Australia Broadens Its Military Relationships With Shipbuilding Deals

By Robbin Laird

CANBERRA: As the Chinese challenge grows, Australia is clearly concerned about expanded Chinese influence within Australia and with regard to Chinese efforts to reshape the external environment to expand the influence and power of the Chinese authoritarian state. Clearly the United States remains Australia’s core ally in dealing with the Chinese challenge, but as Australia modernizes its forces, it is broadening its working relationships with other key allies as well.

The case of dealing with the region’s growing submarine threat provides a good case study of how the Aussies are working their alliance relationships. With the P-8 and F-35, the Aussies are working closely with the US to add new multi-domain warfighting capabilities to the force. The Aussies just stood up their own training facilities for the P-8, have eight P-8s already at RAAF Edinburgh and are moving ahead with this new capability. They are concurrently working to stand up their F-35 squadrons in rapid succession as well.

The Royal Australian Navy has worked hard to rebuild their once-flawed Collins class submarines and to generate higher availability rates as part of their response to the growing submarine threat in the Pacific. With the P-8 working with Collins, and with the F-35s working with P-8s as well, the RAAF and RAN will shape a new template with the United States to work anti-submarine warfare over the next few years, one in which their reach and capabilities are extended.

The next round of naval capability is being worked with the Brits and the French in terms of platforms, though the US is slated to play a continuing role in terms of force integration.

The UK and Australian Shipbuilding

As Britain faces a post-Brexit world, working with the Aussies is seen as a key political objective, in addition to any technological relationship. Australia decided to buy the new UK Global Combat Ship frigate at the end of June 2018, a key touchstone of how London sees its new role. It also is a good indicator of the Aussie point of view on what it needs for a new approach to shipbuilding. The Australian anti-submarine frigates will be known as the Hunter Class and will be built by ASC Shipbuilding at the Osborne Naval Shipyard in Adelaide, South Australia. The Hunter class should enter service in the late 2020s. They replace eight Anzac frigates, which have been in service since 1996.

The ships will carry the Australian-developed CEA Phased-Array Radar and the US Navy’s Aegis combat management system.

The UK and Australia are shaping a wide ranging set of agreements on working together as well as determining what Aussie assets might go onto the UK version as well. There is a clear design and build strategy already agreed to and a key focus is upon the manufacturing process and facility to be set up at the Osborne shipyards.

The priority is upon creating a digital build process. According to a top BAE Systems official involved in the process, the benefits will be significant.

“Having a single point of truth in the design phase will mean that each of the nine ships will be replicated, which hasn’t been done in Australia previously, and which will benefit every stage of the program, including the upgrading and maintenance of the ships during service,’’ Glynn Phillips, CEO of BAE Systems Australia, said. “It will also be the first time in Australia where a ship’s systems will have the intelligence to report on its own performance and maintenance needs and have the ability to order both the maintenance and parts required prior to docking.”

With the coming of the Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers and the new UK frigates, and with extensive collaboration to build the Aussie frigates, a key foundation is being laid for working the UK-Australian strategic relationship in the years ahead.

Australia Reaches Out To The French

The Australians signed an agreement in 2016 to work with the French in building what the Australian government called “a regionally superior submarine.” That agreement has seen the first key enabling contract to establish the ship design process, but not yet the build agreement with a target price for the initial submarine. What has been signed in addition to the agreement on intent and the security agreements in 2016, is a mobilization contract for $5 billion (AUD) which set up the working facilities to work the design process in Adelaide and in Cherbourg.

With the election of President Macron, the French have been forthcoming in focusing on the Chinese challenge and have highlighted the importance of the strategic relationship with India and Australia as well. Building a new submarine capability in Australia will allow France not only to enhance their partnership with Australia but could allow French forces as well as industry to play a greater role in the region as well.

But the challenge for France is to ensure that the two cultures can find ways to work together effectively in delivering what the Australians seek, which is a work in progress, and no easy task. And now the agreement with the UK with regard to the frigate is shaping a baseline expectation with regard to the build process for the submarine as well.

The Australians are coming to the new build submarine with several key expectations. The submarine is to be a large conventionally powered submarine with an American combat system on board allowing for integration with the US and Japanese fleets. The Commonwealth has already signed the combat systems side of the agreement with Lockheed Martin and the LM/US Navy working relationship in the Virginia class submarine is the clear benchmark from which the Aussies expect their combat system to evolve as well.

The new submarine is not an off-the-shelf design; it leverages the French Navy’s Barracuda class submarine, but the new design will differ in a number of fundamental ways. The design contract is in place and the process is underway, with Australian engineers now resident in Cherbourg working with French engineers on the design.

But design is one thing; setting up the new manufacturing facility, transferring technology, shaping a work culture where Aussie and French approaches can shape an effective two-way partnership is a work in progress. And agreeing a price for the new submarine, and the size of the workforce supporting the effort in France and Australia are clearly challenges yet to be met.

And with the build of new frigates and submarines focused on the Osborne shipyards, workforce will clearly be a challenge. Shaping a more effective technical and educational infrastructure in the region to support the comprehensive shipbuilding effort is clearly one of the reasons that the yard was picked as a means for further development of South Australia.

The Aussies are coming at the new submarine program with what they consider to be the lessons from the Collins class. This includes limited technology transfer, significant performance problems and a difficult and expensive remake of the program to get it to the point where the submarine has a much more acceptable availability rate.

Clearly, the Aussies are looking to be able to have a fleet management approach to availability and one, which can be correlated with deployability, which is what they are working currently with the Collins class submarine. This is clearly one of the baseline expectations by the Australians – they simply do not want to build a submarine per se; they want to set up an enterprise which can deliver high availability rates, enhanced maintainability built in, modularity for upgradeability and an ability to better embed the performance metrics into a clear understanding of deployability – where does the Australian Navy need to go and how will it reshape its con-ops going forward and how do upgrades of the submarine fit into all of the above?

In my discussions in Australia, I’ve found a clear focus on building a state-of-the-art facility along these lines with regard to the submarine program as well. This means that the Aussies are not simply looking to see the French transfer current manufacturing technologies to build the new submarine, but to co-innovate in shaping new and innovative approaches. By looking at Asian innovations in shipbuilding, the Aussies would like to see some of those innovations built into their manufacturing processes in their new manufacturing facility.

Put simply, the Aussies do not want to repeat the Collins experience. They want modern manufacturing processes, which they anticipate with the new frigate and have seen with regard to P-8, Triton and F-35, all programs in which they are a key stakeholder.
The question is can the cultural dynamics of France working with Australia, an Australian with these expectations, be managed to deliver the kind of long term, cross-learning partnership which Australia seeks in this program?

There are clearly key challenges of cross-culture learning and trust to be sorted out to be able to make this partnership work. From my discussions in Australia, it is clear that on the Aussie side there is a fundamental desire to shape a long term partnership with France in what the Aussies are calling a “continuous build” process. Here the question is not of a one off design, and then build with the Aussie work force operating similarly to the Indian workforce in the process of a build as was done by DCNS with India.

The Aussies are not in a rush and as one Aussie put it to me: “We want the right kind of agreement; we are not interested in the wrong type of agreement.” And when we discussed what the right type of agreement looked like, it was clearly something akin to the UK agreement.

The challenge though is that the Commonwealth has a longstanding working relationship with BAE Systems and the UK. And the UK is part of Five Eyes, which provides a relatively straightforward way to deal with security arrangements.

The Commonwealth has had a more limited working relationship with France and the defense industry within which France is a key player. It has had experience working with programs in which France is a key player like KC-30A, NH-90 and Tiger. The very good experience has clearly been working with Airbus Defence and Space on the KC-30A, but the NH-90 and Tiger experiences with Airbus Helicopters has not been as positive.

When the Collins Class experience is married to the air systems experience, then the Aussie tolerance for agreeing to anything that is not comprehensive and well thought out is very low. The challenge for France and Naval Group will be to build a long term partnership which can clearly set in motion a new working relationship which is not framed by these past experiences, but can leverage the very positive KC-30A working relationship. The KC-30A is obviously different from the submarine because the plane was built abroad and the working relationship very good with Airbus Space and Defence where the Aussies are a cutting edge user pushing the way ahead with the company to shape future capabilities.

That is also the challenge: is Naval Group really a company like Lockheed or Airbus Defence and Space? Or is the French government involvement so deep that the working processes with Naval Group not be transparent enough and credible enough to shape the kind of partnership the Aussies are looking for?

The migration of Airbus, notably under the leadership of Tom Enders, has clearly underscored the independence of this key European company and Naval Group has more of a challenge demonstrating its independence to deliver not a product nor a build of an existing product on foreign soil, but an open-ended partnership able to shape and evolve a new build product where the digital processes of build and sustain are so significant.


All of this adds up to the Australians building out their force capabilities with the Americans over the next five years, and then start to see UK and French led efforts in shipbuilding then fielding new capabilities, which can be integrated into the evolving Australian force structure. And in tow then are the reshaping of their alliance relationships as well.

In effect, the Australians are in the throes of remaking their history. Their history has been to be part of a broader power defending their interests; first as part of the British Empire, and then during and after World War II as part of the American presence in the Pacific. What we are seeing now is a more sovereign and independent approach building on that American relationship and broadening their alliance in practical terms as well, And as Japan extends its perimeter defense and industrial investment to do this, almost certainly the relationship with Australia will become a key part of this evolving alliance mosaic for Australia as well.

Robbin Laird, a member of the Breaking Defense Board of Contributors, has been closely covering the Australian military for several years, making regular trips to the region and interviewing a broad range of senior officials. Laird, owner of the Second Line of Defense website, is a defense consultant.

First published by Breaking Defense on August 22, 2018.