By David Wroe
19 June 2018 — 9:45pm
Britain is strongly tipped to win the hard-fought contest to design and build Australia’s new $35 billion fleet of naval frigates in a move that would firm up the partnership with a key ally at a time of international political uncertainty.
Sources in Canberra and defence industry circles said it was all but certain that Britain’s BAE Systems would be chosen as the international partner to design and help build what will form the backbone of the Royal Australian Navy’s surface fleet for the coming decades.
The national security committee of cabinet is expected to discuss the decision soon, with an announcement possible by the end of next week.
The British firm has been in a race against Italy’s Fincantieri and Spain’s Navantia for the contract to provide a design and help Australia build nine new frigates, starting in 2020. BAE has previously said the project will create more than 5000 jobs.
Defence has assessed the three bids and is understood to have made a recommendation on which offering would give the navy the best capability for key missions such as hunting enemy submarines.
However it also considered the risk of cost blowouts and delays, as well as which bid would provide the strongest shot in the arm for the government’s plans for a vibrant shipbuilding industry in Australia.
BAE’s Global Combat Ship is regarded as the most modern design and the best suited to anti-submarine warfare. However because it remains a design on paper and has not yet been built, it also potentially poses a greater risk of delays and blowouts.
BAE has argued that since it is building the first few ships for the British navy, any problems will be ironed out there.
The construction will take place in Adelaide. Defence Industry Minister Christopher Pyne has spruiked the project as central to creating a long-term naval shipbuilding industry in Australia.
The decision comes against a background of international strategic fluidity, with Britain exiting the European Union and Australia facing a changing region in which China is exerting its power and relative US power is in question.
The Turnbull government is keen for Britain to step up its involvement in the Pacific, where island nations include several Commonwealth members states.
The British government has also signalled it means to take a more active part in demonstrating international rules of the road in Asia, through measures such as sailing naval ships through the South China Sea.
British Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson said earlier this month that the country would for the first time in decades send three naval warships to Asia, with one key mission being to sail through the South China Sea to demonstrate that any maritime claims Beijing makes based on artificial islands are not recognised by international law.
The frigates will specialise in anti-submarine warfare, using towed sonars and helicopters to hunt for enemy boats.
They will be equipped with a US-made Aegis combat system meshed with locally made SAAB Australia technology to integrate Aegis with the radar system. That will give it strong capabilities to target planes and even missiles.
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