ADV Reliant has attracted controversy, setting that aside, ADM takes a deep dive into the ship and what it offers Australia and our region.
Months after Defence revealed that the Pacific Support Vessel had been purchased, Australian Defence Vessel (ADV) Reliant arrived home in Australia on 6 July, after a voyage across the Pacific. With the vessel now in Australia, and awaiting formal commissioning into the Royal Australian Navy (RAN), it’s worth examining what capabilities it offers and how the RAN might employ it.
Then Defence Minister Christopher Pyne committed to building a “large hulled” humanitarian aid and disaster relief (HADR) vessel ahead of the 2019 election. The Pacific Support Vessel, he told reporters, would support the Morrison Government's Pacific-Step up by providing a sustainable presence in the region.
“It could be assisting with preparations for natural disasters, resilience support, or it could respond to natural disasters as they occur,” he said.
Importantly, the Morrison Government explicitly promised that the vessel would be built domestically in Australia. An in-service date of June 2021 was also floated. In June 2021, under questioning from Labor senators, Rear Admiral Mike Noonan told Senate Estimates that to expedite the timeline a decision had been made to purchase a second vessel from overseas.
ADM understands that, before a second-hand vessel was selected, Defence had been in unsuccessful negotiations with Damen to build a vessel similar to MV Sycamore in Vietnam.
Nevertheless, in April this year, it emerged during a further Estimates hearing that Defence had purchased the Norwegian-built offshore support vessel (OSV) Horizon Star for $93.4 million. Renamed ADV Reliant, after months of checks and maintenance in the Canary Islands, ADV Reliant set sail for Australia in May. On her way through the Pacific, the ship supported Navy to Navy talks with Fiji and helped patrol the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) of Samoa and the Cook Islands.
Defence told ADM that the transit across the Pacific will “inform” future deployments.
“Defence was pleased to have the opportunity to support regional states and conduct a port visit in Suva during the inaugural transit of ADV Reliant to Australia. These engagements will be considered for informing the ship’s future activities in partnership with regional countries once the vessel is introduced into operational service,” the spokesperson said.
A Different Kind of Ship
ADV Reliant is 103 metres long, 20 metres wide and displaces around 5,600 tonnes. Most of her deck space is taken up by an expansive (1060 sq m) cargo deck equipped with a crane, while the towering forward section hosts crew quarters, a bridge and a helipad.
Unlike either of the Canberra-class landing helicopter docks (LHDs), ADV Reliant doesn’t have any of the necessary facilities to support an embarked helicopter, as it lacks aviation fuel storage, a hangar or direct access between the cargo deck and helipad. The vessel cannot support independent operations by shallow bottomed landing craft. Both capabilities are widely seen as crucial for successful HADR operations, as they enable infrastructure independent transport.
During Operation Tonga Assist 2022, helicopters and shallow-bottomed landing craft were critical, as they enabled supplies to be brought ashore before the port of Nuku'alofa and Fuaʻamotu International Airport had been cleared of debris.
The Minister's View
Minister for Defence Industry and Minister for International Development and the Pacific Pat Conroy told ADM that the ship's design allows it to be flexible in responding to Pacific needs and priorities.
“The primary intended role for ADV Reliant is as a Humanitarian Aid and Disaster Relief (HADR) platform, although the vessel was designed as an offshore supply ship and so offers great flexibility due to its wide-ranging capabilities and endurance. Australia intends to work with Pacific partners to enable ADV Reliant to respond to their immediate needs and requests. For instance, it can provide maritime surveillance at the request of Pacific states in concert with their sovereign vessels and PMSP-organised activities,” he said.
The Minister also flagged that the vessel may be used to transport spare parts and cargo for the Pacific Maritime Security Program (PMSP), which is providing 22 Guardian class patrol boats to 12 Pacific nations and Timor Leste.
“ADV Reliant is not a capability that comes under the PMSP, but will complement its objectives and may provide a means to move high-priority spares around the region or provide a platform for regional training or maintenance activities,” Minister Conroy added.
Maintenance and Operations
The vessel is expected to spend 250-300 days a year operating in the South West Pacific. While in Australia, the vessel will be primarily based out of Brisbane, due to the city's relative proximity to the Pacific and the presence of DFAT's humanitarian aid stockpile.
Minister Conroy told ADM that Teekay Shipping, which currently maintains a variety of RAN auxiliary vessels including MV Sycamore and ADV Ocean Protector, will be the ship’s maintenance provider. Defence also confirmed that there are no plans to repaint the ship, which is currently blue and white.
Defence declined to answer specific questions about how ADV Reliant will be crewed and maintained while deployed for long periods. It’s not clear, for example, if the ship’s crew will rotate while deployed or the role that contractors will play in maintaining the ship while it’s in the Pacific.
Project Sea 3033-2
Minister Conroy told ADM that Project Sea 3033-2 is “progressing with scoping and design activities for future modifications [of ADV Reliant]”. While the Minister didn’t expand on what those modifications might be, or the timeline for the project, they will likely work to address some of the ship's perceived shortcomings.
One drawback which has received a lot of attention is the vessel's inability to deploy or carry embarked landing craft. Extensive experience has shown that, second to only helicopters, landing craft are critical to delivering supplies and personnel in the wake of disasters. It’s possible that the ship's deck-mounted crane, which is quoted as being able to lift 150 tonnes, may be certified to deploy Army landing craft such as an LCM8.
The vessel may also be outfitted with a desalination plant so that it can provide fresh water to vulnerable communities experiencing drought or contamination of their water supply. This would help ADV Reliant to perform different types of HADR operations, and make it a truly multipurpose vessel.
Given that ADV Reliant will also be expected to occasionally perform the maritime law enforcement mission, it might also be fitted out with crew-operated small calibre weapons as part of Sea 3033-2. Another possible area for modification is around the helipad, enabling it to support a variety of ADF helicopters.