L3Harris Australia: Working as Part of Team Luerssen in the New Build OPV


By Robbin Laird

In the first part of this article, I posed the question:

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

Rather than a prime contractor working the integration of systems platform by platform, the Australian Department of Defence is working with a new model, one in which the prime contractor works with suppliers which will reach beyond the platform on which they are operating, for which the prime contractor is primarily responsible.

During my March 2020 visit to Australia, I had a chance to talk with Rob Slaven, a former Royal Australian Navy Captain, now with L3Harris, about how one might answer this question.

I started by asking about what systems L3Harris was providing for the Arafura Class OPV program and in highlighting their contribution he underscored the significance of providing an integrated electronic system for the program. 

Rob Slaven: 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 (INS); an Integrated Communications System (ICS); and an Integrated Platform Management System (IPMS). Collectively this suite of systems is known as the “Integrated Electronic System” of IES.

“Whereas 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 what is in effect 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, and they will offer the Commonwealth the operational flexibility and improved availability that they are looking for.

“The IES approach allows for shipboard data integration and pooling, or disaggregation as desired. With the IES for example, one could measure the performance data of a pump controlling the steering and send that data ashore to someone in Perth to better assess ship and Class performance, and then plan appropriate maintenance activities tailored to that systems measured data.

“With the OPV, Defence will be able to manage the force in a deliberate and planned manner, leveraging the IES to interrogate ‘platform’ performance without having to having to resort to the labour intensive interrogation of stovepiped systems.

“Bottom line: As long as you get the IES design right – i.e. the wiring, the interfaces, the cyber protections and control software – one can seamlessly exchange data across different system types, and then tailor system outputs as desired for the specific applications, or indeed, modify overall system configuration and performance as required should the ship’s tasking change while on patrol.”

The Impact of an Integrated Systems Approach

Question: What the integrated systems approach is delivering then is a smaller footprint onboard the ship, an easier software upgrade path to evolve capabilities or modernization paths over time.

This then changes what the role of systems supplier like L3Harris plays with regard to a new build platform?

RobSlaven: It does.

“With an integrated systems approach, as long as the computer environment (server) is fast enough, then most functions can be virtualised and become an application running on a computer.

“Simplistically, if you have a flat screen touch displays connected to an integrated environment, then that display can switch functionality at will across system functions. Technologically speaking, there’s nothing to stop the same display being used for navigational and engine control. It’s just a multifunction display, albeit a display backed by a well-designed integration effort and the inherent flexibility of software code.

“With the move to virtualised machines, we are changing the way and speed at which upgrades can be implemented, as it’s effectively just a software application.

“With the flexibility of software upgrades, capability improvements can be delivered to ships at sea while underway if required or desirable, and they can be rolled out very regularly in a non-intrusive manner.

“This sort of operational and sustainment flexibility flattens out many of the logistical bumps Navy has faced in the past, and will again demonstrate how the OPVs will change the way Navy and CASG can do business going forward.

“As part of this new integrated platform paradigm, Luerssen as the OPV platform Prime, is delivering a design which is digitally fluid and able to morph as required to meet changing operational requirements, accommodate emergent technologies (either fitted or via embarked payloads) versatility, or facilitate the implementation of new training and sustainment methodologies.

“That is to say, the OPVs will be able to offer unheralded platform and capability flexibility in comparison to the ships they are replacing.

“The digital design flexibility of the OPV is such that if by the time we get to ship seven, a sailor on ship three has found a better way of doing business on one of the systems, and she convinces Navy that that is the way they want to do it, then we can code up a software modification, prove it ashore on its digital twin, and roll out a configuration change and training package that can bring all of those seven ships and crews to the same operational configuration simultaneously.

“In a worst-case scenario, if due to the Batch build approach, the physical configurations of the computer servers onboard the first three OPVs are not powerful-enough to run a system for whatever reason, then those ships would require a physical server upgrade before running the new code.

“But again, once you make that computer hardware change, then all seven ships will again share the same configuration and the same capability. The widespread adoption of virtualised functionality and common interfaces means that we can create a “hardware agnostic” approach to shipboard system operation.

“Indeed, as long as the Human-Machine Interface remains the same/similar across hardware/software upgrades, then we can help Navy avoid many of the personnel management pitfalls associated with retraining operators.

“Over the life of the OPV build program there might be longer term physical design changes to the hull like a bigger crane or a bigger boat, or a smaller flight deck etc.

“But for something that is software defined like the communication suite, then “change” becomes a matter of managing the pace of software upgrades, with a commensurate impost on the Commonwealth’s governance systems to certify and accredit those new software loads.

“Although this sounds like a new loading on the Commonwealth, it really reflects a technologically driven move toward a software “seaworthiness” certification regime, rather than looking at a set of drawings associated with a new piece of radio or crypto equipment.

“Some of the work we are doing with the United States Navy reflects a potential regime wherein software can be coded and rolled out to ships underway within 24 hours – dependent upon what is happening operationally, and what demands/loads/threats are being placed onto the integrated system.”

Delivering an Integrated Warfare Suite

Question: When we are talking about the C2 capabilities on the ship, we are not just talking about legacy C2, but we are talking about a communications suite or synergy management if we focus on the broader capabilities.

 How do you view this key part of the transformation being generated by the approach being shaped onboard the OPV?

Rob Slaven: “Suite” is the right term.

“The traditional terminology usually focuses on the functionality of C2 systems, because this is how isolated function specific systems were developed and it how these systems have historically been contracted for on platforms.

“But really, what we are focused upon with regard to the OPV, is designing the IES to shape a capability outcome, namely, creating a shipboard electronics environment that delivers an Integrated Warfare Suite (IWS).

“L3Harris can only really ‘integrate’ the systems we’ve been contracted to, but because of the Team Luerssen construct, we’re working closely with Saab Australia who are providing the core Situational Awareness System C2 elements.

“What we’re physically designing are the three elements of the OPV IWS that we control, which includes both hardware and software engineering.

“With the OPV we’re providing a platform that is electronically able, and informationally ready, to swap and exchange data among different aspects of the actual physical ship systems quite freely.

“This means that whatever applications that the Commonwealth decides to code into the C2 system, and whatever sensors/weapons/payloads they bring on board, the IES and C2 system can collectively integrate those disparate data sets organically on the ship, and reach out to external platforms to mate those sensors/data sets into a collective/coherent C2 picture.

“Let me give you an example which can be realized in the near term.

“If an operator in the ship’s Operations Room on the OPV wants to launch an Unmanned Underwater Vehicle (UUV), they should be able to press a button on their Saab C2 display, and that command will be translated and communicated within the IES to order the autonomous launch of the UUV.

“With the ability to preload/reprogram UUVs with their mission profiles, the IPMS can then take control of the autonomous launch and recovery system to put that UUV in the water, and it goes away.

“And dependent upon the amount of freedom designed into the UUV, there would also be the capacity to reprogram the UUV after launch – all from the OPV’s Ops Room.”

The Impact of the Cognitive Engine

Rob Slaven: “And this is the really smart bit, L3Harris is developing a Cognitive Engine (CE) that resides within the communications management system, which can interrogate the EMS, interpret extant Communication Plans, and cognitively assess the TACSIT, i.e.  work with defined rules/doctrine, to identify suitable communication channels to facilitate executing the mission task without further operator interaction.

“The Cognitive Engine is creating the communications pathway necessary to support that UUV and what it needs to do in real-time. It is an autonomous machine to machine link that comprehends the physical and tactical environment.

“The cognitive engine is using the ship sensors, specifically the communication antenna farm and the EW system and, if we’re allowed, the radar faces, to measure the environment in real-time, to measure what the environment and adversary are affecting viable EMS transmission routes, and then determine which communications channels are available in accordance with its programmed doctrine.

“In effect the CE is looking at the environment, comparing it to the operational requirements, and executing mission tasks without operator input at Machine Speed.”

Question: How is this done?

Slaven: So it’s a matter of trust.

“You define for the cognitive engine what it’s its functions are, and the operational rules it must operate within. You give it physical guidelines and system configuration restrictions to control.

“You give it access to antenna arrays to measure the environment. And then you let it go. The CE will execute the mission as defined within its parameters. The USN’s Aegis system already has something like this referred to as “Doctrine”. Which USN operators plan and develop specifically for that deployment’s operational profile in the six months prior to sailing. When/if the operators turn that Aegis system on, it’s going to execute all of those planning rules in the established doctrine).

“OPV sailors can/could still interact and change actions/operations as required during the deployment, however the goal is to entrust the CE to execute the communications battle plan at Machine Speed to defeat enemy actions.

“L3Harris is currently trialing cognitive technologies with the USN for the communications suite, wherein we’ve got a cognitive engine with a given set of doctrinal controls, and we’re allowing it access to the communications and EW antenna farms to measure the EM environment. and

“Happily I can report that the system has done everything we expected and more, with the CE reconfiguring the communications plan in real time to execute the mission profile as allowed by the doctrine. Indeed, the trials have gone so well we have taken the next step toward allowing the CE to interpret “Commanders Intent”, a much more ‘fuzzy’ form of doctrinal guidance.”

The New Build OPV Approach as a Driver for Change

Question: And it is the OPV which is doing this?

Rob Slaven: The IES design will allow for this CE functionality. And although the OPV is not a sexy destroyer or frigate; and it is not a massive command platform like the LHDs; nor is a sneaky submarine. It will in its own right become the focus of its own fleet of unmanned systems, and become a central communications node/hub as part of the wider Joint force.

“If you design the ship right from the outset, and provide flexible, Integrateable systems, with open agreed interfaces, you create very different approaches to systems development, modernization pathways and sustainment management.

“Currently, the only things holding back the OPV from CE operations will be a software load, apart of course from the integration of a EW suite, embarked UxV payload systems, and of course trust from operators.

“While we can’t address the first two of these additional requirements, the latter matter of trust is more a human generational issue, with today’s/tomorrow’s sailors far more familiar with the capabilities and possibilities of technology than their forebears.

“The Royal Australian Navy is looking toward an enterprise approach for operations and sustainment, and clearly the OPV is being designed and built with this approach at its core.

“The Navy is looking to shape a shipboard technology environment with shared interfaces that can allow all the systems to talk together in a cyber-safe manner, and where we can finally break away from systems-specific barriers and silos. From our perspective, the OPV is clearly viewed by the RAN as the launch platform for this new approach.

“Because the OPV is such a different type of platform it will be groundbreaking, and the Royal Australian Navy should justifiably be proud of their new ships.

“Not only will the RAN be able to show the OPVs off to the world, but it will also be able to show itself what smart design and technology can do to break long standing operational and sustainment paradigms.

“These ships, these OPVs, will be a superior communications and electronics platform from everything that has come before them. Of that there is no doubt in my mind.

“The OPV will be able to take data from a multitude of other platforms and systems, and use holistically use that collective data to execute the mission, as opposed to the stovepiped traditional design thinking that defines even the Navy’s latest destroyer.

“From L3Harris’s point of view, we are focused on demonstrating the advantages of this IES capability, because we are sure that the OPV is going to be better than that destroyer as far as being able to collect, measure and exchange information.

“On operations the destroyers will be going to the OPVs to build their picture, control UxVs, and get their critical tactical information out in a denied environment.

“That level of capability is going to break paradigms and shock people in the Royal Australian Navy, it’s going to shock the New Zealanders, the Canadians, the Brits, the Americans, the Germans, and the French.

“It’s going to shock everybody, because suddenly this OPV is showing everyone the new way to do business.

“Although physically just a ‘little’ OPV, it’s going to be doing the job of what traditionally people thought larger command assets do.

“It will command and operate its own Air Wing, its own UUV force, its own dispersed USV screen.

“The OPVs will enable and facilitate change in a fashion the Navy has not seen since the introduction of wireless RF.

“If people looked at the way we’re delivering the OPV IES capability, I think they’ll be pleasantly surprised and be able to take a lot of lessons learned about what we’re doing as a part of Team Lurssen, that is, as an Australian Industry team.

“We are not only delivering a whole new level of operational capability to the Navy, but we are setting the standard for local ‘teaming’ to deliver on the Government’s National Shipbuilding Strategy.

“Team Luerssen is the little team that can.”

The photo shows Managing Director, L3Harris Australia Nigel Bagster, SA Premier Steven Marshall, and L3Harris Maritime opening a new office in Adelaide on January 6 to support Australian naval shipbuilding programs and strengthen the company’s collaboration with Defence SA. 

The new office will act as a base for integrating and delivering L3Harris’ advanced Integrated Platform Management System (IPMS) and Electronic Warfare System, which are being fitted to the 12 new Offshore Patrol Vessels.  

Also, see the following:

L3Harris and the Australian OPV Program