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The Australian ingenuity powering the US and Oman navies

usns spearhead
USNS Spearhead.

The current fascination with the US Navy’s Independence variant of the littoral combat ship (LCS) project, has shone a light on the history of Austal’s US presence.

The current fascination with the US Navy’s Independence variant of the littoral combat ship (LCS) project, has shone a light on the history of Austal’s US presence.

In 2001, Austal developed the Westpac Express for the US Marine Corps to provide logistic and theatre support for operations in Japan. Perhaps most notable in the vessels history was its deployment in 2011 as part of the US response to the Japanese earthquake and tsunami. The vessel transported supplies, communication equipment, personnel and acted as a forward arming and refuelling point (FARP) to provide almost continuous helicopter rescue and transport missions.

Designed and built in Australia at Austal's Henderson facility, its initial use was as a commercial vessel but it quickly transitioned to defence, becoming the frontrunner of high speed support vessels (HSSV), and ultimately the US Navy's order of 12 Expeditionary Fast Transport (EPF) vessels. The contract, awarded 10 years ago, has so far seen nine vessels delivered, all of which are now in service with the US Military Sealift Command (MSC).


The high-speed 103-metre all-aluminium military catamarans include a flight deck for helicopters and a load ramp that allows vehicles to quickly drive on and off the vessel and offers fast, multiple-mission flexibility and seated capacity for 312 embarked troops. EPF1, USNS Spearhead, was recently used during Hurricane Irma to provide immediate disaster relief support to the Caribbean.

Over 90 per cent of the buildings on Saint Martin were damaged or destroyed, and were left without power or the ability to generate fresh water. Upon arrival into Saint Martin, the EPFs crew offloaded 1,000 ready to eat meals and 81,000 bottles of water from the EPF’s mission bay directly to the pier.

Although these vessels are American-made, Austal's head of design Gordon Blaauw told Defence Connect that Australian content has still played a key part beyond the design concept, including Austal's Marine Link, an integrated monitoring, alarm and control system (IMACS).

"The real high-point of this is that we've continued to build the switchboards and Marine Link, which is one of our main products or one of our products that we use on our boats," said Blaauw.

"The last 10 years we've been building all of them, Marine Link and the switchboards. They've all been built in West Australia and shipped to Mobile in Alabama."

While few could argue there is better recognition of a ship designer's capabilities than being selected by the US Navy, the achievements kept on coming for Austal, with the company awarded a $125 million contract for design, construction and delivery of two HSSVs for the Royal Navy of Oman in 2014.

Blaauw said the HSSV, another development of the Austal Australia design team, which is now a 105-person team, has gone on to push the boundaries of ship design.

"It's generally our commercial boats that lead our defence boats rather than the defence boats leading the commercial boats, but we do get to push the envelope a little in a slightly different way in defence," said Blaauw.

"Ship design is quite a conservative business, and we're actually pushing the realms of conservatism with what we do. So what, what we've done, with all our boats, is the development of a previous vessel. So we've gone from the Westpac Express to the EPFs, and interestingly it doesn't always lead you to forward on that, it doesn't always make you go bigger or faster, it's a starting point.

"And the technology that we use, like for instance on our high speed support vessels that we design for the Omani Navy, called Navy Oman, have taken a new, really clever concept from EPFs, and into a smaller vessel, because obviously their troops are a little bit smaller, they have smaller requirements where a smaller vessel, about 105-metre vessel to a 102-metre vessel, so 30 percent shorter."

The vessels, both built in Australia, were delivered in 2016 and have been tipped to open up further export opportunities for Austal, which is already one of Australia's largest defence exporters.

"For us to export HSSV has been a massive inroad, because we had the opportunity not only to design it here but to build it here. And that's lead us to opportunities to do defence work with other countries, which is fantastic," said Blaauw.

As for where the design and its associated technologies will go next, Blaauw has tipped the need for faster vessels as a likely starting point, but Australians will be sure to see Austal's Australian-designed technology, like Marine Link, on the upcoming Pacific Patrol Boats.

"We don't know where they'll go, but what I suspect they'll want to do is to go faster. Or give us a requirement that we get the boat to move faster, and then it will be about the same as we have in the commercial world where we have them become more fuel efficient, so that the operational costs come lower."