Defence is seeking information from contractors on designs for a specialist vessel to acquire and process hydrographic and oceanographic data to provide Australia with a strategic military survey capability.
This data will support naval missions including amphibious tasking and submarine operations over an extensive area well to Australia’s north.
Under an Invitation to Register (ITR), CASG is seeking expressions of interest to provide a single “Survey Vessel Hydrographic Oceanographic” and complementary systems.
This vessel will replace and expand the RAN’s existing hydrographic survey capabilities, currently provided by the two 2,205 tonne survey ships HMAS Leeuwin and HMAS Melville, and six survey motor boats.
It’s understood that the national charting function historically undertaken by the RAN is to be outsourced to a civilian entity, although this element has yet to be officially confirmed.
The ITR closes on 5 February and seeks information under Project Sea 2400 Phase 1 relating to in-service designs or a modified variant of an in-service design..
Sources said candidate designs that had already been identified as of interest were fundamentally based on commercial research ships such as the 6,082 tonne MV Investigator owned by the CSIRO.
“The intention is to acquire a single ship to collect military geospatial data in support of military operations”, said one source familiar with the requirement who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“For example, survey for amphibious operations and the collection of oceanographic data to support submarine operations through an area of operations which is very extensive.
“You can imagine how far north and south it goes; not very far south but a good way north”.
The sources said the ITR referred to the collection of seabed data down to thousands of metres, sea temperatures through the water column at depth, and meteorological data.
The ITR also detailed a requirement to carry, deploy and recover towed sidescan sonars and a range of unmanned surface and sub-surface craft, some of which had to operate concurrently with ship-based unmanned aerial vehicles.
The proposed ship will also need to integrate the deployable Rapid Environment Assessment capability, including survey boats and containerised systems, being acquired separately under Project Sea 1770.
While the RAN is understood to currently be looking at a platform of around 3,000-3,500 tonnes, “the market would suggest you don’t get anything with this capability under 4,500-5,500 tonnes”, a separate source commented.
“The naval shipbuilding plan lists the new vessel as a minor warship but it’s not. If you look at its complexity from sensors to data handling and equipment which has to be deployed over the side, it’s not dissimilar to a specialist warship.
“And when you look at the requirement in terms of the platform signature control, particularly in acoustics, you end up having to build an exceptionally quiet ship to enable its sonar systems to perform to the depths and the levels of performance they’re looking for”.
Although the build schedule in the ITR ranges from 2020 to 2025, a downselect of several designs followed by a risk reduction design process is expected to see a Request for Tender (RfT) emerge sooner rather than later.
Defence has yet to decide whether to mandate construction in Australia, however sources indicated it will allow either the designer or the shipbuilder to act as the prime.