The Royal Australian Navy officially welcomed the first of two new Landing Helicopter Dock (LHD) vessels into its ranks on November 28, with the commissioning of HMAS Canberra at the Garden Island Fleet Base East in Sydney.
The Canberra is the largest ship to ever be operated by the RAN, and the third Australian naval vessel to bear the name of the national capital. Along with sistership Adelaide, she will be employed on amphibious landing, humanitarian and disaster response, and other key ADF missions in Australia’s wider region.
“It was a proud and emotional experience for me to stand with 400 exceptional members of my crew today,” Canberra’s commanding officer CAPT Jonathan Sadleir said after the ceremony. “Through the efforts of many organisations, this outstanding ship is now a reality.”
“Commissioning is a significant milestone for us emotionally and operationally,” he added. “As soon as that’s finished, we’ll start to move forward towards the workup cycle as we start to really explore the capability and start to build a much deeper understanding of what we can and can’t achieve.”
The Canberra class is based on the Spanish Buque de Proyección Estratégica (Strategic Projection Ship) design from Navantia, one example of which is in service with the Armada Español as the L61 King Juan Carlos I.
The design was selected to fulfil Project JP2048 Phase 4 ahead of a competing ship from France’s DCN which offered a vessel based on its Mistral design, two of which are currently in service with the French Marine Nationale, with two more under construction for the Russian navy.
Navantia teamed up with Tenix Defence (now part of BAE Systems Australia) for the tender, and the selection of the Navantia design was announced by then Defence Minister Dr Brendan Nelson in June 2007. The vessels’ hulls were to be built by Navantia in Spain, with the island superstructure and systems integration work to be completed by BAE at its Williamstown facility in Melbourne.
The first steel for ALHD01 was cut in September 2008, and the first three hull blocks were laid down in September 2010. The completed hull was launched in February 2012, and it was transported to Australia in August-October 2012 aboard the heavy lift vessel MV Blue Marlin. After its fitout, NUSHIP Canberra commenced contractor sea trials in March 2014 before being handed over to the Navy in September.
In the meantime, work on ALHD02 (which will become HMAS Adelaide) commenced in February 2010. The hull was launched in July 2012, and was transported to Williamstown aboard the MV Blue Marlin in January and February 2014. Despite being scheduled to enter service in mid-2015, this is likely to be delayed to later that year or early 2016.
While Canberra is the lead ship of the class, the two vessels’ pennant numbers have been reversed in service – Canberra wears L02 and Adelaide will wear L01 – in order to correspond with the numbers worn by their previous Adelaide class FFG namesakes.
Measuring 231m in length and with a beam of 32m, the LHDs will displace 27,500 tonnes at full load. They have a relatively shallow draft of only 7.1m, allowing them to operate in shallow littoral waters.
The LHDs have a fully electric backbone, and are propelled by two Siemens 11 megawatt (15,000hp) pod thrusters which each drive two 4.5m diameter propellers in a push/pull configuration. Both pods are positioned above the keel’s deepest point. Power for the vessels is provided by a single GE LM2500 gas turbine which produces 19,160kW (25,690hp), as well as two MAN 16V32/40 diesel generators which each provide 7,448kW (9,988hp) of power. This provides the LHD not only with sufficient power for its own requirements, but also gives it the ability to plug into a small city’s power grid and ‘export’ power back into that grid for disaster relief support operations.
“The best way to look at it is we run a network a bit like a power grid,” CMDR Dave Walter, Canberra’s commander engineer, told Australian Defence Business Review. “The power generated by the gas turbine and the diesel generators runs through a grid arrangement, which provides electricity to the ship including the thruster pods and bow thrusters. It generates roughly the same power capacity as a city of 50,000 people. The ship is designed to be fully operational and fully functional with 2,000-plus people continuously, and then you have the heavy industries of the ship on top of that. We also produce about a million litres of fresh water a day which we can also export.”
CMDR Walter added that, although the Navantia engineering design has been used as the baseline for Canberra and Adelaide, most of the systems have been changed or upgraded to Australian specifications. He added that he and his equivalent on NUSHIP Adelaide are working to ensure the two LHDs will be identical, “almost down to the washer!”
Without provisioning, the Canberra has a range of 17,000km at an economical cruise speed of 15 knots, it has a sustainable full-load speed of 19 knots, and it can maintain full directional control while reversing at up to eight knots. The ship’s complement will typically number 358, comprised of 293 Navy, 62 Army and three RAAF personnel. But this number can grow to 1,400 (or over 2,000 in overload conditions) with amphibious forces and an air group embarked. To this end, the Australian Army has nominated 2RAR as the future core of its marine amphibious force, so it is likely that regiment and its equipment will be spending considerable time embarked on the ship during its workup over the next year.
The ship’s permanent Army personnel are tasked to maintain the vessel’s vehicle and aircraft facilities on board but also have key engineering and other roles, while the three RAAF personnel are air traffic controllers from 41WG attached to the ship’s air group. The commander of the air group is CMDR Paul Maggoch, commonly referred to as ‘Wings’ aboard ship. The mix of personnel from all three services operating alongside each other is a key step in the ADF’s push towards a truly integrated force, as laid out in Chief of Air Force AIRMSHL Geoff Brown’s ‘Plan Jericho’.
The ship features a large lower rear well-dock which is 70 metres long and 17m wide and which can accommodate four Navantia LCM-1E LHD landing craft (LCC). Immediately forward of the well-dock is a full-width ramp up to the 1,880m2 heavy vehicle deck which can accommodate 60 vehicles or 196 shipping containers. Additionally, two side ramps allow for loading of the heavy vehicle deck from dockside.
On the forward port side of the heavy vehicle deck is another ramp up to the 1,440m2 hangar and light vehicle deck which can accommodate eight to 12 helicopters and up to 50 vehicles. The hangar deck will typically be split with 990m2 assigned to the aircraft, although as many as 18 helicopters can be accommodated in the hangar if the light vehicle deck is utilised. Ammunition bunkerage is provided at the forward end of the lower heavy vehicle deck, co-located with the forward elevator to the hangar and main decks.
The most common helicopter type to be embarked will be the MRH 90 utility and transport, although S-70B Seahawk and later MH-60R Romeo Seahawks will also be commonly embarked, as well as less frequent visits by Army CH-47F Chinooks and ARH Tigers. It is not currently planned to embark the new EC135 training helicopters being acquired under AIR 9000 Phase 7.
The flightdeck measures 202m in length and features six landing spots for MRH 90s or Seahawks, or four for the larger CH-47F. The forward aircraft elevator is located on the starboard side immediately forward of the island superstructure alongside a smaller dedicated ammunition and stores elevator, while a second aircraft elevator from the hangar deck is located at the aft end of the flightdeck.
The ship’s combat system is a Saab 9LV MkIV system which is common to the RAN’s Anzac frigates as well as Sweden’s Visby frigates, and which features an open architecture for ease of integration of upgrades and new systems throughout the life of the vessel. The primary sensor is the Saab Sea Giraffe AMB radar which can simultaneously track aircraft up to 70,000 feet, sea-skimming missiles, and small surface targets such as swarming boats. Organic armament includes four Rafael Typhoon 25mm remote guns augmented by Rafael Toplite stabilised EO/IR sensor turrets. Provision has been made for at least two close-in weapons systems (CIWS) such as the Phalanx or Goalkeeper systems if required, although it is believed no such systems have been ordered.
The RAN is also acquiring 12 LCM-1E amphibious watercraft from Navantia under Project JP2048 Phase 3. To be dubbed LCC in RAN service, these vessels will provide organic ship to shore transport from the LHDs when port facilities are not available, or for amphibious landings. To date, four LCCs have been delivered to HMAS Waterhen in Sydney, with a second batch of four due to be delivered in early 2015. Six LCCs will be assigned to both Canberra and Adelaide, with four able to be embarked at any one time.
The Navy is not expected to waste any time commencing its own trials and workup of the Canberra, with CAPT Sadleir telling ADBR he expected to be at sea within a week of the commissioning.
“We are looking towards proceeding to sea as soon as possible and knocking over some key milestones as quickly as we can,” he said. “We’re starting to get ready for first of class trials, and trying to build the experience level of not only ourselves but also Sea Training Group (STG) and some of those other agencies that assist us in moving forward.”
The first of class trials will see the first aircraft embarked aboard the vessel, and will explore and expand the flight envelopes for those aircraft operating from the ship. Initially just two deck landing spots will be utilised as the air group gains experience, and this will be gradually expanded to four and later to the full six.
CAPT Sadleir added that, while he wasn’t totally sure of what an initial operating capability would look like, he hoped to be available for operations from late 2015. “But really, that’s not my focus right now,” he said. “My focus is to get this initial capability up and running so that we can provide the best service to government as soon as we can. I think the decisions about what we say to government at various stages about when we’re good to go will be up to the Chief of Navy based on his assessment of our capability at any given time. To tie it to an acronym is not as accurate as tying it to the experience and leadership of those who can make that decision and recommendations to government.”
ADBR understands that HMAS Canberra has been pencilled in to participate in the RIMPAC 16 maritime exercise in Hawaii, and to this end will have conducted cross-decking operations with US Marine Corps aircraft and amphibious vessels before this time.
Political ambitions to possibly acquire a brace of Lockheed Martin F-35B short takeoff and landing (STOVL) aircraft to utilise the vessels’ considerable bulk and further enhance its capabilities have been variously supported and opposed by industry groups, informed commentators and think tanks in recent months. While there is general consensus that modifications would need to be made to the LHDs to operate the F-35B, estimates of the scope, cost and required timing of these modifications vary greatly. While there is believed to be little appetite for such a capability within Defence, it is expected the 2015 Defence White Paper process will better inform about this.
This article first appeared in the November-December 2014 issue of Australian Defence Business Review.