RAN Offshore Patrol Vessel: Implications for Canada

By Robbin Laird

Australia’s Defence Force is in the throes of an extensive transformation process, and the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) plays a significant part of this effort. From a Navy perspective, the process began in earnest with the delivery of three Air Warfare Destroyers. These are key elements of the enhanced capability of the fleet as it works with other Aegis-enabled destroyers in the Pacific, notably the United States and Japan.

In 2016, the Australian government launched a strategic effort to renew and enhance its shipbuilding capability. As Canada is sure to recognize, this effort is designed to overcome the “boom and bust” process of sporadic shipbuilding that left gaps in skill sets as the specialized workforce had to find alternate jobs once the project was complete.

That process resulted in challenges each time a new build ramped up (often years later), and also led to reduced efficiencies in sustaining the extant fleet of the “legacy” ships.

The new approach has been labelled a “continuous shipbuilding process,” and is designed to close that gap. By facilitating more effective and comprehensive approaches to sustainability, ship availability should be increased.

The first ships to be built under this new approach is the new-build offshore patrol vessel, and these will be followed by the common frigate being built by the United Kingdom and Canada. There are clear implications for Canada, notably in terms of enhanced synergy with Australia and its closest operational partners.

I was visiting in Australia in March 2020 – just as stringent COVID-19 restrictions were starting to be rolled out – and was able, in spite of the shortened stay, to complete my study of the Arafura Class offshore patrol vessels (OPV).

These OPVs are intended to replace the existing Armidale Class and Cape Class patrol boats built by Australian shipbuilder Austal, the Huon Class coastal minehunters built by ADI, and two Leeuwin Class survey ships in service with the Royal Australian Navy.

Under project SEA 1180, Australia will have 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.

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

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.

The Approach

The new approach being crafted and created by Australia consists of several key elements.

The first is restructuring how the government is managing the project, which in turn is based on a new government-industrial relationship.

The second is shaping a new role for the prime contractor and how it works with partners in the program.

The third is consequential for suppliers, and the fourth is that the template being shaped for the OPV program will serve as the basic template for the next two major capital ships being built, namely, the new frigate and the new submarine. In other words, the OPV template being crafted is part of a process that affects subsequent projects. Previous Australian shipbuilding models, were a one-off followed by another one-off, into the future.

How the Government is Managing the Project

The senior leadership team in the Navy and the Capability Acquisition and Sustainment Group (CASG) within the Australian Department of Defence are managing the OPV project. Clearly the DoD is focusing on a new approach in launching this ship – and will provide a template for the way ahead.

It is not about having a bespoke platform; it is about shaping an approach that allows leveraging the systems onboard the new platform across the entire fleet and Australian Defence Force (ADF) modernization process. In part, it is selecting a platform that physically can accommodate the upgrade processs envisaged with the new emphasis on a fleet mission systems management model.

The RAN has chosen a design that has a lot of space, a lot of margins. Its ability to adapt to missions is facilitated by its space on deck, and under the deck for a modular or containerized solutions, extra power to operate for what comes in the future, and its adaptability through further evolution of the design to take on different missions into the future. The platform is important but the focus is on the wider operational integratable and upgradeable needs.

The platform-build and evolution is managed by one CASG team working interactively with a second team that is addressing the mission systems. It all comes together in an Integrated Project Team with the Navy.

Critically, the mission systems need to be rapidly upgradeable over time – the ship needs the physical qualities for adaptability in terms of size, power, and modular space to be able to accommodate mission system dynamics over time. The digital build process can ensure the flexibility for future innovative modernization requirements.

A key focus then for the government is on how mission systems will evolve and work interactively with other platforms deliver the effect desired for the Navy. For example, rather than focusing on what the OPV will be able to contribute in terms of its organic systems onboard to deliver counter mine capabilities, the focus is on how the missions systems and maritime remote or autonomous systems onboard can work together with other relevant platforms to deliver an integrative effect of the counter mine capability desired.

As such, the mission systems should not be constrained by the platform itself because they clearly want to be able to move mission systems capabilities where appropriate across the fleet. Nor do they want to be constrained by the systems offered by a single provider. The teams have made clear they want to be able to work with diverse options to deliver the desired outcome. And this means, that the mission management system is at the center of the new sovereign approach.

Role of the Prime Contractor

We are talking about a significant shift in how the Commonwealth intends to work with industry and to build integrative capabilities across its platforms.

The government management approach here is based on a very different working relationship with industry than has been followed in the past. Rather than contracting a prime and establishing a set of requirements to which the prime must comply, the focus is more an open-ended partnership. The government team working with the German shipyard team Luerssen are working a collaborative environment that fosters a force multiplier of ideas. This blows open the standard contracting models in which the client focus is on ensuring requirements are met, and the industry focus is on selling a solution that is narrowly focused on meeting those requirements.

In March 2020, I went to Perth, Australia and visited the Henderson shipyards, and an opportunity to talk with Luerssen and CIVMEC, the two partners in the Australian Maritime Shipbuilding and Export Group (AMSEG). Luerssen Australia is the prime contractor and CIVMEC physically builds the ship, with the first two assembled in South Australia at the BAE/ASC Adelaide yard in Osborne, and the remaining 10 to be assembled at the Henderson yard in Western Australia.
This working relationship is clearly a partnership, a point that was emphasized throughout my visit. It was highlighted as a collaborative, close, shared objectives, partnering approach.

Lürssen is an integrated shipyard in Bremen, Germany with long standing supplier relationships. In Australia, Luerssen is taking the Germany expertise in digital design and build and applying it to Australia but working with a new group of suppliers in Australia. The design is worked in Bremen, reviewed and confirmed by Luerssen Australia at the build site.

Retired Vice-Admiral Tim Barrett, former chief of navy who launched the new shipbuilding approach while head of the RAN, underscored the importance of the new shipbuilding process being put in place: “The Luerssen-CIVMEC partnership is meant to create a new workforce under the tutelage of Luerssen (particularly in manufacturing in digital shipyards) rather than merely compete for an existing (pre-digital) workforce. This is an important feature in a long-term sovereign shipbuilding capability.”

The Prime Contractor role for Luerssen requires working with Australian suppliers and aligning them with the project, but also working them in terms of shaping approaches that can be leveraged in the future, and not only for the OPV.

In Germany, Lürssen follows an Industry 4.0 process, which is how the digital build and sustainment process is realized. For this to work effectively, all of the suppliers as well as Lürssen must have the proper data flowing through the system to ensure the kind of accuracy and predictability required for the workflow process.

One challenge will be for Luerssen Australia and the Commonwealth to have a supply chain that can operate at Industry 4.0 standards to provide the flow of reliable data required for an effective build process that will seamlessly flow into the integrated logistics process as well.

The Role for Suppliers

What does it mean to be a supplier to such an effort where the prime contractor is tasked to deliver ongoing capabilities across the force, rather than simply provide capabilities defined by a single platform?

This is a whole new world, but one designed to achieve what VAdm Barrett calls a new approach to prime contracting. “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 that 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 we can upgrade our systems onboard this class and all future classes of Australian ships.”

According to Rob Slaven, a former Royal Australian Navy Captain, now with L3Harris providing the integrated core communication suite that will be leverageable across the fleet, the new approach is a key focus of their activity within the OPV program.

“We are working with Luerssen Australia to deliver what has traditionally been thought of as three separate systems onboard the ship: an Integrated Navigation System; an Integrated Communications System; and an Integrated Platform Man­agement System. Collectively, this suite is known as the ‘Integrated Electronic System’ or IES. In the past, these systems would have been delivered separately in a stove-piped fashion. The Commonwealth’s focus on holistic integration and digital, software-definable systems onboard the ship, allows L3Harris to design and code a single IES capability – marrying different system elements and drawing upon disparate business units to deliver a hardware agnostic coherent capability of benefit to the customer.

“With the OPV, we have woven these three different systems into […] a single integrated system, because once you get the design and cabling right, integration becomes a matter of coded interfaces and compatible data sets, controlled by some very smart software. With the combination of common interfaces, adaptable software applications, fast computer servers and fiber optic cabling, we can share data across those three systems, enabling better systemic control and facilitating predictive maintenance in a manner Navy has not experienced before. The effective (seamless) exchange of data between these systems is what will make the OPVs better ships than everything that has come before them.”

Implications and Training

As VAdm Barrett describes the evolving template for shipbuilding: “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.”

Next up is the new ASW frigate. Both Australia and Canada are working with the UK to build three variants of a common hull design, the Type 26 frigate, and will collectively buy more than 30 of these frigates. At nearly 7,000 tons, the Type 26 is large for a frigate – about twice the size of those it will replace in the Royal Navy and Royal Australian Navy. Like the OPV decision, the frigate selection has enough size and modularity built-in to be capable enough at the outset to accommodate years of mission systems upgrades.

The three variants will operate in very different fleets and their onboard systems will reflect tailored mission focus. Because the Royal Navy has a large destroyer (Type 45) in its fleet, the Type 26 systems will complement working with the destroyer and, with the coming of the Queen Elizabeth carriers, both ships will become members of tailored-approach carrier task forces as well.

For Canada, the Type 26 will be the flagship of the Royal Canadian Navy and will have a robust communications suite onboard for a wide variety of missions.

The Australian Type 26 is a follow-on project to the OPV in continuous shipbuilding. With the Aegis Combat systems onboard and their interactivity with the AWDs, Australia is looking to shape their own communications suite, aligned with OPV and interoperable with their fleet and those of their closest allies.

The potential for synergy between the Canadian and Australian approach in the frigate build is significant. Notably, the two navies are buying significantly more warships than the British and should have a major say in how their versions are customized, as well as shaping a way ahead for integratable frigates within an overall integrated distributed combat force – the kind of cross-domain operational capabilities that new-build ships will need to contribute to and operate within.

The opportunities for Canada and Australia to cross-learn, cross-develop systems, and to shape a way ahead for allies working with the United States Navy is significant as expressed through this common ship build. For Canada, Lockheed Martin is building the C2 system and L3Harris is building the integrated communications suite for both the Canadian Navy and for the Australian OPV.

For the evolving combat capabilities needed for full spectrum crisis management, it is crucial for the onboard systems to reach out and integrate into a distributed battlespace. By so doing, the new frigates will see training needs adjusted as well, to provide for multi-domain training to operate in what might be called a kill web.

This requirement is true for all core members of the Type 26 build, and the emergence of the OPV is already calling for a new training regime.

As retired Air Marshal Geoff Brown, former head of the RAAF describes the new world of training required by the OPV: “For mission success, one cannot focus simply on the training inside the ship or to train for basic ship functions. If one were to do that, one would miss too many opportunities being provided by the ship’s mission and C2 systems, and their contribution to the ADF overall.

“We need to be able to simulate and train to the entire domain the OPV is going to operate within. We need more of a Fallon-type training focus, whereby not only the surface ship, manned and unmanned systems, simulate and train together, but the manned and unmanned air assets as well.

“The coming of the OPV provides an entry platform and capability into that new training world. We need to build a training center that can be modular, and increased in size, as the new capabilities within the fleet and the Air Force come online. Such training would allow operators of the various key platforms to become comfortable working together and knowledgeable about the evolving capabilities on platforms other than their own which they will call on to provide reachback for their own mission success or to which they will need to contribute to another player in the battlespace.”

Clearly, this is another area where synergy could be built between Canada and Australia.

Featured Photo: March 2020 – Both halves of the first-of-class ship, Arafura, built by Luerssen Australia and its partner ASC have been brought together and welded to form a complete hull. In what was the largest block move in the history of the Osborne Naval Shipyard and a considerable engineering feat, the Australian Naval Infrastructure (ANI) operations team manœuvred the two mega-blocks together, with only millimetres between them.

This article was published by Front Line Defence in Issue 1 (2020).