Vice Admiral (Retired) Tim Barrett on the Impact of the Arafura Class Offshore Patrol Vessel on the Royal Australian Navy

By Robbin Laird

My visit to Australia in March 2020 which was shortened by the need to comply with Australian and U.S. response to the Coronavirus crisis was focused, in part, on building a case study of the new build OPV precisely as the launch platform for the new approach to building out a sustainable and upgradeable Royal Australian Navy fleet.

I visited both the Henderson shipyard where the second batch of OPVs will be assembled as well as the submarine base where Collins operates and where it is evident that Collins modernization presages capabilities to be transferred to the new build submarine.

After those visits, I had a chance to talk with Vice Admiral (Retired) Barrett about his perspective on the OPV program as the building block for the template for change for the ADF and the Royal Australian Navy in shaping a way ahead to a integrated distributed force.

Question: How important is the OPV to the approach you identified and put in motion while you were Chief of Navy?

Vice Admiral (Retired) Barrett: It is an extremely important demonstration of what was, at the time, an idea and a prospect for future development of our navy.

“We see new shipyard capabilities and new industrial partnerships being forged to build a new approach to shipbuilding.

“It is being done with a new approach which is not just focusing on a traditional prime contractor method of building the hull and having the systems targeting that specific platform.

“It is about building a sovereign capability for our combat systems so that we can upgrade our systems onboard this class and all future classes of Australian ships.

“The OPV is providing some concrete manifestations of what we set out to do. It should be the marker for what follows in the continuous shipbuilding program.

Question: My discussion with the OPV team working in the Department of Defence highlighted their approach to dual tracking the platform build from the management of the combat systems build.

And they highlighted the importance of being able to leverage the combat systems build in the OPV program and take this forward into the design and build processes for the next round of new build platforms.

How do you view this effort?

Vice Admiral (Retired) Barrett: In my view, this approach is quite profound. We have had a history building propriety ships with their associated combat systems. We have managed the combat systems within a particular platform only.

“Government made a clear decision with its new shipbuilding approach, to manage the combat system as a separate entity. The principle role of the ship going to sea is to manage the combat system. The Commonwealth team for the OPV is the first manifestation of this new approach.

“It is a sensible outcome which shows that you are managing the asset as warfighting component of a distributed, and interconnected system, rather than purely managing an individual combat asset or class.

“I am very keen to see this approach expressed by the Commonwealth team.”

Question: Is a primary goal to take this OPV build and management process forward to the other new build programs?

 Vice Admiral (Retired) Barrett: It is. The speed and the pace with which combat systems and associated capabilities are evolving clearly requires a new approach. You need to be adaptive and to make required changes rapidly.

“In effect, you have to design into your warship build approach a way to be rapidly adaptable rather than figuring out later how in fact you will adapt.

“What we have with the OPV is the ability to shape it to operate in a number of different ways, including operating maritime remotes across the operational space. Rather than simply building a hull form to do classic constabulary tasks, we are building a ship which is capable of being morphed into a variety of missions with an extended operational combat or gray zone space.

“It is an experimental process not only in terms of build but in terms of the mission systems management process.

“This is a significant shift from how the Commonwealth has bought combat systems in the past.

“The proof is still to be manifested in the work to be done.”

Question: The ship is clearly going to operate in the gray zone as people refer to it. How do you view this challenge?

Vice Admiral (Retired) Barrett: With an emphasis on distributed lethality, then every vessel you send to sea has a part to play. The OPV is being built with this approach in mind.

“While the combat system onboard the OPV will be less complex than an Air Warfare Destroyer, it needs to contribute to the broader distributed integrated force.

“And we are talking about the ability of the Air Force and Navy to work together through the integrated approach to deliver capabilities for the common mission the force will be focused on achieving in a crisis management situation.”

Question: The OPV is being birthed in an age where maritime remotes are coming to the force and will become more significant over its life cycle.

How do you see the role of the OPV in this process?

Vice Admiral (Retired) Barrett:  The ship has been designed from the outset to operate airborne unmanned systems as well as trusted autonomous maritime systems.

“It is being designed to be able to work with unmanned systems and AI-governed remotes as part of its extended reach into the operational space.

“Fundamental decisions were made early on with regard to how the vessel would be built that it could physically host and manage to handle a variety of unmanned systems.”

Question: In effect, it is crucial to have a C2 suite or a synergy management system onboard the OPV to be able to work the variety of systems onboard but highly interactive with other platforms with interactive capabilities.

How do you view this process?

Vice Admiral (Retired) Barrett: “This ship was conceived at a time when we were looking at the rise of autonomous systems but in the context of an ability to do synergy management.

“This is why we look at the OPV as part of the evolving integrated force whereby its data is part of the broader whole.

Question: What are the major challenges facing this overall approach?

Vice Admiral (Retired) Barrett: It is a significant change in thinking. We live in a world where there are rapidly changing demands on our military forces.

“We have no real alternative but to find ways to more rapidly adapt our combat and mission systems.

“The approach to the OPV is a step in this direction but will challenge legacy thinking in industry, in the forces and in government.

“The enterprise approach we have taken is designed to enhance the prospects for success.

“Clearly, change is required by industry, the government and the navy to shape a new approach.

“But new capabilities, digital shipbuilding, asset data management, and upgradeable combat systems which can share approaches across platforms, provide us with some of the tools to shape, execute and management a continuous shipbuilding process.”