Not since the Second World War has the Royal Australian Navy undergone such a quantitative and qualitative modernisation as is currently underway as part of the government's $90 billion naval shipbuilding plan and commitment to enhancing the capabilities of the Navy at a time of increasing geopolitical and strategic competition and ambiguity.
The 2016 Defence White Paper (DWP) and its focus on supporting the development of Australia's defence industry through the sovereign industry capability and naval shipbuilding plans sought to respond to increased regional tensions and forge a path forward, following nearly two decades of 'valleys of death', cost and delivery overruns and shrinking defence budgets.
For Commander of the Australian Fleet, Rear Admiral Jonathan Mead, the recent program milestones mark major progress towards meeting the capabilities outlined in the 2016 Defence White Paper, while enhancing industry involvement in supporting the development of sovereign industrial capability.
In this edition of On Point, Defence Connect spoke with RADM Mead to discuss the future capabilities of the Royal Australian Navy, how the force stays deployed and battle ready and the role better relationships between government, Navy and industry play in enhancing the operational capabilities of the force.
Construction has kicked off for the Arafura Class and we've had major announcements around SEA 5000 and SEA 1000, how are you feeling about the direction and motion currently underway?
It is a culmination of many years of hard work. My previous employment down in Canberra was a Head of Navy Capability and I was intimately involved in the OPV program, the submarine program, the future frigate. The shipbuilding program is a magnificent step forward in the progress of Navy capability in delivering options for government.
I was there for the release of the whitepaper, the build up of the whitepaper. The First Principles Review, which saw significant change, probably the most fundamental change I've seen in the Department of Defence, which was released on the first of April in 2015. That, with the whitepaper released in February 2016, really drove us down a path of being more efficient, of accelerating the acquisition process, doing away with a lot of nugatory paperwork, and getting plans turned into contracts, turned into construction.
I think this has been the most fundamental shift in what Defence has done in many, many years, not just from a construction and capability perspective, but actually the way Defence operates.
The government has seen that our part of the world in the Indo-Pacific is changing and is responding with the $90 billion shipbuilding plan. What does the future look like and what do you see the role of Navy being?
There is a famous historian, E.H. Carr, who once said: "history is never static" and we see that all the time. The region, the dynamics, the globe constantly changes and Defence in particular and the Navy needs to be reactive to that. We need to be looking ahead, we need to be forecasting the changes, we can't be locked into any single option there.
Navy is about 14,000 people in strength, on an average day we have about 1,600 people at sea. When you put that into context, the entire ADF is about 60,000 strong, and the ADF normally has about 1,800 people in total deployed.
Navy at times has 3,000 people at sea. We have ships, normally five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10 ships operating away from the Australian station, away from the EEZ [exclusive economic zone], up in the US, in the Pacific, certainly up in north and south-east Asia very, very regularly.
We have always had a fleet which has really been bifurcated into major fleet units and minor war vessels. What government expects from us is to develop options for them, whether it be in strategies or policies, or even in capability that they need.
We have major units in the pipeline, including the OPVs. By 2025 the first Hunter Class future frigate will be almost completed. It'll probably hand over to us around about 2027, 2028, we just need to finalise that, by 2030, we'll certainly have commissioned into service probably two of the Hunter Class frigates and by 2030 they'll be finishing the construction of the first future submarine, HMAS Attack.
To this end, from a fleet perspective we've put a new sort of doctrine in place, which is to be "battle ready and deployed".
This means that our forces, our people, our equipment need to coalesce together so that our people are ready to fight the fight if they need to. It also means being deployed, and that means operating further afield, not locked into the Australian network.
It means being in the south-west Pacific, south-east, north-east Asia are really our areas of primary operating interests, and that's what we're heading for. It's what 2018 was able to achieve. That's what I'm looking forward to in 2019 and 2020 as well.
Building on these new capabilities and the changing role of Navy, how is technology changing the future of the Navy? What major technology developments are taking place?
We have three big growth areas at the moment: autonomous vehicles, as you said, both above the water, unmanned aerial vehicles, and below the water; artificial intelligence; and then cyber. Getting to the first point about autonomous vehicles, we're operating autonomous aircraft at the moment off the back of our ships, helicopters, autonomous fixed-wing aircraft.
We're doing a lot of work in that space, we have programs in place from a minor project to major programs. I have a vision that every ship in the Navy that is commissioned will have some type of aerial vehicle, an unmanned aerial system. Some may have multiple, some may have a Romeo helicopter, the most advanced ASW helicopter in the world, and an autonomous aerial vehicle.
Navy is also doing a lot of work in autonomous underwater vehicles. At the moment, our mine hunters who have performed extremely well in 2018 in mine warfare exercises still have to transit through the minefield with people on board. It is something that you don't really want to do. We're doing a lot of work in acquiring technologies, developing technologies that will send autonomous vehicles into the minefield whilst the mine hunter lays back and it can then clear the mine field.
How are the relationships between Defence, CASG and industry improving? What do the good industry participants do to be most effective for Navy and dealing with Navy?
Certainly since the White Paper First Principles Review, we have shifted our focus from a combative approach to a collaborative approach. It would be fair to say that the relationship that Navy had with for example, ASC, the prime supplier to the submarines in the past had been tortured and we sat down and we just realised that that was self-defeating for everyone.
In the past, what we've been very keen on doing is pointing the finger. That benefits no one. Navy nor anyone else in Defence can execute his day-to-day activities without industry.
The relationship that Navy has today with CASG and industry is a quantum leap above what it was probably five, six, seven years ago, and we need to develop those relationships. They will not always be perfect, I understand that industry often will sometimes have a slightly different focus than what Defence does, but we need to continually work together and talk together.
If you don't establish very strong relationships with the suppliers, with the people that sustain that, you will find your capability will just deteriorate. You will not get ships to sea.
I find that the industry partners that have open lines of communication and are open to criticism are the ones that we find deliver the best results. Now, we in Navy need to do the same. We are not perfect and we need industry to come back and say to us, "Look, there is a better way of doing business here. The way you've constructed this contract, the scope of what you want is really going to be sub-optimal, and we recommend that you make these changes."
Industry still tells us that our processes, even though we made the changes on the first principles are still sometimes clunky and cumbersome, particularly for small companies.
The large companies that have a massive workforce and have done this before, the big primes, I think that it's easier for them. But when you're talking about a small company that you need now to plug into the behemoth which is Defence, they sometimes criticise how clunky we are, and we need to do work in that space.
The full podcast with Rear Admiral Jonathan Mead, Command Australian Fleet is available here.