Some conferences are worthy but reiterative, others are genuinely informative and have the power to influence, and such was the case with the Future Surface Fleet conference organised by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI).


As pointed out at the opening reception by Chris Lloyd, Thales Australia’s Vice President Maritime and Aerospace, significant decisions on the Sea 5000 Future Frigate program in particular were far enough away for presentations and debate to have a genuine impact on its direction.

More than 200 delegates heard high-level speakers on subjects ranging from geopolitics to capability, from lessons learned to systems integration, with some indirect marketing in between. The release of the First Principles Review on the second day of the conference foreshadowed significant changes ahead for many participants and a new way of doing business.

A continuous build strategy for new naval ships was being considered by government, but this would require a major improvement in productivity to be feasible, Defence Minister Kevin Andrews disclosed.

The current stop-start approach was expensive, provided no long-term certainty to workers, and prevented industry from making the necessary investment and providing the necessary skills base.

“Australian taxpayers currently pay a price premium of at least 30-40 per cent greater than US benchmarks to build naval ships in Australia, and even greater against some other shipbuilding nations,” the Minister said.

“This price premium is simply too high to make good economic sense.  As it stands, it is currently too high to enable a continuous build strategy to be adopted.”

However, announcements in the Defence White Paper and an accompanying naval ship building plan due in the second half of the year would provide more detail on the start of ship construction, the build rate, and the industry structure that would be required to support the programme under consideration.

“Hard lessons will be required, and a commitment to a productivity-based culture from all parties – including unions,” Andrews stated. “Through introducing new management structures, providing the opportunities to invest in new production techniques, and allowing efficiencies in skilled construction to be harnessed to a long-term build program, the naval shipbuilding industry will look and operate very differently to it does today.”

Preference in the Sea 5000 Future Frigate program would be given to mature designs rather than designing a vessel from scratch or undertaking large-scale modifications of existing designs, the Minister said.

The RAN’s capability requirements would be thoroughly tested against more readily-available ships, and changes to the selected design to accommodate “unique“ Australian requirements would be limited.

Chief of Navy Vice Admiral Tim Barrett emphasised that the basis of Navy’s future force being fit for purpose, credible and affordable was the ability to evolve systems rather than simply replace them.

“Navy requirements must go beyond the traditional platform capability and should include fleet-wide sustainment systems requirements as a matter of course,” he stated.

VADM Barrett also used the occasion to dispel any notion that the two Canberra class Landing Helicopter Dock (LHD) amphibious ships were acquired principally for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR). That was not government’s intention, he said.

“It will be their ability to posture for operational manoeuvre and deliver a comprehensive and lethal land force ashore that will confirm their utility.”

Once that was proven and practiced, HADR would be an alternative mission outcome.

Future strategic planning would see the fleet revert from single unit to Task Group operations as the norm. This would require all ships within the task group to be network-enabled across the ADF spectrum, collaborating on their offensive capability, sharing fire control data, and providing collective self-defence to the group.

Effects-based planning methodologies had already been considered in Sea 5000 work, but the modelling required constant iteration as technologies changed and alternative paths were explored.

Lessons learnt from the Royal Navy’s Type 45 destroyer program were being applied to the Type 26 frigate – a potential Sea 5000 contender - and would also be relevant to the Sea 5000 program as a whole, said Commodore Richard Powell, Defence and Naval Adviser at the British High Commission, and a former Type 45 commanding officer.

Lessons from the Falklands campaign had been taken seriously and the six Type 45s had been built to take damage as well as to hand it out.

Heavy investment in a land-based combat system test facility had enabled problems to be resolved in weeks or months, not years. The same land-based testing was now also being applied to Type 26 propulsion, while other equipment was being derisked by initial deployment in Type 23 frigates before being accepted for the Type 26.

An excellent collaborative relationship with industry had seen his ship delivered eight months early – “we never had arguments, we just dealt with problems as they arose”, CDRE Powell commented.

A very narrow window of time had been allowed for becoming operational but trainers did not know the ship, placing unnecessary pressure on vital pre-acceptance training and the whole ship safety case.

Logistics planning had not been ideal, and had taken little account of international operations, emphasising the need for responsibility and accountability throughout any such program.

ASPI Director of Research Andrew Davies suggested the high-end and the constabulary tasks required of the RAN suggested a two-tier navy – one with some serious combat power to provide in an alliance framework further afield, while operating a lighter force close to home.

Lots of money on big and very capable platforms was very much an eggs and baskets proposition, given their expense and the growing number of anti-ship systems which were small, fast and able to manoeuvre in three dimensions.

The bones of a two-tier force were already in the Defence Capability Plan in the Future Frigate and Future Submarine projects, and the Offshore Patrol Vessels in Sea 1180, Davies pointed out.

What would need watching was the tendency to make smaller ships as capable as larger ones, or as close to that as possible.

Professor Thomas Mahnken of the US Naval War College noted that at the tactical level, offence had always been dominant at sea.

This was likely to become even more so in the future due to the continuing growth and spread of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities and precision-strike systems.

Wild cards such as directed energy and rail guns could shift that balance, but design choices being made now about the power that would be available on future platforms would limit the ability to exploit such developments.

The increasing interdependence of different warfare domains had resulted in some of the most talked-about anti-access threats posed by China coming not from its navy, but from the land-based missiles of its Second Artillery Force, Professor Mahnken noted.

As explained by Rear Admiral Christopher Paul, Deputy Commander of US naval surface forces in the US Pacific Fleet, the USN’s newly-introduced “distributed lethality” concept would increase the offensive power of individual components of the surface force and then employ them in dispersed offensive formations described as hunter-killer surface action groups (SAGs).

The concept would force an adversary to allocate critical and limited resources across a larger set of defended targets.

Providing a theoretical example, RADM Paul said a SAG comprising a Littoral Combat Ship with an anti-submarine warfare module, a Flight III Arleigh Burke destroyer, a Zumwalt class destroyer and an Australian Air Warfare Destroyer (AWD) would be capable of targeting and destroying an enemy SAG and fast patrol vessels, identifying and destroying targets ashore, identifying and destroying threats to the expeditionary air operation, providing wide-area air surveillance, and locating and destroying enemy submarines.

The SAG could achieve this while supported by carrier or land-based aircraft, but it would not require this support to accomplish its mission.

Every capability he had described was either in service or in a budgeted acquisition program, the RADM noted.

US Pacific Fleet commander Admiral Harry Harris USN, soon to take over the US Pacific Command, gained international headlines with his remarks at the conference dinner that China was building a “great wall of sand” on previously submerged coral atolls across disputed waters in the South China Sea.

“When one looks at China's pattern of provocative actions towards smaller claimant states, the lack of clarity on its sweeping nine-dash line claim that is inconsistent with international law, and the deep asymmetry between China's capabilities and those of its smaller neighbours – well, it's no surprise that the scope and pace of building man-made islands raises serious questions about Chinese intentions," he said.

A thoughtful insight into the future of industry-Defence cooperation on Sea 5000 by Raytheon Australia’s Managing Director Michael Ward stressed the need to mature the relationship from purely transactional and arms-length to a more strategic partnering arrangement.

“From the earliest stages of the project lifecycle, we should establish relationships, with any necessary commercial frameworks, which are based on a mutual understanding of where the motivations and interests of each party lie – to acknowledge and manage the areas of difference and tension,” Ward said.

This willingness to share information with industry in a spirit of openness and transparency was key to the successful delivery of capability, he commented.

Drawing on his company’s experience as the AWD project’s Combat System Systems Engineer, Ward suggested a common mission thread in command, control and decision support systems enabled by open standards would be critical for the RAN.

A system-of-systems approach leveraging off concepts used in industry, such as stable reference architecture, would allow new design instances to be managed as separately-controlled changes without undertaking any change to the baseline architecture.

Once a common architecture was adopted across the surface combatant fleet, the next challenge would be to achieve further cost savings and advantages by developing a focused fleet-wide baseline management approach through collaboration between Defence and industry, Ward said.


This article first appeared in Australian Defence Magazine VOL.23 No.5, May 2015

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