The New Australian Offshore Patrol Vessel: Its Impact in the Perspective of Vice Admiral (Retired) Tim Barrett


By Robbin Laird

The first time I met Vice Admiral (Retired) Tim Barrett was at the 2016 Williams Foundation Seminar in which he addressed the evolving role of the Australian Navy in the transformation of the Australian Defence Force. He provided a keynote presentation to the August 2016 Seminar on new approaches to air-sea integration.

His presentation at the Seminar presaged why the new Offshore Patrol Vessel was destined to be a launch platform to the new integrated distributed approach.

Barrett made it very clear that what was crucial for the Navy was to design from the ground up any new ships to be core participants in the force transformation process underway.

In his presentation at the conference, he underscored that “we are not building an interoperable navy; we are building an integrated force for the Australian Defence Force.”

He drove home the point that ADF integration was crucial in order for the ADF to support government objectives in the region and beyond and to provide for a force capable of decisive lethality.

By so doing, Australia would have a force equally useful in coalition operations in which distributed lethality was the operational objective.

He noted that it is not about massing force in a classic sense; it is about shaping a force, which can maximize the adversary’s vulnerabilities while reducing our own.

And he re-enforced several times in his presentation that this is not about an ‘add-in, after the fact capability’; you need to design and train from the ground up to have a force trained and equipped to be capable of decisive lethality.

He quoted Patton to the effect that you fight war with technology; you win with people.  

It is about equipping the right way with right equipment but training effectively to gain a decisive advantage.

The recapitalisation effort was a “watershed opportunity for the Australian Navy.”

But he saw it as a watershed opportunity, not so much in terms of simply building new platforms, but the right ones.

And with regard to the right ones, he had in mind, ships built from the ground up which could be interoperable with JSF, P-8, Growler, Wedgetail and other joint assets.

“We need to achieve the force supremacy inherent in each of these platforms but we can do that only by shaping integrated ways to operate.”

He highlighted that the Navy was in the process of shaping a 21st century task force concept appropriate to a strategy of distributed lethality and operations.

A key element of the new approach is how platforms will interact with one another in distributed strike and defensive operations, such as the ability to cue weapons across a task force.

In the interview after his presentation which I did with him, he highlighted key elements which can be seen in play as the Commonwealth builds a new class of ships.

“I am taking a very long view, and believe that we need to build our ships in Australia to generate naval capabilities integrated within the ADF.

“We need agility in the process of changing ships through life—continuing to evolve the new ships depending on how the threat is evolving.

“This means that we need to control the combat system software as well as build the hulls.  We will change the combat system and the software many times in the life of that ship; whereas, the hull, machinery in the plant doesn’t. That might sound like a statement of the obvious.

“But it’s not a statement that’s readily understood by our industry here in Australia.

“We need to organise ourselves to have an effective parent navy capability.

“We need to manage commonality across the various ship build processes.

“That will not happen if we build someone else’s ship in Australia which is designed to operate in separate classes.

“I don’t want an individual class to be considered in isolation. I want to cross-learn and cross-operate throughout our various classes of ships, and notably with regard to software integration and development.”

My visit to Australia this month was focused, in part, on building a case study of the new build OPV precisely as the launch platform for the new approach to building out a sustainable and upgradeable Royal Australian Navy fleet.

I visited both the Henderson shipyard where the second batch of OPVs will be assembled as well as the submarine base where Collins operates and where it is evident that Collins modernization presages capabilities to be transferred to the new build submarine.

After those visits, I had a chance to talk with Vice Admiral (Retired) Barrett about his perspective on the OPV program as the building block for the template for change for the ADF and the Royal Australian Navy in shaping a way ahead to a integrated distributed force.

Question: How important is the OPV to the approach you identified and put in motion while you were Chief of Navy?

Vice Admiral (Retired) Barrett: It is an extremely important demonstration of what was, at the time, an idea and a prospect for future development of our navy.

“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 which 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 that we can upgrade our systems onboard this class and all future classes of Australian ships.

“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.

Question: My discussion with the OPV team working in the Department of Defence highlighted their approach to dual tracking the platform build from the management of the combat systems build.

And they highlighted the importance of being able to leverage the combat systems build in the OPV program and take this forward into the design and build processes for the next round of new build platforms.

How do you view this effort?

Vice Admiral (Retired) Barrett: In my view, this approach is quite profound. We have had a history building propriety ships with their associated combat systems. We have managed the combat systems within a particular platform only.

“Government made a clear decision with its new shipbuilding approach, to manage the combat system as a separate entity. The principle role of the ship going to sea is to manage the combat system. The Commonwealth team for the OPV is the first manifestation of this new approach.

“It is a sensible outcome which shows that you are managing the asset as warfighting component of a distributed, and interconnected system, rather than purely managing an individual combat asset or class.

“I am very keen to see this approach expressed by the Commonwealth team.”

Question: Is a primary goal to take this OPV build and management process forward to the other new build programs?

 Vice Admiral (Retired) Barrett: It is. The speed and the pace with which combat systems and associated capabilities are evolving clearly requires a new approach. You need to be adaptive and to make required changes rapidly.

“In effect, you have to design into your warship build approach a way to be rapidly adaptable rather than figuring out later how in fact you will adapt.

“What we have with the OPV is the ability to shape it to operate in a number of different ways, including operating maritime remotes across the operational space. Rather than simply building a hull form to do classic constabulary tasks, we are building a ship which is capable of being morphed into a variety of missions with an extended operational combat or gray zone space.

“It is an experimental process not only in terms of build but in terms of the mission systems management process.

“This is a significant shift from how the Commonwealth has bought combat systems in the past.

“The proof is still to be manifested in the work to be done.”

Question: The ship is clearly going to operate in the gray zone as people refer to it. How do you view this challenge?

Vice Admiral (Retired) Barrett: With an emphasis on distributed lethality, then every vessel you send to sea has a part to play. The OPV is being built with this approach in mind.

“While the combat system onboard the OPV will be less complex than an Air Warfare Destroyer, it needs to contribute to the broader distributed integrated force.

“And we are talking about the ability of the Air Force and Navy to work together through the integrated approach to deliver capabilities for the common mission the force will be focused on achieving in a crisis management situation.”

Question: The OPV is being birthed in an age where maritime remotes are coming to the force and will become more significant over its life cycle.

How do you see the role of the OPV in this process?

Vice Admiral (Retired) Barrett:  The ship has been designed from the outset to operate airborne unmanned systems as well as trusted autonomous maritime systems.

“It is being designed to be able to work with unmanned systems and AI-governed remotes as part of its extended reach into the operational space.

“Fundamental decisions were made early on with regard to how the vessel would be built that it could physically host and manage to handle a variety of unmanned systems.”

Question: In effect, it is crucial to have a C2 suite or a synergy management system onboard the OPV to be able to work the variety of systems onboard but highly interactive with other platforms with interactive capabilities.

How do you view this process?

Vice Admiral (Retired) Barrett: “This ship was conceived at a time when we were looking at the rise of autonomous systems but in the context of an ability to do synergy management.

“This is why we look at the OPV as part of the evolving integrated force whereby its data is part of the broader whole.

Question: What are the major challenges facing this overall approach?

Vice Admiral (Retired) Barrett: It is a significant change in thinking. We live in a world where there are rapidly changing demands on our military forces.

“We have no real alternative but to find ways to more rapidly adapt our combat and mission systems.

“The approach to the OPV is a step in this direction but will challenge legacy thinking in industry, in the forces and in government.

“The enterprise approach we have taken is designed to enhance the prospects for success.

“Clearly, change is required by industry, the government and the navy to shape a new approach.

“But new capabilities, digital shipbuilding, asset data management, and upgradeable combat systems which can share approaches across platforms, provide us with some of the tools to shape, execute and management a continuous shipbuilding process.”

 The featured photo shows

Former Chief of Navy, Vice Admiral Tim Barrett, AO, CSC, RAN (Ret.) spearing with Director Multi-role Aviation Training Vessel MV Sycamore Captain Allen Whittaker CSC, RAN on board MV Sycamore.  On Wednesday 14th August 2019, the Royal Australian Navy’s multi-role aviation training vessel (MATV) MV Sycamore hosted members of the Fleet Air Arm Association (FAAA), Navy Safety & Environment Policy Coordination, Office of the Defence Seaworthiness Regulator, and Navy Technical Bureau for a day sail in Jervis Bay.

MV Sycamore has been acquired to support a range of Navy training activities including initial helicopter deck landing qualifications as well as other Navy mariner skills training, such as at sea familiarisation, practice weapon recovery, navigation training and limited fleet support duties.

The MATV has contracted civilian core crew of 20 personnel which will be supplemented across the range of training activities by Australian Defence Force and other government personnel as required.

Also, see the following:

Industry and the Australian Arafura Class Offshore Patrol Vessel: The Role of Luerssen

Industry and the Australian Arafura Class Offshore Patrol Vessel: The Role of CIVMEC

Air Marshal (Retired) Geoff Brown: The Impact of the Offshore Patrol Vessel Program

The OPV Decision: Meeting the Challenge of Shipbuilding in Australia and Leveraging a “Continuous Shipbuilding Appraoch”