• CN Michael Noonan. (David Jones)
    CN Michael Noonan. (David Jones)
  • Chief of Navy VADM Mike Noonan at Pacific 2019

[ADM - David Jones]
    Chief of Navy VADM Mike Noonan at Pacific 2019 [ADM - David Jones]

In a first for ADM, we are pleased to release our very first online only From the Source interview with Chief of Navy Vice Admiral Mike Noonan.

This interview partners well with the October print edition of ADM which sees Head of Navy Capability Rear Admiral Peter Quinn give a good overview of the state of Navy’s current and future capabilities in his From the Source interview.

ADM: Australian warships haven’t seen action against a near-peer adversary in 70+ years. Is high-end maritime warfare really still their primary purpose?

Noonan: That is my absolute focus in terms of ensuring that we’ve got a capable Navy. I think in terms of strategic circumstance in our region, it really does show up in our focus. Particularly over the last 12 months we’ve had a lot of focus and a lot of commitment within the Indo-Pacific and I think some of the things that I would point to in terms of what Navy is doing in the Indo-Pacific really do underline that importance for me and our Navy behind of our capabilities.

More directly, Indo-Pacific Endeavour (IPE) I think is an expression of where our Navy is going in terms of being able to put sustainable task groups to sea. This year IPE saw five ships visit seven countries, 1,100 people from our Defence Force at sea for four months and that is the expression of our ability to get high-end warfare platforms to sea but also operate in the region with our partners and our allies.

In terms of what does the last 70 years mean, we have learned a lot in terms of our region. We are highly engaged in the region at the moment. Part of that is through the Pacific Step Up commitment by government, and our own program in terms of the Pacific Maritime Security Program underpins a lot of that.

If you look to the future capabilities that we’ve got coming into the Navy, it really is about ensuring that we’ve got a 5th generation navy that is capable in its own right but interoperable within the region and at the very highest end of those maritime capabilities. Activities like EX Talisman Sabre 2019 really underpin where our capabilities are at now and where they’re going to be in the future.

ADM: How do you see hypersonics impacting Navy’s ability to compete in the high-end fight?

Noonan: Clearly that is an emerging technology and I understand that Australia is leading the way in where we’re going with some of those high-end hypersonic technologies. For me in the Navy space, having systems that can detect hypersonic targets is absolutely going to be vital to our future ability to fight and win at sea. To that end we have to continue to ensure that we evolve our active and our passive protection systems, our radar systems, our electronic warfare systems; they’re the cutting edge of technology to understand and ultimately to defeat hypersonic threats.

I think at the moment there’s probably no silver bullet solutions for hypersonic defence. I was at the Defence Science and Technology Group facility down at Fisherman’s Bend recently and that was one of the things that we talked about, is what are these emerging technologies that we need to be investing in now to ensure that our future ships are not only safe but can defeat these threats. So, absolutely, hypersonics will play a really significant part in the capabilities that we evolve into the future.

ADM: What about the future of SM-6? Is Navy looking to acquire an anti-ballistic missile capability?

Noonan: Yes, it is. Absolutely, as part of where we’re going under our Future Maritime Based Joint Area Weapons System, SM-6 will be part of that. It’s been selected specifically to meet Navy’s future requirements and it is already successfully integrated into other versions of the Aegis Combat System. We’ll see this as part of the growth path for the Hobart class destroyer and also the Hunter class frigates and even though it’s not a stipulated capability for the Hunter class at this point time, the Aegis Combat System that we will have in that frigate will be capable of interfacing with that missile. So it’s a significant capability but it’s absolutely a vital part of our future air warfare capability.

ADM: What type of UAS capability is being sought under Sea 129/5 (rotary and/or fixed wing)? What will the acquisition methodology be (agile/smart buyer)?

Noonan: Sea 129 Phase 5 is a really important way of understanding what the emerging UAS technologies are and how we will incorporate them into our Navy. I think it would be fair to say that we don’t have all answers to that yet. It’s part of the reason that we stood up the new Navy squadron 822X last year; it’s having an ability to learn and fail fast if necessary but also evolve quickly those capabilities that we want to get to sea.

In terms of that project, we’re looking to procure enough systems to support probably up to 12 operational flights at sea in the next decade and we’re looking at how we’ll introduce those. That’ll be a mix of flights, both in the OPVs and also in the Hunter class frigate. I don’t know that we will find one system that will meet all of our needs across the fleet, so I’m expecting that we’ll see a mix of both rotary and fixed wing. You’re probably familiar with what we’ve done already with ScanEagle and Camcopter and that’s all been pretty successful in terms of learning, not just about the mechanical and the aeronautical capabilities of those platforms but how we will ultimately integrate them as part of the ships’ weapons and sensor systems.

ADM: How will Navy manage interoperability with regional navies other than the US, who may not have access to the same levels of capability? Does this make a coalition which includes the US essential in any wartime deployment?

Noonan: Interoperability is an important term, and we must be careful that we don’t just pigeonhole interoperability as being able to operate at the high end of an Aegis weapons system, for example, and that’s what typically springs to mind.

Interoperability for me means being able to, in the first instance, communicate and share information. It’s something that I talk about a lot with my regional friends and allies. Being specific, I look at countries like India, they’re operating the P8 Maritime Patrol Aircraft. India is about to buy 24 Seahawk Romeo Helicopters. Japan and South Korea both have the Aegis Combat System fitted to their surface platforms. The Type 26 frigate will be a common platform between Australia, the UK, Canada and maybe other countries.

So we’re building a fleet that already has a common backbone with a lot of our other regional friends and partners, but closer to home I look at what we’re doing with the Pacific Maritime Security Program, the 21 Guardian class patrol boats will all be fitted with communication systems and information sharing systems that allow us to operate with our regional partners.

Even more importantly, I’d underscore that in the region we’ve got a network of 30 Australian Navy people sprinkled around 14 countries as Maritime Surveillance and Technical Advisers who are absolutely enabling the interoperability between Australia and the Southwest Pacific Island countries. This is hugely important but really exciting in terms of being able to enable the capabilities of the new Guardian class patrol boats. 

ADM: What about posting secondments here for some of our closer regional neighbours? Do we have many of those in the system?

Noonan: Yes we do. We have a number of exchange postings with the US, with the UK. We run a visiting fellows program through the Sea Power Centre where we’ve had a number of regional countries – Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, Japan – come and spend time with us and learn about our capabilities, write/develop doctrine, as they might shape the region and thinking. We have a number of junior officer exchanges with Japan, India, Indonesia, Chile. We had some junior officers on board some Chinese ships last year. So it’s very dynamic.

If you told me that I had somebody on a pick-a-country ship, I’d just say yeah, I’d believe you because we have such a diverse range of international contact and people to people exchanges. That was what I thought was really one of the most important outputs of Indo-Pacific Endeavour, was we had 1,100 young Australians, many of whom had not spent much time in the region getting to build people to people relationships in countries that they’d never visited before.

So that in itself is really key to what we do and why we do it. It’s about understanding people and having that connectivity so that when things get a little bit difficult in the political sense or in the security sense, people can pick up a phone and talk to each other.

We’re up to 42 countries represented at Pacific this year; we’ve got roughly 20 Navy chiefs coming. So that in itself really does underpin what others think of Australia and I highlight the fact that a number of those chiefs are close personal friends of mine, not of the last couple of years but of the last 20 years and I think some of them are coming out of curiosity because they never thought that I’d make it beyond Commander!

I get a strong sense that people are looking to Australia at the moment saying ‘hey, you guys are doing some pretty big and bold and brave things in terms of capability development’, at a time when the world’s not necessarily at a certain place. 

CN Noonan with Chief of Navy Republic of Singapore Lew Chuen Hong. Defence
CN Noonan with Chief of Navy Republic of Singapore Lew Chuen Hong. Defence

ADM: Moving back more into the capability space, what is the status of the Hobart class aviation upgrades? How are they progressing?

Noonan: Really good. You of course know that we’ve taken delivery of the 24 Romeo aircraft and they’re a great aircraft. Can’t wait to get more of them to sea. But in terms of how they needed to interface with the Hobart class, there have been some structural modifications that we’ve needed to make to the ships and this is happening as part of the introduction of that aircraft under Air 9000 Phase 8 Program.

The modifications to HMAS Hobart were conducted earlier this year. They were completed in May and modifications to HMAS Brisbane, who is currently deployed, they will occur early next year and I’ve taken the opportunity with HMAS Sydney to do those modifications while she’s still in build. So they’re occurring literally as we speak, notwithstanding the fact that Sydney is actually at sea at the moment. She just started her contractor sea trials. The modifications to Sydney are about 60 per cent complete and so they will occur before she is delivered to us and her modifications for the Romeo will be completed in February next year prior to delivery.

What that means is that all three ships will be fully modified by the middle of next year, which brings final operating capability of that interface of the helicopter to the ship forward by about 12 months earlier than we’ve originally planned.

ADM: And what about FOC for the Canberra class LHDs?  Is that still on track for calendar year this year?

Noonan: Absolutely and I guess I’m excited at the prospect of announcing FOC for the Canberra class and the final piece of that was achieving operations or concurrent operations between Adelaide and Canberra, which we achieved during Talisman Sabre. That went really, really well both in terms of the interoperability of the two ships. The aviation aspects were fully achieved. Planning, command and control has all occurred. I’m now keen to announce FOC but I’ve asked the team to work deliberately through the proofs and one of the things that we discussed is could we, should we announce it at Pacific 19, and as tempting as that might be, I want to ensure that we’ve conducted all of the due diligence around the T&E and safety regime, but I am absolutely confident that we will be announcing FOC in the coming months. 

ADM: Are you happy with the performance of the ship to shore connectors?

Noonan: Yes, I am and there’s been a lot of work done with those over the last couple of years and some of the things that we’ve seen, trialled and tested this year I think has proved that the work has been well worth it. You might have seen the photos we put out earlier this year with an M1-A1 on the LCM1-Es. Clearly it has been an important capability to realise and we’ll keep developing that and we’ll keep integrating those capabilities into our training and our exercises but in terms of proving the capability, we’ve achieved that.

ADM: Will the LHDs themselves get more protection such as Nulka or Phalanx 1B?

Noonan: There are a series of capability upgrades planned for the LHDs and that’s being worked through in a very deliberate sense in terms of realising the capability as part of future upgrades. In terms of Nulka and CIWS weapons systems, we will see work towards both of those systems, as the LHDs move forward over the next 12 months and part of this is about retiring capabilities in some classes of ships and enhancing capabilities in other parts of ships. Even as we retire the Adelaide class frigates, clearly there’s opportunity there in terms of what we do with the CIWS and the Nulka from those platforms. So I guess I’m giving you a bit of a clue.

ADM: Where will Defence locate the proposed 'cruiser in a cornfield' CEA FAR2 test site under the Ship Zero concept?

Noonan: I think there’s probably two parts to that question. In terms of Ship Zero concept, it’s something that we’ve embraced in terms of the way that we approach future capabilities. Absolutely we need to ensure that we’ve got land-based test sites, training facilities and all of those capabilities that we need to ensure we can use before we roll out some capability. So we’re de-risking the OPV through the Ship Zero concept and I am certainly pushing that as we bring you our future platforms that we follow suit there.

With respect to the CEA FAR Ship Zero concept, to the best of my knowledge there’s no decisions been made yet in terms of the location for that. That’s going to become part of the work that’s happening around the continuous shipbuilding enterprise.

We are looking at potential locations and scope for a number of land-based test sites that will support the combat system development, the integration for all of our future capabilities in line with the Ship Zero model. They really do form an integral part of ensuring that we de-risk those activities and those capabilities before we take delivery. They ensure that our people are trained, that we’ve got the opportunity to do software developments and keep them up to date before we deliver the final systems to the platforms.

I think it’s a good question to keep asking. It’s going to be part of our journey and while I can’t give you definitive locations at this stage, I think they are going to sit very, very close to the shipbuilder as we work these capabilities up. From my perspective, one of the things that I will do at the Pacific 19 is I will launch the Navy Industry Engagement Strategy, which is really important, and I think you’ll get a good sense that I’m absolutely committed to ensuring that Navy’s relationship with industry is strengthened and that we’re as transparent as we can be in terms of sharing information as early as we can.

And while I’m not seeking to undermine the primacy of CASG in their relationship with industry, I think that over the coming years there is so much happening, is that we need to be ensuring that industry is best prepared as they can be to be on the front foot with development of future capability and ensuring that those capabilities work when we put them to sea and turn them on the first time. We simply don’t have the luxury of resource or time to be learning as we go; they have to work first time every time. 

ADM: On that industry engagement piece, so RAAF has Plan Jericho, Army has Innovation Day; what does the RAN do channel its innovation drive with industry?

Noonan: I guess there is a number of factors to that. I think innovation is something that all three services have embraced in the last few years and certainly in terms of Navy, my predecessor put out an innovation statement about two years ago and that has really led not just to a change in the thinking but a clear commitment to embracing innovation in all aspects. Certainly at Fleet Base East at Garden Island we’ve got an Innovation Centre there where we’ve got a bunch of young people who do crazy, whacky things and they really test out how Navy could embrace innovation. We’ve done a lot of work with virtual/augmented reality and around AI across Navy over the last two years.

We’re in the process of establishing an Innovation Centre in Fleet Base West. I’ve certainly seen it at sea which proliferated as the Innovation Centre in Sydney. We’ve put 3D printers on a number of our platforms. I was on board Choules a couple of months ago and they were printing up parts for the ship in real time as things broke. And not just replacement parts but the sailors were designing things for the ship that were better than the original part. Not complex pieces of combat system but parts that have an integral role in safety systems on the ship.

There was also the Autonomous Warrior exercise down at Jervis Bay in November last year; it was largely a Five Eyes partnered activity but we had other observers there as well. We had about 47 companies come along and participate in that activity and a lot of the technologies that were tested and fielded during that activity have gone on over the last 12 months to become more advanced technologies that we will seek to continue to develop for the Future Submarines and Future Frigates.

I am equally committed and keen to understand more about autonomous underwater systems as well as those in the air. It is a medium of which we are least comfortable and it’s the medium which we’re seeing the greatest opportunities for unmanned systems into the future. So a big focus there.

I’d like to say that we’re at the cutting edge of it but we’re certainly committed to ensuring that we learn as much as we can and bring those capabilities into our future platforms and so, for instance, the Future Submarine is being designed to be able to interact with launch and recover underwater autonomous systems, for example. 

ADM: What’s being done and when to update/enhance Navy’s anti-mine warfare capabilities at the moment under Sea 1905 and other programs?

Noonan: There’s no doubt that we need to ensure that our mine warfare capabilities remain cutting edge and evolving. I think one of the things that I’d proffer is that the technologies around mine warfare in the region have proliferated at a rate probably a little bit more than we had anticipated through the lens of White Paper 2016. This has led me to reconsider our plans around our mine hunting capabilities in Australia and one of the things that I’m seeking to do is look at how we might bring systems into our navy into the future that allow us to stand off out of the minefield and that’s exactly what that project will seek to do.

So rather than upgrade the Huon class mine hunters, Navy is doing a bunch of work around future proofing in this space. How do we look at potentially a common hull form with the OPV? Actually introduce mission systems around mine warfare into the future that allows us to have off-board autonomous systems that can detect and ultimately prosecute and neutralise minefields without us being in the minefield? Because in this day and age it makes no sense to knowingly put humans into a minefield when we have off-board systems that can allow us to do that.

Notwithstanding that, the Huon class is achieving great contemporary results. We deployed two of our boats last year to South Korea where they participated in joint activities with Japan and South Korea and they achieved very, very good results. So part of this is all about learning and staying relevant in the region and ensuring the young men and women are participating in activities where their skills will be tested and honed and so that they can actually learn about contemporary threats and technologies so that we can fold those into those future projects.

ADM: What’s the status of Navy recruiting in general, and submarine workforce in particular?

Noonan: I make no secret that the Navy workforce is my most important focus in terms of risks that face our Navy. We continue to have a degree of workforce hollowness which concerns me deeply. Our technical workforce is a very important committed workforce but we simply don’t have enough people in the Navy at the moment with the skills at the right rank level to allow us to fully exploit our capabilities. There’s been media reporting this year about HMAS Perth not being at sea and that’s a fact; that was a conscious decision that Navy made with respect to that platform based on the fragility of the technical workforce.

That said, recruiting for Navy over the last 12 months has been very strong and, in fact, I’ve only just had a brief from the Director-General of Defence Force Recruiting and our recruiting targets were up in the mid 90s for the last 12 months. But I’m not satisfied with that; I’ve actually increased the recruiting target over the last 12 months by 40 per cent to go up in the total numbers. I’ve also, since July this year, put in place some very targeted retention measures to ensure that we keep the people with the skills at those right rank levels.

So our current separation rate for Navy has dropped from 10.3 per cent a bit over 12 months ago to 7.8 per cent right now, which is great news. But I’m still dealing with a workforce shortfall of about 1,000 people, typically at the leading seaman, petty officer level and most acutely in the technical ranks. There’s also some gaps at the lieutenant/lieutenant commander level, particularly in those maritime warfare disciplines that really underpin being able to put our ships to sea.

There are early indications that we’re seeing some positive trends but I need to keep that up because ultimately the capabilities that we currently have, and that we’ve committed to in the future, are going to need a very strong navy that’s underpinned by skills at those middle rank levels.

ADM: What are the key themes at Pacific 2019 this year?

Noonan: I look at Sea Power 19 as an exciting activity in terms of being able to showcase to the regions of the world what Australia’s maritime industries are doing and certainly what our Navy is embarking on. Certainly the message for Pacific 19 is all about the Indo-Pacific and the strategic context that we find ourselves operating in and to have such a large degree of interests from our regional and world navies and industries I think is really important. I remember looking forward to that and I fully expect that the format of this year’s Sea Power Conference will really generate some different thinking around the way that we interact with each other.

A couple of things that I’ll call out is that we’re having a specific day with the leaders of the Southwest Pacific Island countries to talk about the things that are important to them, the challenges that they face and the things that we need to do together with respect to regional maritime security challenges. That will occur on Monday 7 October.

We’re doing a lot of engagement with our younger emerging leaders. We’ve got a Young Turks session where we’re really going to throw it to our next generation and the up and coming leaders to really think about but also own those challenges that we’re talking about.

There’s a companion history piece where we’re going to look very hard at some of those lessons of the past. One of your first questions was the things that happened in our region and with our Navy back 75 years ago, what have we learnt from that and how can we apply those lessons.

So it’s huge. It’s going to be a very, very, very busy week but I think that not only is there something for everybody and all interests there’s going to be some really important outcomes from this year’s Sea Power Conference and Pacific 19.

Career Highlights of Chief of Navy Vice Admiral Michael Noonan AO, RAN

2018   Chief of the Royal Australian Navy

2016   Deputy Chief of the Royal Australian Navy

2013   Commander Maritime Border Command

2012   Commodore Training

2010   Director General Operations, Headquarters Joint Operations Command

2009   Director, Military Strategic Commitments

2008   Chief of Staff Joint Task Force 633

2008   Director Joint Effects, Headquarters Joint Operations Command

2006   Director Sailors Career Management

2003   Commanding Officer HMAS Parramatta

2002   Chief of Staff Australian National Command Headquarters for Operation Slipper

2000   Director Navy Reputation Management, Navy Headquarters

1999   Officer In Charge Maritime Warfare Training Centre, HMAS Watson

1998   Staff Officer Surface Warfare, HMAS Watson

1995   Principal Warfare Officer-Air, HMAS Anzac

1993   Direction Officer, HMAS Canberra

1990   Flag Lieutenant to Naval Support Commander

1989   Officer of the Watch, Air Intercept Controller, HMAS Perth

1987   Officer of the Watch, HMAS Brisbane

1986   Graduated Royal Australian Naval College

1984   Joined Royal Australian Naval College, HMAS Creswell

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