As many know, the RAN is going through its biggest fleet recapitalisation since WWII. Editor Katherine Ziesing spoke with Chief of Navy Vice Admiral Tim Chief Barrett about how these various programs are coming together, the challenges ahead and how Navy will respond to these opportunities.
Katherine Ziesing | Canberra
ADM: Many major Navy programs over the last few years have gone through a Competitive Evaluation Process (CEP). What has this looked like for Navy in regard to the Future Submarine, OPVs and Sea 5000 Future Frigates? How are they different?
Barrett: As some context, the government has been very clear in where it wants certain capabilities to go but it has placed some ambitious timelines on us as well to be able to bring these into service. There is a competitive evaluation for each of those major projects and whilst it’s consistent in terms of producing all the information that government needs to be able to make a decision, how each of those look might be a little different.
So how we investigated the submarine, which was really looking at who was going to assist us in the design of the Future Submarine, is a little different from the competitive evaluation process for let’s say the Future Frigates, which is about choosing an existing design but having it brought into service to Australia.
The concept and the methodology is the same but let me say the concepts and the desire is the same but the methodology might be a little different for each one. And really, it just reflects the fact that we have to be agile and appropriate for each of circumstances with each of these new projects.
ADM: And what about the OPVs, how do they fit into the CEP framework?
Barrett: They’re very similar to the Future Frigate. There were three designs that were being looked at and so, again, and this came from a review of the Naval Shipbuilding Plan. We took the advice of RAND Corporation and we sought not to go from the point of design here but to select a design that would meet our needs and so we’ve entered the shipbuilding program probably two steps down from where you might think we would need to do and we are doing with the submarine.
The evaluation process is the same but the method by how each of these go might be a little different, but the end state is exactly the same and that is providing government with the best information on which they can make a decision as to which particular outcome they seek.
ADM: What are your requirements for the Sea 5000 vessel? Does one role have priority over another and why?
Barrett: It does very much. The Sea 5000 Future Frigate is an anti-submarine warfare vessel; that is the principal role that we are procuring these vessels for. If you think through the Air Warfare Destroyer, it was just that, it was to look at air defence but the Future Frigate the mission is very much about anti-submarine warfare (ASW). So the design criteria that we’re looking for, the attributes that that platform brings is predominantly around ASW.
That said, an ASW platform still needs to defend itself and so we will be looking for its ability to work across the broader fleet and for it to have systems that will enable it to defend itself but it’s principal aim is to be ASW.
ADM: How important is interoperability with Navies other than the USN?
Barrett: It’s very important. Australia’s desire in this region is for us to operate with many navies, not just one in particular. I spend as much time talking to, for instance, my NZ counterpart or my Singaporean counterpart as I do to my US Navy counterpart.
We spend a lot of time engaged in the region. We are a navy in this region and so it is important that we can operate safely, we can operate effectively with others, and you do that by ensuring that your tactics, your procedures and, in some cases, your equipment is either the same of very similar so that you are able to interact and operate together in a relatively seamless manner.
ADM: So is that relationship mainly based on technical or personnel interoperability would you say?
Barrett: It’s a bit of both. We go to great lengths to make sure that we exercise and share lessons learnt with other navies in the region. We operate with the Indonesians on a regular basis, we have a series of exercises, we exchange personnel so that we can see how each other will operate in certain scenarios. We do the same with the Singaporeans, we do the same with the Philippine Navy, we’ve done it with Japan, we’ve done it with the US, and we’ve done exercises with China.
HMAS Adelaide and Republic of Singapore Ship Resolution at anchor off the coast of North Queensland, as RAN helicopters and landing craft from both navies conduct cross deck training between the two amphibious platforms. Credit: Defence
All of this is aimed at being able to understand each other. It’s all about a broad effort to ensure that there are few surprises at sea, and that’s why we spend so much time exercising together.
ADM: On a completely different note, what is your roadmap for unmanned vehicles?
Barrett: We look to the future in this area, not just for aviation assets but also for submersibles as well. We are looking and experimenting in either of those areas. With unmanned air vehicles in particular, we’ve operated unmanned air vehicles for quite some time, decades in fact.
Originally they were for target practice. Navy used to fly unmanned vehicles that ships would be able to fire against. We’ve done those even with rockets that we have fired and that’s what the Kalkara system was, it was a rocket-assisted takeoff and then it was a jet that would fly around unmanned and it would allow ships to practice, and on occasion, to fire at a towed target as part of its development.
We are in the process at the moment of looking at the other utility of unmanned air vehicles. We’ve had a unit within the fleet air arm that’s been concentrating on that. We’re looking at both fixed wing and rotary wing unmanned air vehicles and, indeed, over the last year or so we’ve taken them to sea and operated them from various ships and, indeed, we are actually at this moment with one of our operational frigates operating an unmanned air vehicle on operations.
ADM: And the MV Sycamore, that’s set up for UAS operations as well, is that correct?
Barrett: As an aside, the Sycamore was the name of the first type of helicopter that the RAN ever operated, so there is some history in why we called it Sycamore. But that vessel was procured so that we could actually teach new air crew – both Army and Navy – how to land on ships’ flight decks.
But because it has a flight deck, it has a capacity for us to be able to operate UAVs from it and it will be our intent in the future to use it as a platform where we may experiment, what type of UAV we choose to use and to train people in their operation because you can do that from the ship; it is well set up to allow you to be able to manage UAVs from that platform.
ADM: Can you explain what happened with the LHDs earlier this year in terms of the issues with propulsion, as they are still operating under main propulsion restrictions? Can Navy provide details on what the root cause analysis has revealed?
Barrett: We had a problem that was identified in one of the LHDs. It was in the propulsion pod itself and, again, for context if I can say the propulsion pod is a self-contained unit below the ship that contains both the motor and the propellers that drive the ship.
HMAS Adelaide rests on blocks within Captain Cook Graving Dock at Fleet Base East, Sydney, after entering dry dock for maintenance. Credit: Defence
So if there is an issue, particularly with there, we had to bring the ship back to look at it (and this was HMAS Canberra). We took her to Garden Island in Sydney to have that look at a potential issue. Because we found one, we took a prudent step to see whether we had similar circumstances or indications in the other LHD, HMAS Adelaide. She was on the west coast on exercise at the time and she was displaying a similar issue and so we thought it best to bring both of them back to Sydney where we could investigate and, in the case of Adelaide, dock her to see what the true cause was.
In the process of doing that we discovered there were some issues with bearings and with oil migration between seals. We took a very deliberate approach to make sure we knew exactly what was going on. So we sent Canberra off to do some sea trials and at the same time we put Adelaide into the dock and took the pod apart.
We discovered what we thought might have been the case was indeed correct in terms of the bearings and the oil migration, so we fixed that. Adelaide has subsequently sailed doing some more trials, and with Canberra, we’ll put her into what is a
scheduled docking at the end of the year and we will do to her what we did to Adelaide.
This has been a very disciplined and deliberate approach to fix what was a problem that we discovered ourselves during a period of test and trials.
ADM: Do you know if the Spanish fleet is experiencing similar issues?
Barrett: The Spanish have one LHD of the same design, the Juan Carlos I. They have had an issue with one of their pods. It’s been characterised to me as an issue between the seal between the pod and the hull, not with the same issues with bearings that we have found.
ADM: Are you concerned the manoeuvring capabilities of the LHDs may be constrained throughout the life of type?
Barrett: Firstly let me say, we felt sufficiently comfortable when we went through this process to send Canberra off to Talisman Sabre. She had some speed limitations imposed around a certain range but she was still able to complete everything that was required of her during that exercise.
With that in mind, am I concerned about how we manage this? No, not at all. I think we’ve taken a very deliberate approach very early in their life; remembering that both of them have only been in service for two years or so and we intend to operate these ships for between 25 and 30 years.
We were very cautious, took an approach that would allow us to understand it and fix it right up front so they could operate to what we require to deliver to government throughout the rest of the life of the ship.
ADM: Is JP 9000 Phase 7 (HATS) on track and if not, what are your training plan contingencies?
Barrett: It is. It’s taken a long time for HATS to come to germination. We’ve been attempting, within Navy, to replace our training system which we have previously used with the Squirrel helicopter. We’ve been seeking to do that for over a decade. The HATS solution is for both Army and Navy, so it’s not just for our needs. Since that got into motion it has developed very well and I’m pleased to say that we have received the last of the 15 aircraft involved.
HATS is more than just new helicopters to teach people to fly. It is, as the name implies, an entire training system and it involves simulators, part task trainers, emulators. All of those elements are being delivered to HMAS Albatross at Nowra, NSW and they are all in train at the moment, either being delivered or being set to work. We are actually on track from my perspective. We have not had to take any other steps to provide training in any other way and I’m looking forward to the opportunity now to see the product that comes out of the HATS program.
This will be a fantastic improvement in the way that we train air crew – pilots, observers or air warfare officers, air crewmen – for both Army and for Navy and with the Sycamore where they can practise their skills at sea as well and learn deck landings. This is a complete package and it’s quite an extraordinary step up from where we’ve been in the past.
ADM: Navy is beginning a transition journey with the AWDs and Romeo helicopters; how is this progressing?
Barrett: HMAS Hobart was commissioned on the 23rd of September. She is a great ship. We’ve got a Navy crew on board at the moment and they’re just loving the ship. We’ve given them training, not just in this ship but also in a visiting Spanish ship of the same design, Cristóbal Colón, that was here earlier in the year. So the crew is well prepared.
The ship is, again, it’s a quantum leap over what we’ve been able to do in the past. It has an Aegis system on board which allows it to, from a combat management system and a sensor system, to be able to do more far more than the ship that it replaced has been able to do.
The program itself has had a bit of a chequered history but in the last 18-24 months it has sped up to the finish line and I’m now very pleased with where this program is.
At the same time we’ve brought the 24 Romeo helicopters from the US. Again, that’s a program that has run well. We are still sending people to train in the US to get the right numbers up because the aircraft are performing well. We’ve got flights at sea, we’ve
operated them in the Middle East already on ships that have operated in an operational sense. And again, the aircraft is a quantum leap over the model of aircraft that it replaces. Remembering that the previous aircraft that it replaces was also a Sea Hawk, so we’re very familiar with how this aircraft works. But the fit out of the Romeo Sea Hawk is quite extraordinary compared to the Classic Sea Hawk that we’ve operating for many years.
ADM: And how is the MRH performing for Navy?
Barrett: Like Army, we have had some issues with availability with the aircraft but its performance at sea in the roles that we need it to perform has been very good. We get good availability at sea but the aircraft is still being transitioned into service. We’re still working through a number of issues to make sure we get all the requirements that we set in the first place delivered to us.
An MRH-90 from 5th Aviation Regiment on the flight deck of LHF HMAS Canberra. Credit: Defence
For those that fly the aircraft in Navy will tell you that it performs well. It’s a great aircraft to fly and we have been operating it at sea now for several years and it’s, as I said, we’ve taken it around the region, around the Pacific when ships have sailed and it’s performed very well.
ADM: The Collins class has seen better availability in the last two years than ever before. What part has Navy played in this?
Barrett: We’ve played a significant part, remembering that submarines themselves are one of Navy’s significant strategic assets that we provide to government. We took some steps as a direct result of the Coles Review. In some cases we simplified how we managed the Collins system and we formed an enterprise which made sure that both CASG, Navy and industry all realised what the end state was and what we were trying to produce in terms of numbers of submarines at sea.
Over the last two years, as a consequence of that work across the enterprise, we’ve seen a dramatic change in the availability of these submarines. I’m very pleased as Chief of Navy to see that the Collins are now doing what they were originally designed to do. We’re doing them with a benchmark availability which is as Coles suggested we should be getting. I’ve been able to deploy the submarines far more frequently than my predecessors are likely to have been able to do that.
That is important because you need submarines at sea to be able to train submariners, you need submarines at sea to actually do the operations that government require of us and, as I said, I’ve been very pleased to see that all these things have come together under this enterprise approach.
ADM: And finally, are you on track to deliver what you envisioned in Plan Pelorus by next year?
Barrett: I’m feeling really confident about Plan Pelorus. I set Plan Pelorus as a head mark for us to Navy, those elements within CASG and industry and other, to focus on one aspect; we need to meet government’s requirements. We needed to introduce what was going to be a task group organisation within Navy to meet what were new and future ships, aircraft and submarines coming in to service.
Now I feel very comfortable that we have all followed that direction. There’s still a lot of work to be done and there always be. We’ll always be looking for better ways of doing it but I feel that we’ve got the alignment right. I feel that we have got the right confidence and settings from government for us to be able to achieve that task group. We’ve certainly had decisions made on future equipment which provides certainty, not just for Navy and CASG, but also for industry around where Navy needs to go.
The bit that I continue to work at and I will until the time when I leave this job is to just make sure that the people understand that this is not about Navy.
Indeed, it’s not just about defence, it’s about what the nation does and so I’ve put my words down in a short essay called ‘The Navy and the Nation’ – I hope people get the opportunity to read it – but it puts in context why it’s so important that we take these actions and it’s the fundamental part of why Plan Pelorus needed to be followed and where I think we’re at in terms of achieving it before I leave this job.