Fleet Base East: A Key Element in the Australian Navy’s Operational Capabilities

By Robbin Laird

Sydney, Australia

During the current visit to Australia, I have had a chance to focus on several aspects of the Royal Navy’s modernization processes and efforts. A key element of these efforts is building out modern infrastructure and manufacturing facilities, and the focus on the first can be seen at Fleet Base East, and the second can be seen in Adelaide at the Osborne shipyards.

When in Sydney, which is a very dynamic city, one finds in the midst of the city, a major operational base, which is called Fleet Base East.

According to the Royal Australian Navy:

Since European settlement, Port Jackson, Sydney, with its vast and well protected natural harbour, has served as a major naval base for British and Australian maritime forces. Ships of the Royal Navy’s Imperial Squadron were continuously based in Sydney throughout colonial times and it was for many years the premier naval facility of the Royal Australian Navy following the arrival of the Fleet Unit on 4 October 1913.

The naval precinct in Sydney has expanded greatly over the past 100 years, particularly during the war years of 1939-1945. Garden Island, the traditional centre of naval activity in Sydney Harbour, was connected to the mainland during the war when the Captain Cook graving dock was built. A number of shore establishments, such as HMAS Watson and Rushcutter, were also commissioned to support Sydney based naval forces. Several other establishments were commissioned in the post-war period.

In 1987 the Australian Government announced the ‘Two-Ocean Basing Plan’ which established a permanent RAN major fleet unit and submarine presence in Western Australia. Since then, the RAN has maintained a two-ocean navy (Pacific and Indian) capable of responding quickly to national tasking from either seaboard.

The two fleet bases are known as Fleet Base West (HMAS Stirling) and Fleet Base East (HMAS Kuttabul). Today Kuttabul serves as the administrative centre for FBE, a precinct that extends beyond the borders of Kuttabul and includes the Garden Island dockyard and adjacent wharf facilities at nearby Woolloomooloo.

This establishment is home port for

I have visited this base twice, once during this visit and secondly during a visit in 2016.

During this visit to Fleet Base East in Sydney, I had a chance to talk with Captain Leif Maxfield, Deputy Commodore Warfare in the Royal Australian Navy.

At Garden Island, two of the latest additions for the RAN can be seen, namely the new amphibious ships, and HMAS Adelaide was in port the day I was there along with HMAS Hobart, which I reported on during my last article.

Captain Maxfield has a strong background in working in the amphibious warfare area and on the strategic shift worked by Vice Admiral Barrett while working on his staff. Currently, he works as the Deputy Commodore Warfare for the RAN, and among other things, the office is in charge of the Maritime Warfare Center.

The Royal Australian Navy is adding new ships, such as the amphibious ships, the air warfare destroyer, new frigates and new submarines.  But at the heart of the rebuild of the RAN is a very clear focus on two key elements involving concepts of operations and working a manufacturing/sustainment “continuous shipbuilding dynamic.”

With regard to the first, the focus is upon air-sea integration and working multi-domain warfare within an integrated battlespace.  As Captain Maxfield put it: “We area focused on integrated warfare approaches. Our maritime warfare center and the air warfare center have established a joint steering group to guide both centers down this path.”

At the heart of the focus is upon joint task forces and how to work the maritime and air components into effective task force operational capabilities. “We are bringing innovations on the air side and the maritime side into an evolving joint task force approach.”

The focus of the maritime warfare branch is upon force generation.  “We are focused on shaping force training packages to be able to deliver the kind of joint warfighting capabilities we need.”

Another key element of the maritime warfare branch is engagement in multi-lateral training exercises, such as RIMPAC 2018, where they provide standing staffs to provide for the maritime warfare component for the Australian force engaged in the particular exercise.

With a close working relationship with the air warfare center, shaping a maritime joint warfare training approach and participation in key multi-lateral exercises, the focus is upon shaping a solid foundation or building blocks for the journey forward into a more effective joint warfare capability for the RANand the ADF.

According to Captain Maxfield, “we are thereby laying the key stepping stones to how we take us to where want to be in 10, 20 years’ time in shaping a truly joint, integrated force capable of seamlessly interacting and integrating with allies in the combined operational environment.”

The integrated warfare approach being pursued by the RAN is intended to be highly interactive with the shipbuilding approach being crafted to build out the new fleet for the RAN.

The Aussies refer to this as a “continuous shipbuilding approach” which Vice Admiral Barrett then the  Chief of Navy described in an interview I did with him last year.

We spoke last time about the Ship Zero concept.

This is how we are focusing upon shaping a 21st century support structure for the combat fleet.

I want the Systems Program Office, the Group that manages the ship, as well as the contracted services to work together on site.

I want the trainers there, as well, so that when we’re maintaining one part of the system at sea, it’s the same people in the same building maintaining those things that will allow us to make future decisions about obsolescence or training requirements, or to just manage today’s fleet.

I want these people sitting next to each other and learning together.

It’s a mindset.

It puts as much more effort into infrastructure design as it does into combat readiness, which is about numbers today.

You want to shape infrastructure that is all about availability of assets you need for mission success, and not just readiness in a numerical sense.

Getting the right infrastructure to generate fleet innovation on a sustained basis is what is crucial for mission success.

And when I speak of a continuous build process this is what I mean.

We will build new frigates in a new yard but it is not a fire and forget missile.

We need a sustained enterprise that will innovate through the life of those frigates operating in an integrated ADF force.

That is what I am looking for us to shape going forward.

The importance of getting the manufacturing/sustainment approach was highlighted by Captain Maxfield as a key element of the strategic shift to an effective joint warfighting strategy.  If you do not design your ships with flexibility and agility in mind for a long-term effective modernization approach which encompasses joint integration, the RAN will simply not be able to get where it wants to go.

As Captain Maxfield emphasized, “We need to make sure that the integrated design concept and approach is on the ground floor as we build our new ships. We have shaped a navy-government-industry working relationship that we envisage will deliver life-cycle innovation for the joint force, not simply a one off build of a new combat ship. We are building a consolidated industry and service approach to ensure that will give us the best possible chance of delivering integrated output.”

When I visited Portsmouth this Spring, a key focus for the planners working the roll out of the Queen Elizabeth was how to ensure the best ways to ensure that ship availability and aircraft availability would dovetail to deliver best deployed capability.  For the RAN, fast jets and MPA capabilities are provide by the RAAF, which means that one challenge will be to work closely with the RAAF to ensure that aircraft availability dovetails effectively with ship deployments.

This clearly is a work in progress but does highlight how cross-cutting availability of separate service assets need to be coordinated if there is to be a maximum joint capability which can be deployed in a crisis.

Clearly, the coming of the new LHDs in the RAN has been providing a window into that challenge, as an amphibious task force is a very flexible force, which requires coordinated consideration of air and maritime assets appropriate to a specific configuration for an amphibious task force.  And this learning process is a good lead into the evolving task force approach being built by the ADF.

As Captain Maxfield put it: “We are on a journey of discovery with regard to the focus on an integrated task force approach. With the new LHDs and the air warfare destroyer, we have two platforms that are key elements of shaping the approach and forging or way forward.  But it is a journey of discovery for sure.”

Captain Maxfield underscored the importance of what Rear Admiral Mayer, previous Commander of the Australian Fleet, emphasized during his tenure in that position: “It is about the network.”

“To deliver deterrence in the evolving strategic context, we need to deliver an effective integrated force and that relies on secure and capable networks. In the last few years, we have shifted from being a single-ship Navy to becoming a task group-focused organization that is appreciating the imperatives of joint integrated war fighting and what the sustainability and availability of assets delivers to the force.”

Vice Admiral Barrett emphasized in the various interviews I have done with him as well as his book on the Navy and the nation, how critical a comprehensive effort from the workforce as well as the uniformed military was going to be to get the kind of Royal Australian Navy the nation needs to lay a solid foundation for a 21stcentury integrated forces.

As Captain Maxfield concluded: “The ability to deliver new platforms, to maintain those platforms, to sustain those platforms, to repair those platforms and keep ahead with cutting edge technology will rest on our ability to support the effort with our educational system, our industrial system and effective cross cutting learning fromthe fleet back to the yards as we move forward.”

And during my visit in 2016, I had a chance to take a good look at the base in process of change,

That assessment was published on September 19, 2106 and follows:

On the Friday after the Williams seminar on air-sea integration, I had the chance to tour the headquarters of the Australian Navy’s Fleet Base East on Garden Island, Sydney.

Garden Island is the largest historic naval area on Sydney Harbour, with use going back to the founding of the colony in 1788.

Greatly expanded during World War II, it now comprises major dockyard facilities run by a civilian operator, the naval wharves used by major fleet units of the RAN, various training facilities under the control of HMAS Kuttabul and a heritage precinct, open to the public, that includes the official museum of the Royal Australian Navy.


Modern Australia was created as an outreach of the Royal Navy and Garden Island has the first graffiti from the British, namely, the name markings of sailors on the first fleet which arrived in Australia in 1788.

The First Fleet is the name given to the 11 ships that left Great Britain on 13 May 1787 to found the penal colony that became the first European settlement in Australia.

The Fleet consisted of two Royal Navy vessels, three store ships and six convict transports, carrying more than 1,000 convicts, marines and seamen, and a vast quantity of stores.

From England, the Fleet sailed southwest to Rio de Janeiro, then east to Cape Town and via the Great Southern Ocean to Botany Bay, arriving in mid-January 1788, taking 250 to 252 days from departure to final arrival.




When touring the base, several buildings which served the Royal Navy in the 19TH century can be found which are now used by the Australian Navy.

My interlocutor and guide during my visit was Captain Paul O’Grady, Deputy Commander of the Surface Force.

We toured the base and afterword’s sat down in Rear Admiral Mayer’s office to conduct an interview.

We discussed many issues, but one key issue is the challenge of shaping an infrastructure for a 21st century fleet.

Chief of Navy, Vice Admiral Tim Barrett, and Commander of the Fleet, Rear Admiral Mayer, discussed at the seminar and in interviews with me, the evolution of the fleet and the challenges of shaping 21st century capabilities.

But what is often overlooked is the salience of infrastructure in building, operating and shaping that fleet.

Vice Admiral Barret discussed the one ship concept and the need to integrate the build, with the maintenance, with the modernization and with the operations of the fleet.

He was seeking a naval equivalent to what the RAAF is doing with Wedgetail in Williamtown where the squadron is co-located with the systems program office which is tasked with the software upgrades of the aircraft.

Earlier this year, at the Air Power Conference, the Australian Minister of Defence highlighted the crucial importance of building the infrastructure which could support a modernized Australian defense force.

It is of course not just improved ICT networks and systems and capability that will underpin our future Air Force over the next two decades.

One of the defining features of the 2016 Defence White Paper and Integrated Investment Program is the renewed focus on enabling capabilities.

In fact, 25 per cent of the Integrated Investment Program is allocated to the enabling projects, which help to bind our capabilities – whether it’s our airfields, our bases, our wharves, our ordnance facilities or our logistics systems, just to name several.


As Captain O’Grady underscored: “We have ships with increasingly greater demands for power such as the Aegis ships.

And of course the requirements from an environmental perspective are quite different now to what they were when some of these facilities were originally built.

There’s been a dramatic shift from the facilities which worked in the 1970s and 1980s to what we need now, particularly, operating in an urban environment like Sydney as well.”

During the visit, Captain O’Grady pointed out the new infrastructure being built to support the new LHD ships and the coming Air Warfare destroyers to support Fleet Base East.

To decongest the area, most of the support facilities such are collocated on Garden Island but some are located nearby in the area, such as training facilities.

He emphasized the significance of the shift back from more individual operation of platforms to a 21st century task force concept in which ships deployed from Australia would marry up with other air and naval assets in areas of interest.

This meant as well ensuring commonality of logistical support across the fleet to ensure proper force generation to ensure the performance of the given task force up against the tasks given to that task force.

He highlighted the importance of shaping what he called “a logistical node system” to support the distributed fleet.

Captain O'Grady
Captain O’Grady

It was important to be able to support the fleet from a diversity of support points to support a distributed task force.

“How we support a task group requires a different set of support networks than supporting individual ships.

“We have to think about the broader task force and its wider support requirements on operations.”

During a visit of the modified Perry class Frigate at the base, the Captain highlighted the advantages of being able to leverage a global fleet of ships. Operating the Perry class has meant that the Australian Navy has been able to support it ships on operations by leveraging the global logistiocs supporting a fleet of such ships.

They have also modified the ship with new technology which allows it to have new weapons and C2 capabilities appropriate to evolving missions.

This example highlighted the importance of building ships which are capable of regular upgrades of software or weapons.

Also on base is a significant dry dock for ship repair, originally built to support Allied large deck naval carriers and battleships when built in 1945.

It is still in use and the cost of the facility is amortized in part by making it available for commercial purposes as well.

In short, the leadership of the Royal Australian Navy is working the infrastructure side of the evolving fleet hard.

But the challenge is a significant one and will require resources, and vision in shaping an appropriate infrastructure for the new classes of ships and the evolving concepts of operations.