Five years after the first Cape Class patrol boat entered service with what is now the Australian Border Force (ABF), the 10-strong fleet has consolidated its reputation as a reliable, hard-working responder to maritime security threats within and beyond Australia’s 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone.
Although funding levels for sustainment of the ABF fleet remain an issue, the first international sale of the Cape class is expected to be inked by mid-year, the design forms the basis of a larger Offshore Patrol Vessel (OPV) under offer to the Philippines by designer and shipbuilder Austal, and anti-mine warfare and maritime security variants are under consideration.
Selected in June 2011 as the preferred bidder for a $350 million program to construct eight of the class for what was then the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service, Austal delivered the 58-metre, aluminium-hulled vessels on time and on budget, the last in August 2015.
A $63 million contract for two additional Cape class boats, this time for the RAN, was signed three months later and the two vessels, Cape Fourcroy and Cape Inscription, were delivered in April and May 2017. Unusually, these were funded by National Bank Australia and chartered to the Commonwealth for a minimum of three years.
Should Defence return the boats at the conclusion of the charter term and NAB exercises its residual value guarantee option, Austal will purchase the vessels at a pre-agreed price.
Although the fact that the Cape class was acquired to replace the Austal-constructed aluminium-hulled 38.2 metre Bay class in Customs service was clearly of benefit, the new design was primarily informed by the RAN’s aluminium-hulled 56.8 metre Armidale-class patrol boat fleet, itself designed and constructed by Austal and evolved in part from the Bay class, the previous fleet operated by Customs.
“We sat down internally and did all the lessons learnt and then we undertook a very extensive similar activity with Border Force and Navy, and then followed that with another exercise with Navy – how would we get more space, how would we get more capability, what were the things that worked well and the things that didn’t work well,” Austal Chief Executive Officer David Singleton explained to ADM. “With Border Force, we focused particularly on the procedures for the boarding parties manning the two RHIBs at the stern – how do they receive their orders, how do they get to the RHIBs, how do they prepare and conduct a deployment, how do they ensure there is no cross-contamination.
“The Cape class is of similar size to the Armidale but it’s got a lot more volume and capability. The navy personnel who go from Armidale to Cape can see the linkages but can also see the tremendous improvements.”
The comparative values between the Armidale and Cape classes are striking. Although Cape class is only two metres longer, it offers 30 per cent more internal volume, can carry 40 per cent more transportees in better comfort, and operates with 21 rather than up to 29 crew. Its range of 4,000 nautical miles at 12 knots is 20 per cent greater than that of an Armidale, and top speed of 26 knots for the same displacement is five per cent faster.
Stability is enhanced by a motion control system consisting of two roll fins and two trim flaps, and ventilation in machinery and internal spaces has been optimised by modelling air flow using computational fluid dynamics. Importantly, reliability levels have been significantly improved.
Given the hull cracking experienced by the Armidale fleet, the structural strength of the Cape class was increased to take into account what Singleton describes as a different operating environment.
“It wasn’t that people made errors in the Armidale’s design, it’s just that the design didn’t match the environment that the boat found itself in,” Singleton comments in a reference to the high tempo of asylum-seeker missions, often in heavy seas, between 2008 and 2013.
“The boats were often driven harder and faster than was originally anticipated. Normally with a vessel you would provide an operational envelope, and with a particular wave height you would go at a particular maximum speed.
“But when people are in a sinking boat off the Australian coast in three-metre waves they go as fast as they possibly can to help those people.
“There’s nothing about aluminium that says you can’t sail it as hard as you can sail a steel ship. You just have to make sure you’ve designed for that level. You build out of aluminium to optimise weight, which gives you efficiency, speed and range and you make sure the aluminium on the vessel is as thin and light as you possibly can, commensurate with the role of the vessel.
“With steel, you’re not optimising for weight to the same extent so you’re not trying to pare everything back to the minimum as you would do in an aluminium boat.
“That’s the issue – it’s a highly optimised boat for the environment it’s due to be in; if you change the environment, it can have an impact on the vessel. We recognised that the intensity of operations with Armidale was much higher than anyone had anticipated, so that factor was then built into Cape so that it is able to run for longer and faster in a more effective way than Armidale was designed to do.”
The single difference between the ABF and RAN Cape class boats is in the two 7.3 metre Gemini RHIBS that each carry; the RAN utilises twin diesel outboards while ABF boats have an inboard configuration.
“The Border Force program went from beginning to end in about three-and-a-half years and when we started deliveries we were knocking them out every eight or nine weeks,” Singleton said. “The manufacturing performance improved dramatically through the program; we spent about 25 per cent less hours on the final boat than we did on the first-of-type.”
Lessons from the Armidale program have been implemented in the support for all 10 Cape Class boats. Austal as designer and constructor is responsible for sustainment of the eight ABF boats under a five-year contract out to 2019. A separate $18 million three-year contract for the two RAN vessels was signed in October 2017.
With the Armidales, design and construction was undertaken by Austal but as a sub-contractor to Defence Maritime Services – later Serco – who were also responsible for sustainment. Serco ended their lossmaking in-service support role in 2017, five years early, and were replaced by Thales for whom now Austal acts as a sub-contractor in a number of areas. Work on this contract is predominantly done out of Darwin, a challenging environment for weather alone.
Dave Shiner, Austal’s head of Inservice Support, says contracted availability of around 300 days a year is achieved through planning, configuration and technical management, and scheduled and unscheduled support.
Although the commercial language of the two agreements is different, both involve similar services and support utilising workforces in Darwin for Navy and Darwin or Cairns for the ABF.
Two-day service visits normally occur on weekends. An annual four-week maintenance activity generally takes place at Henderson, WA as does an extended maintenance period every five years which takes anywhere between 12 to 16 weeks to complete depending on a variety of factors. The first of these has just been completed and focused on overhauling major equipment as well as undertaking a structural survey.
“In the past 18 months to two years we’re created an organisation that has the ability to deliver the same outcome on the same commercial basis at any of those locations,” Shiner explained to ADM. “That enables us to deliver a seamless level of support to our sustainment customers whether they’re on the east coast, the west coast or up north.”
One cloud on this otherwise sunny horizon has emerged via the Australian National Audit Office’s December 2018 report “Cape Class Patrol Boats – Inservice Support Arrangements”.
This focused on support for the eight ABF boats, and stated that as of June 2018 the ABF reported that the Cape class boats had yet to achieve the performance and availability requirements for the fleet.
Asked by the ANAO to review selected excerpts from a draft version of the report, Austal did not hold back, stating that the company was delivering the required availability under the sustainment contract and was decreasing maintenance debt.
“However, that outcome is coming at significant and unreasonable cost to Austal which it is not prepared to support in the future” Austal’s review states.
“The costs arise because the ISS (Inservice Support) contract is under-resourced in critical areas, in part because there are significant gaps in the ISS Scope of Work. These gaps arise from erroneous assumptions which were made by the parties regarding the effort required to maintain the CCPBs (Cape Class Patrol Boats).
“The primary reason for any failure of the (Home Affairs) Department to achieve the government’s required levels of availability is not, therefore, Austal’s delivery of the ISS... rather, the Department is under-resourced to utilise CCPB availability, provide organisational level maintenance, and provide proper engineering governance,” the Austal statement concluded.
As a parting shot, Austal noted that any additional maintenance to remediate stern tube issues on the CCPBs “is now being ceased” because the company had satisfactorily demonstrated that these issues had been resolved.
Where matters currently stand is a matter of public record, Austal’s Shiner comments.
“Currently ABF have chosen to leave some of their vessels alongside because they’re unable to man them. They’re in discussion with Austal as to what the long-term plan is.
“Our relationship is constructive and collaborative and we are mutually working together to resolve a number of issues that will ensure they are available for their long term and intended life.”
Regarding the stern tubes, Boats 1 and 2 had experienced a high rate of corrosion around the stern tube bearings. The bearing was changed as was some of the gasket material used for the bearing fitment and the design was modified through an engineering change process.
“We are now happy there is no longer an ongoing stern tube corrosion issue that has been dealt with and proven,” Shiner stated.
Unfortunately, Defence was unable to provide a subject matter expert in time for ADM’s publication deadline to attest to the high regard that Navy reportedly has for the capabilities of its two leased Cape class, whose future is now understood to be under discussion.
However, after an impressive demonstration by the RAN, the government of Trinidad and Tobago has announced its intention to purchase two new-build Cape class boats which will join six Austal fast patrol craft acquired in 2009, with delivery anticipated in mid-2020.
Singleton expects this first international sale of the class to be formalised before mid-year and become the first major defence export to be funded by the $3.8 billion Defence Export Facility.
The Cape Class hull design has also been used as the basis of an 80-metre OPV, albeit with a steel hull and aluminium topsides, proposed by Austal for a Philippines requirement. The proposed design includes a flight deck.
Formal tenders are expected in the next few months with a decision by the end of this year. If successful, the OPVs would be built in what Singleton describes as Austal’s very large, very capable Philippines shipyard in Cebu.
Under a concept dubbed CAPEability, Austal has floated the potential for the proven 58 metre platform to undertake the multi-mission characteristics of a larger, more expensive OPV.
The Maritime Security variant features an operations room, full Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance aviation capabilities, a 30mm stabilised main gun, provision for a short range anti-surface missile system, and a multi-mission bay.
The Mine Warfare variant offers both anti-mine warfare and hydrographic survey mission capability in what the company describes as a fast, efficient package. This includes an operations room enabling data fusion and asset coordination, and the ability to use both unmanned underwater and unmanned surface vehicles, swimmer delivery vehicles and mine warfare disposal shots.
Both variants are being thought through but are not part of a current program, Singleton comments.
“We know the Cape is going to be operational for probably 25 years. We’re now six years into the program and at a time of considerable overseas interest in the class. Usually when people want a vessel they want some modifications to it, so both those variants are being developed for those applications.”
Meanwhile Austal is self-funding the development of its Marine Link Smart systems control which it will offer to the RAN and ABF as an upgrade to the Marine Link system on their in-service Cape-class boats.
“Currently with Marine Link you press a button and a valve opens or an engine starts and stops, you can direct the flow of fluids around the vessel, or something like that,” Singleton said.
“This data upgrade gives you advice on the best way to operate the vessel in order to maximise its performance under varying circumstances. I think it’s the lead-in to converting these ships into an autonomous capability, and it will include greater cyber security.”
This article first appeared in the March 2019 edition of ADM.