The Royal Australian Navy
© 2007 FrontLine Defence (Vol 4, No 4)

Determination can make things happen

Air Warfare Destroyers
Since the de-commissioning in 2001 of Her Majesty’s Australian Ship (HMAS) Brisbane, the last of the Perth (Charles F. Adams) class guided-missile destroyers, the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) surface combatant force has comprised the six aging Adelaide class (FFG-7) guided-missile frigates and the eight Anzac class (Meko 200) frigates, the last of which has only been in service since 2006.

The loss of the destroyers left a significant area air defence capability gap, with both classes of frigates limited to close-in point air defence; the FFG-7s with their SM-1 Standard Missile and the Anzacs with their NATO Sea Sparrow surface to air missiles. As a consequence, both classes are now in the midst of significant upgrade programs which will give the FFGs the advanced SM-2 and the Anzacs Evolved Sea Sparrow. These enhancements, however, will still not result in the kind of area air defence capability needed in today’s threat environment.

Consequently, a project was established to acquire a new air warfare destroyer (AWD). As the name suggests the emphasis was to be on air defence, but these ships were also to be capable anti-submarine and surface warfare units. In the early stages there was some unofficial and working level discussion with the Canadian Navy to determine whether there would be any opportunity for cooperation with Canada’s then CADRE (Command and Control and Area Air Defence Destroyer Replacement) project.

Leading Seaman Bill Louys films HMAS Kanimbla from an LCM8 during Operation SUMATRA ASSIST in January 2005. (Photos: Royal Australian Navy)

Also in the early stages of the project, a decision was made that the AWDs would be built around the USN Aegis combat system. Three ship designs were considered initially; the Gibbs and Cox evolved Arleigh Burke class destroyer, the Spanish Navantia F-100 class frigate, and the German Blohm and Voss F-124 class frigate. In mid-2006 the government accepted the US and Spanish ships for further evaluation. The competition was therefore between a ‘paper’ design in the case of the Gibbs and Cox’ evolved Arleigh Burke and a ship already in service with the Spanish Navy. The Department of Defence was expected to put to government firm cost, capability, schedule and risk assessments for both designs by mid-2007.

This was duly done, and on 20 June, the government selected the F-100 design, announcing that it would purchase three ships for almost AUS$8 billion. The AWDs will be built by the Adelaide-based company, ASC Pty Ltd (which also built the Collins class submarines), although most modules will be assembled in other Australian shipyards.

While the RAN preference had been for the evolved Arleigh Burke on capability and growth grounds, the government opted for the greater certainty provided by the Spanish proposal. The primary differences between the two designs are the lesser number of VLS ­(vertical launch missile system) cells in the F-100 (48 vs. 64) and the F-100’s capacity for only one helicopter. Both ships have a single 5" gun and can carry Harpoon missiles. Both designs are also capable of accepting the SM-3 missile and thus contribute to theatre ballistic missile defence if required to do so. The three ships will be delivered in 2014, 2016 and 2017.

Anzac frigates HMA Ballarat and HMA Warramunga (rear).

So, the capability gap that appeared in 2001 will be around for some years yet. Nevertheless, the commitment by the Government to acquire the AWDs is a vital one for the future of the RAN and for the Australian Defence Force (ADF) as a whole. They will provide a level of capability not previously seen in the RAN.  

Amphibious Ships
In 1987 the Australian Govern­ment prepared to evacuate Australian nationals from Fiji, following the first of several military coups in that South Pacific country. It sent to Fijian waters a naval force, including the sole amphibious ship HMAS Tobruk (LST) and a contingent of troops, which ultimately was not needed. Nevertheless, the operation highlighted the limitations of Australia’s amphibious capability. These were confirmed by five other operations over the next 10 years and led, firstly, to the acquisition in 1994 of two larger ex-USN Newport County class LPAs; the cost of which blew out significantly because of the unexpectedly poor material condition of the ships and additions to planned modifications. Their unavailability for the peace enforcement operation in East Timor in late 1999 underscored the capability problem.

Based on the accumulation of experience since 1987 the Army articulated a need for an amphibious capability that would be able to transport, land and support a battalion group of troops, including the capacity to simultaneously land a company group by helicopter. This capability requirement, accepted by government, led to the LHD project.

LCM8s and Army B vehicles onboard HMAS Tobruk. (Photo: Royal Australian Navy)

Two designs were assessed and presented to Government for decision in mid-2006. The selected contenders were the French Mistral class LHD, one of which is in French Navy service, and the Spanish Navantia-designed Strategic Projection Ship, of which one was being built for the Spanish Navy.

Each of the ships meets a somewhat different operational requirement for their own armed forces. The French ship, for example, takes fewer troops but has facilities to enable them to remain embarked for longer periods. The Spanish ship can carry more troops with the intention of having them embarked for lesser periods.

The government announced its selected design at the same time as it announced the AWD decision, and elected to acquire two Spanish Strategic Pro­jection Ships at a cost of AUS$3 billion. They are expected to be delivered between 2012 and 2014, with Tenix being the preferred local tenderer for the build. The hulls of both ships will be built in Spain and the superstructure build and the majority of equipment fit-out will occur in Melbourne. The majority of combat system design and integration will be ­carried out in Adelaide.

Cut away design of proposed LHD. (Illustration: Tenix)

There is also provision in the equipment acquisition program for a sealift ship to be in service towards the end of the next decade.

No decision has been made yet as to the characteristics of the ship, but speculation has included both a ‘fast’ ship and a third LHD. Current budgeting for the ship would not permit the latter option.  

Armidale Class Patrol Boats
Warfighting capabilities of the RAN have not received all of the force development attention. The Navy’s patrol boat force has played a vital role in the nation’s maritime border protection task for many years, and this is set to continue with the introduction to service of 14 Armidale class patrol boats. They are in the process of replacing the 15 Fremantle class boats which have been in service for about 25 years.

January 2005 – HMAS Kanimbla transiting Darwin-Indonesia on disaster relief operations as part of Operation Sumatra Assist. (Photo: Royal Australian Navy)

The Armidale class will provide a significant advance over their predecessors. At 56.8m in length, they are significantly larger and have much better seakeeping ability. They are armed with a stabilized 25mm gun and have a range of 3,000nm at 12 knots. The last of the Armidales will be commissioned in December 2007 and all of them will be based in Darwin and Cairns. The RAN has adopted multi-crewing for the Armidales (21 crews for 14 boats). This is designed to maximize ship availability, endurance and operational capability without compromising crew training and respite periods.

Other Issues
Even as the RAN begins to digest the implications of the AWD and LHD decisions, it has several other issues to ponder. Five FFGs remain in service, with one planned to pay off at the end of 2007. The four remaining ships are expected to pay off as the AWDs come into service. By 2020, then, the surface combatant force will comprise three AWDs and eight FFH frigates. By that time, the FFHs themselves will be aging. Consequently, and noting the time normally needed for delivery of a major combatant (10-15 years from initial capability examination), consideration will need to be given to the next generation of surface combatants within just a few years. Roles, capability level and crew numbers will be among the more critical issues to resolve.

Armidale class HMAS Larrakia undergoing sea trials. (Photo courtesy Austral)

Similarly, even as the Collins class submarines are now in the process of receiving their replacement combat systems, initial consideration of their successors cannot be far off. The first of the Collins class will probably pay off in the mid to late 2020s. As is the case with the next generation of surface combatants, there will be many issues to weigh up in determining the outcome. These will include combat capability level, hull and crew numbers and propulsion alternatives.

Overriding HR Challenge
Finally, although the RAN has every right to look to the future with real anticipation and enthusiasm, there is one challenge overriding all others – people. Like many other navies now and in the past, the RAN is having great difficulty in recruiting and retaining the required number of skilled people in many of its specialisations. Even though some of the reasons for this may be beyond the control of the RAN, a long-term solution will need to be found if the new capabilities now on the horizon are to be put to best use. A wide range of initiatives aimed at enhancing recruiting and retention is already being considered or implemented in the RAN. Perhaps the promise of new capabilities may itself be a part of that solution.   
Commodore Jack McCaffrie RANR is a Visiting Fellow with the Australian National Centre for Ocean Resources and Security, University of Wollongong.
© FrontLine Defence 2007