The OPV Decision: Meeting the Challenge of Shipbuilding in Australia and Leveraging a “Continuous Shipbuilding Appraoch”

By Robbin Laird

The Arafura class offshore patrol vessels (OPV) are being built for the Royal Australian Navy (RAN). The new OPVs are intended to replace the existing Armidale class and Cape class patrol boats, Huon class coastal minehunters, and Leeuwin class survey ships in service with the RAN.

The program is building a single class of ships to perform the functions of four legacy ships. This has its challenges, notably in terms of ensuring that the ships can be configured for the different missions, but the advantages of a common build of a class of ships in terms of manufacturing, sustainability and possibilities for export are obvious.

The OPVs in the class will be able to perform maritime patrol, response duties, and constabulary missions. The vessels can be customized to perform mine hunting, hydrographic survey, fisheries patrol, disaster relief, and unmanned aerial system (UAS) missions.

The Arafura class vessels will be interoperable with the fleet of Australian Border Force, Australian Defence Force units, and other regional partners to perform a range of missions.

Following the build of the first two vessels in South Australia, the next 10 vessels will be built at the new $80-million shipbuilding facility in Henderson, WA.

The OPV project is the first of the new shipbuilding projects to be built under the framework of a “continuous shipbuilding approach.”

This is a new project which is launching the next round of Australian shipbuilding which is designed not just to build but to maintain a new class of ships.

And to do so in a way that will allow for their upgradeability as the ADF transforms itself into a more effective and Integratable force.

In recent interviews, we have highlighted various aspects of the project as seen by the interviewees.

The viewpoint of Rear Admiral Goddard, Head of the Maritime Border Command

The Commander of the Maritime Border Command, Rear Admiral Lee Goddard started the interview with the core point that in effect, the command was always operating in many ways in the so-called “Gray zone” in which events in local engagements could become crisis management flash points.

He argued that the Command was configured to do collaborative integration but that as it modernized it was working to shape an integrated effect where the force assigned units ideally become an integrated force; what some analysts call “tactical decision making at the edge” as a core capability and operational reality.

He noted that the recent meetings of the Australian security agency heads in Brisbane with Southwest Pacific partners were designed in part to build the kinds of cooperative partnerships necessary for the Command to do its job.

The Australian forces need to both understand the perspective of partners, while understanding whom they needed to work with in incident settings or crisis settings.

He argued that “we need to focus on the source of a particular challenge or problem in the region and to work with partners to resolve the challenge there as opposed to simply dealing with the effect created by that source.

“To do this, we obviously need to work with the specific partner agencies or capabilities necessary to resolve a mutual challenge, threat or problem.”

Rear Admiral Goddard noted that in the Australian Border Force headquarters, into which Maritime Border Command’s headquarters is integrated, they have an operations floor on which the various security agencies involved in dealing with the spectrum of civil security operations work together to be able to support or direct operations at a distance dealing with a challenge coming from a regional or maritime source.

“We have on the operations floor representatives of Australian Border Force, Maritime Border Command, Border Command, Customs, Immigration, the ADF, the AFP, intelligence agencies and members of five eyes, and together we work to tailor support to the particular challenge or problem.”

We then discussed how the Command was looking forward to the future of the Offshore Patrol Vessel, which as a Navy asset (not a Maritime Border Command asset) will need to fit into this paradigm and provide the kind of operational capability looked for at sea.

In effect, the evolving C2 and ISR infrastructure being built at the Command aim to be configured to operate seamlessly with the systems which will be delivered on the OPV.

This technology advantage should provide improved communications and real-time SA for the Command, improving the speed and quality of decision making for the command element onboard the OPV to make decisions at the tactical edge.

It is understood that the Navy is building in new capabilities onto the OPV which will allow it to work with a wide variety of assets, to be able to integrate capabilities for a solution on the fly, including the ability to communicate directly to partners operating ashore in their area of interest or with partner assets in the air or on the sea.

In effect, the Navy’s new asset was being built fit for purpose, and in this case, it was building a capability able to deliver decision making at the tactical edge.

Thus, it is a microcosm of a broader set of changes occurring in the ADF which are often referred to as building a fifth-generation force.

Maritime Border Command is in an ideal situation to benefit this broader change within the ADF.

The Viewpoint of Rob Slaven, L3Harris and former Member of the Royal Australian Navy

For Slaven, the shift toward an integrated distributed force marks a significant change from his earlier training as a member of the RAN.

Traditional thinking, such as that developed by Admiral Mahan, has now been supplanted by the necessity to recognize that a step change has taken place and to embrace the fact that emergent technologies have dramatically changed in  the face of maritime warfare.

Previously the main doctrinal focus has been on counter-force operations conducted by Major Fleet units with supporting fleet and air elements.

According to Slaven, “The evolution of the technology over the past thirty years has transformed the way navies will fight going forward.

“So when you refer to the new C5/ISR infrastructure, a key point to keep in mind is that it morphs dependent on the operations you are trying to do and the operations you are engaged in.”

Frankly, the notion of a morphing C5/ISR infrastructure makes a lot of sense when you consider that platforms are shifting from largely dedicated mission designed hulls to becoming multi-mission platforms that can change and flex on a mission by mission/task by task basis, and therein allow integrated Task Forces to be shaped with inherently flexible and resilient C5/ISR infrastructures.

The way Slaven put it was as follows: “every platform is a node within that infrastructure. Their role and importance within that infrastructure changes in accordance with the tasks you are trying to accomplish and how the enemy behaves and reacts as well.”

He underscored that as maritime autonomous systems matured, they can play an important role as C5 nodes and ISR platforms in the morphing infrastructure as well.

“The remotes can be distributed throughout the area of interest and be there significantly in advance of when we have to create a kinetic effect. In fact, they could be operating months or years in advance of shaping the decision of what kind of kinetic effect we would need in a crisis situation.

“We need to learn how to work the machines to shape our understanding of the battlespace and to shape the kind of C5 which could direct the kind of kinetic or non-kinetic effect we are trying to achieve.”

He added a very useful insight with regard to the evolving tool sets associated with the non-kinetic domain.

He highlighted the Bismarck entered the kill zone because of the disabling of its rudder.

This was done with a British torpedo, but what if that same effect could be achieved by non-kinetic actions?

This is the sort of dynamic of change with which modern maritime battles will be fought in part.

In my work on dealing with full spectrum crisis management, I have started with the importance of platforms and persistence, and then scalability and reachback, or in other words shaping tailored force packages appropriate to the mission and to crisis management.

Slaven highlighted the importance of coming maritime autonomous systems to the presence mission.

“What we want to do is actually take the mechanics behind what one might call morphing infrastructure to build a persistent capability within the theater.  With autonomous systems, we are not working to force an entry or establish an enduring presence into the area of interest, we are already there.

“What we’re doing by bringing unmanned systems into the AO, is out manoeuvring Gray Zone competitors.

“We’re building a persistent ISR presence in a pre-kinetic mode of operation, with an infrastructure consisting of UAVs, UUVs, USVs, surface and subsurface relay nodes, all of which are already pre-deployed and available for manned units to join the network.

“In addition, we have autonomous patrol assets which can provide an enduring environment assessment to ensure we have full situational awareness.

“This persistent forward deployed presence can be leveraged for kinetic operations within a crisis engagement setting as needed.”

In effect, the situational awareness piece is a prelude and enabler to the kind of full spectrum dominance one would need in a kinetic effort, allowing Commanders to leverage unmanned capabilities and keep humans at a safe distance.

It is clear that this way ahead, which is central to being able to shape, operate and command, an integrated distributed force is building on the legacy platforms we have now, but is also a prologue to any new platforms to be built in the future.

A case in point is the Australian Arafura Class Offshore Patrol Vessel, which is being built with the ability to leverage off-boarded systems as a designed in feature of its own operational capabilities.

In this sense, the coming of the OPV plays a forcing function role within the ADF as its shapes what they call a fifth-generation force.

“The OPV will have a crew of around 40 and be tasked with the normal Patrol and Constabulary tasks the Armidales currently do for the Navy and the Border Command.

“But because of the inbuilt flexibility of the C5/ISR infrastructure onboard, the OPV will become part of the much larger distributed force, with reachback and force-multiplication capabilities way beyond its reach as a single ship.

“It could operate as the mothership for a wide range of autonomous systems; and it can push that information into the wider battlespace.”

In other words, the OPV is being designed from the ground up with off-board systems and the new C5/ISR morphing infrastructure as key building blocks.

And given the modular flexibility associated with the ship and with the autonomous system payloads, the OPV could be an advance force element of an amphibious task force, provide support to a destroyer task force, be a key command element for a gray zone operation, and so on.

Because it is designed to be able to contribute to and to leverage unmanned systems from the outset, it can be task organized beyond its core mission.

From that sense, the future is now.

The Perspective of Vice Admiral (Retired) Tim Barrett

After the Williams Foundation Seminar held on April 11, 2019, I had a chance to discuss the OPV approach with the recently retired head of the Australian Navy, Vice Admiral (Retired) Tim Barrett.

Barrett highlighted how the OPV fitted into the larger shipbuilding picture and evolution of the integrated air-maritime force.

“It is clearly not just about the platform, or buying a replacement platform. With the contract, we are kick starting an entire industry in Australia. We will be training those who will build the launch platforms, but those individuals will be part of a continuous build process and will be part of the design, modernization and sustainment process.  It is part of establishing a sovereign industrial capability.”

But it is not just that.

It is about putting in place a key approach to ensure commonality across the fleet with regard combat and C2 systems, and a commonality that reaches deep into allied fleets as well.

“We are building the ship around a mothership concept, which means that its ability to link and work with not just systems operating from the OPV but within the ADF more broadly is a critical one. With this platform as with our other new ships, we have separated the decisions on making the hulls from the decisions about the onboard systems.  The latter is really the key part of ensuring we have an integrated not interoperable force.”

He drove home the point about viewing these assets as nodes within the kill web.

“We have to start treating these platforms as nodes, which can both leverage other ADF or allied capabilities, and contribute as well to the capabilities of a seamlessly stood up task force.”

The mother ship concept is at the heart of what a kill web OPV can do. It is anticipated that both UAVs and UUVs could be operated from the ship.  That data will go to the ship but can be distributed into the operational space.  And given that it is data, how that is managed, handled and distributed will be determined not just by technological capabilities, but also with regard to the evolution of processing technologies and decision-making algorithms.

Put in other terms, the OPV can host capabilities, which are reaching deep into the future, but capability of delivering capabilities for today’s operating force.

The featured photo highlights the new facility to build and sustain the new OPV in Western Australia.

Arafura Class OPV | Royal Australian Navy