the capability of its three cavernous dry docks. Additionally, surge capability can be shared with the Tomano shipbuilding facility, which has already delivered one of the vessels, therefore providing a greater guarantee of the ambitious target to commission the first batch by 2028. MHI’s well-organised production has resulted in an estimated cost per unit of Batch 1 platforms below AUD 769 million. The low cost has been assisted by the judicial use of Japanese commercial quality standards without notable deficiencies. Compared to the projected AUD 45 billion for the Hunter-class program, this price appears very appealing at first sight.

That budget implies the potential to reduce the number of Hunter-class platforms and supplement with 30FFM-class frigates at reduced risk with the greater certainty of having sufficient personnel to crew them. While the Stalinist adage of “quantity has a quality all its own” holds true, it somewhat understates the capability of these surface combatants. Additionally, the RAN may finally achieve the ‘minimum 16 major surface platforms’ sooner, as cited in the 1986 Dibb report; when the warning time of a substantial military threat was much longer than is currently assessed.

Although Indonesian domestic political considerations in an election year have raised speculation on that country’s acquisition of the Mogami-class, it nevertheless signifies Japan’s confidence in overcoming its self-imposed ‘Three Principles’ Defence Equipment and Technology export limitations for such endeavours. An Australian 30FFM variant would be more lethal, with the ability to access a specific range of higher-level US combat capabilities through Foreign Military Sales and AUKUS technology pillars. Despite the potential overreach of incorporating a ballistic missile defence capability, MHI is likely working on a Batch 3 derivative already; dedicating significant research to enhance power, space and weight efficacy, that may allow such future inclusions.

The intention for the Indonesian variant to include local production of  the latter platforms would go some way towards alleviating Australian industry concerns. Some of the reasons cited in 2016 for not choosing Japan’s Future Submarine Program (FSP) contender, related to industrial capabilities and levels of technology transfer, which now seem outdated. Outfitting the platforms with locally produced, world class capabilities, such as our own towed array systems and radars, would also appease those advocating for increased domestic content.

Apart from the distinct advantages of platform commonality with Australia’s closest and most capable ally in Asia, the shared construction would profoundly enhance the strengthening bilateral relationship. The Ukrainian War has once again underscored the benefits of multiple logistic chains and the importance of decentralising manufacturing in times of hostilities. Therefore, Australian shipbuilding would also be able to augment JMSDF strategic depth through alternative logistics and maintenance chains during any future conflict.

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As the maritime fraternity anticipates the public release of the Surface Combatant Fleet Review, the 30FFM proposition provokes intriguing possibilities, resonating with the broader debate itself. Could it be the solution to the mythical Tier 2 platform, suitable in supplementing the Hunter-class aspirations and rapidly replacing the Anzac-class? More realistically, does it allow the OPVs to avoid aspiring to a capability they were not originally designed for?

The final perspective may rest with the Japanese, who still muse over the 2016 rejection of their FSP’s Soryu-class derivative. The Japanese proverb, ‘Three years on a rock’ means that success and mastery requires time and patience. A second axiom, ‘If you do not enter the tiger’s cave, you will not catch its cub’ means taking risk is necessary to achieve success. Japan has successfully mastered the construction of the FFM after overcoming substantial risk. Therefore, if Australia now seeks to procure a 30FFM variant, it is much less likely to be mauled on entering the tiger’s cave.

05 February, 2024

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