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Top 5 – Defence Connect’s best Maritime & Undersea Warfare stories

Top 5 – Defence Connect’s best Maritime & Undersea Warfare stories

2020 has been a big year for the nation, Defence and defence industry, with major projects reaching critical stages in the design, build and delivery phase transforming the Royal Australian Navy well into the next decade.

2020 has been a big year for the nation, Defence and defence industry, with major projects reaching critical stages in the design, build and delivery phase transforming the Royal Australian Navy well into the next decade.

It has been a massive year for the Royal Australian Navy, which has seen major progress across the acquisition cycle including on some of Australia's largest Defence projects, with the $35 billion SEA 5000 Hunter Class frigates and $80 billion SEA 1000 Attack Class submarines.

The RAN has officially commissioned the third and final of the Hobart Class guided missile destroyers, HMAS Sydney, with the Sydney and sister ship HMAS Brisbane conducting a series of working up exercises – meanwhile, on the operational front the RAN has been met with continuing success in the Middle East running counter narcotics operations, and an increasing Australian presence throughout the Indo-Pacific through both formal exercises like RIMPAC '20 and regular operations.


Navy also celebrated the successful launch of the fleet's future at-sea-replenishment vessels NUSHIP Stalwart, and the delivery of NUSHIP Supply to Fleet Base West, HMAS Stirling. 

One thing is for sure, 2021 is shaping up to be a bigger year for the RAN as it prepares for prototyping for the first Hunter Class vessel and continued progress on the Attack Class submarine program, with the unfolding geo-strategic environment impacting the RAN and broader global allies alike. 

1. ‘No more monstrosities’, US Navy ops head declares of new destroyers

Since their introduction in the early ’90s, the Arleigh Burke Class destroyers have served as the backbone of the US Navy. However, the growing capability of peer competitor platforms and limitations on hull form have triggered a major shift for the US, with Admiral Michael Gilday, the US Navy’s Chief of Naval Operations, declaring that a new destroyer class will learn the lessons of the recent past to avoid cost overruns and capability shortfalls.

Throughout history, no naval force has so effectively and dominantly managed the security and freedom of navigation on the global maritime commons as the US Navy – emerging from the Second World War as the world's premier naval power and surging out the other side of the Cold War, it seemed as if none could challenge the unassailable might of the US Navy. 

Given regional developments and the costly failure of the multibillion-dollar Zumwalt Class of stealth destroyers, the US Navy's Chief of Naval Operations (CNO), Admiral Michael Gilday, is seeking to avoid the failures of the recent past, with the aim of getting a new class of destroyers to the fleet as soon as possible. 

For ADM Gilday the lessons of the failed, extremely costly and short run Zumwalt Class destroyers – designed in large part to replace the Ticonderoga Class guided missile cruisers, incorporating low observability materials and cross sections, electromagnetic rail guns, advanced sensor platforms and smart weapons systems in order to serve as the backbone of the carrier strike group's area defence capabilities  are clear.

"I don’t want to build a monstrosity. But I need deeper magazines on ships than I have right now," ADM Gilday explained to a virtual audience at US-based Defense One's 'State of the Navy' event. 

Driving the thinking behind the design, development and introduction of the DDG Next concept is a growing need for ever increasing numbers of missile silos at sea, namely, something ADM Gilday believes is limited in the existing fleet of Arleigh Burkes and the planned Flight III variant of the vessels.

"I’m limited with respect to DDG Flight IIIs in terms of what additional stuff we could put on those ships. … So the idea is to come up with the next destroyer, and that would be a new hull. The idea would be to put existing technologies on that hull and update and modernise those capabilities over time," ADM Gilday said.

2. US Marine Commandant calls for more Lightning Carriers to better counter China

US Marine Corps Commandant General David Berger has called on the US Marines to become more “unpredictable” when countering China, seeing the Lightning Carrier concept as a key way of achieving this.

As the capabilities of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter variants continue to evolve, new CONOPs will evolve around the fifth-generation platform – the US Navy and Marine Corps team has developed the “Lightning Carrier” concept to provide the branches with a lower-tier naval aviation capability to support amphibious power projection operations. 

Serving as the latest iteration of the Sea Control Ship (SCS) concept developed and conceptualised by the former US Navy Chief of Naval Operations and famed Second World War Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, the Lightning Carrier and the corresponding sea control doctrines emerging around the platform combination are emerging as immense power projection potential. 

China’s growing network of advanced anti-ship cruise and ballistic missiles (ASCM/ASBM) systems like the DF-16 and DF-21 series, combined with their own growing fleet of aircraft carriers and under construction large-deck amphibious warfare ships, the Commandant of the US Marine Corps has emerged as a major advocate for the Lightning Carrier.

GEN Berger explained at a conference discussing the Amphibious Warship Industrial Base Coalition, where he stated, “China has moved out to sea, and they have long-range weapons and a lot of them.

“Those two things have changed the game. Take those away, in other words, we could keep operating with dominance everywhere we wanted to, as we have. We cannot do that. We can’t get stuck in old things. We are being challenged everywhere.”

The US Marine Corps is optimistic about the capability brought by the Lightning Carrier, with the 2017 Marine Corps Aviation Plan stating, “While the amphibious assault ship will never replace the aircraft carrier, it can be complementary if employed in imaginative ways.”

“A Lightning Carrier, taking full advantage of the amphibious assault ship as a sea base, can provide the naval and joint force with significant access, collection and strike capabilities,” the Corps added. 

Adding to this, GEN Berger said, “I’m in favour of things like the Lightning Carrier concept because I believe we need to tactically and operationally be ... unpredictable. We’ve been sending out every [amphibious ready group] and [Marine expeditionary unit] looking mirror-image for 20 years. We need to change that.”

However, maximising the efficacy of the Lightning Carrier concept was a key focus for GEN Berger who seeks to combine and leverage the introduction of new technologies and platform packages to ensure the US Marines remain unpredictable in agile in response to the mounting challenges arrayed against traditional US dominance. 

To this end, GEN Berger said, “You would like to see one of those big decks one time go out with two squadrons of F-35s and next time fully loaded with MV-22s and another MEU with a 50-50 combo. Now that’s how you become unpredictable. How do you defend against that?”

3. Whatever happened to France’s Queen Elizabeth twin, the DEAC aircraft carrier?

In the lead up to the formalised design of the Royal Navy’s Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carriers, then-design partner DCNS, now Naval Group, presented a medium-sized, conventionally powered aircraft carrier to support the French Navy’s Charles de Gaulle and the Royal Navy’s own carrier ambitions.

Working collaboratively, the French and British narrowed down a number of design commonalities ranging from an original hull form, catapult-launched, barrier assisted recovery (CATOBAR) configuration and an agreement on conventional propulsion.

The requirement for the carriers was confirmed by then-president Jacques Chirac in 2004 for the centennial of the Entente Cordiale, and on 26 January 2006, the defence ministers of France and Britain reached an agreement regarding co-operation on the design of their future carriers.

France agreed to pay the UK for access to the design due to the investment made to date. These payments were £30 million in January 2006, £25 million in July 2006 and a further £45 million if France decides to proceed with the project.

First revealed in early-2014, the DCNS Evolved Aircraft Carrier (DEAC) emerged as a successor to the original PA2 concept, drawing on several design cues, with a focus on a conventional power source to make the platform more internationally marketable, with the French then focused on spreading development and acquisition costs with emerging powers like India and Brazil, which had previously purchased and operated the French carrier Foch.

It was expected that the displacement of the DEAC would be approximately 59,000 tons at full load. This building is, therefore, less heavy than the French variant of the Queen Elizabeth-based PA2 previously studied (65,000 tons).

However, the airwing capacity is identical to the original CATOBAR-designed PA2, with infrastructure sized for 32 Rafale, three E-2D Hawkeye airborne early warning, command and control, and five NH-90/MRH-90 anti-submarine warfare helicopters.

In general, the boat has been optimised to meet the needs of the French Navy, but also with a very strong cost reduction perspective providing interesting avenues for international participation in the carrier program, drawing on the design and build experience of the French, enabling established middle and emerging great powers to establish and maintain a leading-edge carrier capability. 

4. Navy welcomes first of next-generation fleet replenishment, support vessels

The Royal Australian Navy has officially welcomed its new auxiliary oiler replenishment (AOR) ship, NUSHIP Supply to Fleet Base West, HMAS Stirling in Western Australia – which marks the next major milestone in the modernisation of the fleet.

NUSHIP Supply will now undergo an Australian fit-out to fit specialised equipment that cannot be installed overseas for security reasons, such as the close-in weapons system, communications suite, Typhoon and combat system  – a team of experienced Navantia and defence industry specialists will perform the fit-out.

Navantia Australia chairman Warren King stated, "The arrival of NUSHIP Supply marks a significant milestone for both Australia and [it] demonstrates our commitment not only to the Royal Australian Navy but also to Australian industry, which is so important to support these platforms over their expected design life and more."

The AOR Program has generated hundreds of jobs for Australian workers who operate behind the scenes in the Australian defence industry. A number of Australian and WA companies are involved in the both construction process and fit-out, including Taylor Bros, SAGE Automation, Australian Maritime Technologies, Sofraco Engineering, Capability by Design, Communications Design & Management and Sypaq Systems. ASP Ship Management, Scaf-West and the Onsite Rental Group are performing vital support during the fit-out.

Two Supply Class AORs will be named HMA Ships Supply (II) and Stalwart (III). The lead ship, HMAS Supply, was launched at the Navantia Shipyards in Ferrol, Spain on 24 November 2018. The following day, in accordance with ship building tradition, Chief of Navy Vice Admiral Michael Noonan positioned a coin under where the hull will be constructed for Stalwart.

Garcia-Valdes added, "Navantia Australia already has over 300 Australian companies as part of our local supply chain. The cross platform commons program we are developing will provide more long-term opportunities for platform sustainment, innovation and upgrades and enable a robust Australian supply chain to be reliably available."

5. Upgunning OPVs doesn’t address the issue of securing sea lanes

ASPI defence economist Marcus Hellyer has called for the Royal Australian Navy’s new Arafura Class to be ‘upgunned’ by incorporating a suite of anti-ship and anti-submarine capabilities, running the risk of over-complicating the program and mission profile, while leaving the Navy short of critical sea lane protection capabilities.

As the Royal Australian Navy prepares for the arrival of the first Arafura and Hunter Class vessels in the early-to-mid 2020s, evolving regional and global dynamics are highlighting the need for a fleet of ocean-going patrol frigates to ease the operational burden on the limited numbers and availability of both the OPV and frigates.

Now, for the first time in the nation's history, Australia's prosperity, security and way of life is intrinsically linked to the ambition, stability and direction of its Indo-Pacific neighbours.

Guaranteeing this requires the nation to find a balance between the expeditionary and interventionist focused 'Forward Defence' and the continental defence focused 'Defence of Australia' doctrines to counter the high and low-intensity threats to the nation's security, interests and the sea lines in particular. 

Expanding on an idea raised by ASPI colleague, Dr Malcolm Davis, ASPI defence economist Marcus Hellyer has suggested that the Royal Australian Navy's fleet of future offshore patrol vessels, the Arafura Class should become host to a suite of new anti-ship and anti-submarine capabilities to counter the increasing proliferation of such capabilities throughout the Indo-Pacific. 

"Many other countries use that kind of ship as a warship. The original design had anti-ship missiles on them. We took them off. That’s a quick enhance­ment we could make to get a maritime strike capability," Hellyer said. 

Hellyer's comments echo the sentiment of Dr Davis, who issued a broader call to arms to restructure the Navy's surface fleet, saying: "It’s time for the Royal Australian Navy to break out of a 20th century force design mindset and embrace the robotic revolution at sea.

Comparatively, Australia's Arafura Class will be relatively lightly armed, with a single 40mm main gun and two .50 calibre machine guns for close-in-defence, hardly adequate for a class of vessels expected to replace approximately 26 vessels across four warship classes currently in service with the Royal Australian Navy (including the Armidale, Huon, Leeuwin and Paluma Class vessels).

While also providing additional support for deployed amphibious task groups centred on a Canberra Class landing helicopter dock (LHD), and the future Supply Class fleet auxiliaries are designed to operate either independently or as part of a larger task group.

This well-identified mission creep raises the question, should the Arafura Class vessels be 'up-gunned' beginning with the first vessel, HMAS Arafura, to enable the vessels to better fulfil the expected escort, hydrographic, mine hunting, maritime border protection and constabulary operations already expected of the class vessels?

Hellyer firmly believes addressing this issue would come at a critical juncture in the nation's $90 billion naval shipbuilding program while also providing security to the workforce as they transition to the Hunter and Attack Class programs, respectively.

"Our plan is — complacent is probably a little harsh — but we’re spending more than $90 billion in a shipbuilding program and we’re not getting new capability in maritime warfare for a decade," Hellyer said. 

Stephen Kuper

Stephen Kuper

Steve has an extensive career across government, defence industry and advocacy, having previously worked for cabinet ministers at both Federal and State levels.

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