By Max Blenkin
The big grey warships, the frigates and guided missile destroyers, may well be the star athletes of the modern Royal Australian Navy, but it’s always been the little ships which did most of the work.
The numbers tell the story. Budget documents for 2019-20 show the Navy’s minor combatants, the patrol boat fleet and minehunters, achieved 4,098 unit available days, against 3,053 for the major combatants – the frigates, destroyers and submarines.
So much of the work was thrust upon the Armidale class patrol boats that they literally started to crack, their aluminium hulls never designed for the extended periods at sea as was demanded of them in the border protection mission.
But their replacements are on the way under the SEA 1180 offshore patrol vessel (OPV) program, 12 much larger steel hulled vessels that are better able to operate for extended periods at sea and designed to perform a range of missions.
Ship numbers one and two are now under construction by ASC Shipbuilding at Osborne in Adelaide, while work on ship three will start at Henderson near Perth next year. Ship one will be named HMAS Arafura and all 12 will form the Arafura class. The Navy hasn’t yet revealed names for the other 11 vessels.
The Arafura is based on the OPV80 design by German shipbuilder Luerssen, similar to the Darussalam class OPVs of the Royal Brunei Navy. These are substantially bigger vessels than the hard-worked Armidales – 80 metres and 1,640 tonnes versus 56 metres and just 300 tonnes.
Fourteen Armidale boats were commissioned between June 2005 and February 2008, replacing 15 220 tonne Fremantle class patrol boats. The Armidales have copped the brunt of the ongoing border protection mission, prompted by an initial influx of asylum seekers voyaging perilously south from Indonesia and Sri Lanka aboard clapped-out fishing boats.
A combination of the aluminium hull and wave buffeting on long operations created hull cracks – along with a firm belief in Navy that future vessels needed to be made of steel. But despite the problems, just one of the 14 Armidales has departed service, HMAS Bundaberg which was written off after a fire during a refit in 2014.
The government first outlined its vision for a replacement in the 2009 Defence White Paper. It said a fleet of 20 new Offshore Combatant Vessels, each as big as 2,000 tonnes, would replace the 14 Armidales, six Huon-class minehunters, plus hydrographic and oceanographic vessels. A single type of vessel would be configurable to different missions from mine-hunting to border protection to counter-terrorism.
In 2013 that was dialled back a bit, with the government declaring that a modular multirole vessel remained a ‘possible longer term capability outcome’. The Armidales would be replaced, and the Huons and other vessels upgraded ‘until the longer-term solution can be delivered’.
The 2016 White paper said 12 new offshore patrol vessels (OPVs) would be acquired, with greater range and endurance than the Armidales and capable of performing different missions. Work would start in 2018, with all vessels delivered by 2030. The Defence Integrated Investment Plan (IIP) cites a program cost of $3-4 billion over the period 2016-33.
Meanwhile, the Huons and military hydrography capability were initially planned to be updated, but that’s not quite how it turned out. During the 2019 election campaign, Prime Minister Morrison announced that two new mine warfare support vessels would be constructed in WA though Project SEA 1905, while a new hydrographic vessel would be constructed through project SEA 2400.
So now it could mean 15 new vessels from three separate projects – 12 Arafuras plus three others of types to be advised. However, these may well be based on the Arafura as Luerssen almost certainly plans to bid for these builds, especially as OPV production at Henderson will be well underway by then.
Compared to the bigger projects – SEA 1000 for Future Submarines and SEA 5000 for Future Frigates – SEA 1180 for OPVs was low key, pitting Luerssen against fellow German shipbuilder Fassmer, and Damen of the Netherlands. Long before the final decision, Luerssen and Damen had both teamed up with ASC Shipbuilding and WA engineering firm Civmec, while Fassmer partnered with WA shipbuilder Austal.
The final decision was announced in December 2017, but there were some novel provisions. The first two vessels are to be built in South Australia, and the remaining 10 in WA. Although Austal appeared to dip out, the government called for Luerssen to talk to Austal to explore options to leverage wider WA shipbuilding experience.
But Luerssen announced in May last year it had been unable to reach a viable commercial agreement with Austal so, at this stage, Austal is playing no part in the OPV project. Fortunately, it is hard at work turning out the new Guardian class Pacific patrol boats, 21 of which Australia is donating to PNG, various Pacific nations, and Timor Leste.
Luerssen’s two major sub-contractors are ASC Shipbuilding, now a wholly-owned subsidiary of BAE Systems Australia, and Civmec, a heavy engineering firm in the resources sector which has increasingly focused on the rising naval shipbuilding industry.
In 2016, Civmec acquired Newcastle firm Forgacs Marine and Defence which had built hull sections of ANZAC frigates and the Hobart class DDGs. For its growing role in shipbuilding, Civmec has been building an enormous shed at Henderson which one Defence official has quipped could be seen from space.
This shed will fit a Hobart class DDG and, even at peak production, the OPV project will occupy just 40 per cent of the space, leaving plenty of room for other work. And last year Luerssen Australia and Civmec formed a new company, Australian Maritime Shipbuilding and Export Group (AMSEG) to exploit emerging opportunities.
The build split between Osborne and Henderson initially raised some eyebrows. For efficiency’s sake, how could one yard launch production and build two boats, then shut down and start all over again on the other side of the country?
The government’s key objective in starting the build at Osborne was to ensure a nucleus of skilled workers remained between the end of SEA 4000 air warfare destroyer project and the start of construction of the new SEA 5000 Hunter class frigates.
“It’s working,” ASC Shipbuilding managing director Craig Lockhart told ADBR. “It’s providing an infill. It’s providing a level load. Without OPV it would have been a significant challenge on the trade and industrial side from having nothing in the yard.”
All steel for the two SA OPVs was cut by Civmec in Henderson, with truckloads of hull sections and bulkheads arriving each week for assembly. The steel itself comes from NSW. The first steel was cut at Henderson in October 2018, with Prime Minister Morrison officiating in the obligatory hard hat and high-viz vest. That same day, Civmec erected the first steel on its 53,000 square metre ship assembly building.
Almost a year on, Luerssen Australia chief executive officer and project director Jens Nielsen said they are pleased with progress. The big event for the year was the keel laying ceremony for Arafura on May 10, while construction of ship two started in Adelaide in early June. Construction of ship three is scheduled to start in Henderson at the end of March next year.
For a shipbuilder starting up in Australia, a single yard would have been a whole lot easier, but Luerssen took on board the government’s requirement for production at yards more than 2,000 kilometres apart.
“There was a request by the government – can we accommodate this – and we have made the analysis and said yes we can do this,” Nielsen told ADBR. “We are quite confident we can deliver.
“That fact is that this requires more communication and more explanation, but that is going very well. It is open and transparent communication and we are quite pleased with it, otherwise we wouldn’t be where we are.”
Nielsen said ship assembly in SA and WA is actually quite different. “In Osborne we build the ship in two halves, and the two halves get put together, and that is based on the infrastructure available,” he said. “In Western Australia with the modern technology Civmec is putting in place, we are able to build layer by layer. We start at the bottom and just go layer by layer.
“We are very very pleased so far with what we are getting out of Henderson with respect to the steel cutting and all the other materials from Civmec, and also the progress on the construction of the shed.”
Nielsen said that was positioning Civmec and Luerssen very well for the future. While building 12 vessels for Australia is a significant deal in itself, that project will come to an end in a decade. From then on, Luerssen and Civmec will be looking to export.
“It was always the intention when Luerssen first came here to establish a regional export base from Australia, it being far easier to export from Australia to the region than it might be from Germany,” said former Navy chief VADM Chris Ritchie (Ret’d), now a Luerssen Australia director. “It doesn’t mean they will stop shipbuilding in Germany.”
However the German government’s attitude to defence exports has hardened, and total exports have declined for the last three years, though they remain significant.
Last year defence exports totalled €4.82bn (A$7.8bn), well down from €7.86bn (A$12.7bn) in 2015. That’s been attributed to stricter government guidelines for export permits, driven by growing public opposition to arms exports, particularly to regimes such as Saudi Arabia.
Nielsen said there were areas where Germany for some time had been reconsidering its position, and that had made Luerssen consider a second hub for export. “We consider it a second hub to be developed, and it’s not a sole export hub. That is not the direction we are taking,” he said.
Germany itself will be buying a range of new vessels and Luerssen’s civil shipbuilding business, constructing mega-yachts is very busy.
However, there is a growing export market for small naval vessels, as various regional nations recapitalise and expand their fleets.
Like other defence companies, Luerssen acknowledges the challenge of acquiring the skilled Australian workers it needs.
But it has a couple of advantages – it’s starting early, and it won’t need the big numbers as will be required for construction of new submarines and frigates.
At peak, that will be around 400 working directly on the project, or 1,000 including the supply chain. The peak arrives quite soon and covers the period of parallel production at Osborne and Henderson. Right now there are 15 German nationals working on the project in Australia.
Nielsen said they were able to find needed skilled workers from the market, but were still ramping up. “
We do see the difficulties everybody has,” he said. “Getting shipbuilding expertise from the market is not easy, and we are involved in various programs and discussions with respect to workforce and our scholarship program we launched last year in December.”
Luerssen’s main sub-contractors are ASC Shipbuilding and Civmec for construction, Saab for the combat system, Taylor Brothers for accommodation, Penske Marine for MTU diesel engines, Noske-Kaeser for air conditioning and refrigeration, and MTA for electricals.
The target is 63 per cent Australian industry content, but Luerssen believes it’s on track to do better. “We are also very much promoting that the SME base is interested in taking over elements which are currently being done out of the country and getting them connected to European suppliers,” Nielsen said.
For our money, Australia will be acquiring vessels vastly more capable than their predecessors. These will be competent blue water vessels, albeit with somewhat reduced capacity for littoral area operations.
Although the Arafuras feature a substantial flat rear deck which could land a helicopter, the government didn’t specify a helicopter capability. That gives the vessel the ability to quickly adapt to different missions through the integration of modular equipment for mine-countermeasures, special forces, or extra accommodation.
It was always envisaged the OPVs would be equipped with an unmanned aircraft system. Either fixed or rotary-wing systems, both of which the Navy has been trialling, could be embarked giving the vessel a greatly increasing ability to conduct surveillance or search and rescue.
For basic armament, the vessels will be equipped with a Leonardo stabilised 40mm gun system plus a pair of 50 Cal machine guns. For a small vessel, the Saab combat system will be very sophisticated, raising the prospect that down the track, the OPVs could be up-gunned.
That would make them formidable small combatants, of a kind Australia has never possessed but which are common across other Navies.
This feature appeared in the September-October issue of ADBR.