In June 2018 the Commonwealth announced that nine new frigates, based on the BAE Systems UK Type 26 Global Combat Ship (GCS) were to be built for the Royal Australian Navy in South Australia under Project SEA 5000. Rather ambitiously, first steel was to be cut in 2022.
Ambitious, because this is a brand new design. Work on the first Type 26 for the UK’s Royal Navy only started in July 2018 and, at the time, Australia didn’t have a shipyard suitable for construction of the new vessels.
But that shipyard is under construction and Craig Lockhart, managing director of ASC Shipbuilding, says they’re right on track to begin prototyping in 2020. And, although he’s not nominating a firm date for a ceremonial button pressing for plasma cutting of a section of steel plate, he predicts it will be around December 2022.
“From mid to late next year we start really looking at prototyping,” he told ADBR. “We have selected a number of keel blocks and a number of mid-section blocks and we have picked them at levels of different complexity.
“We are taking the five blocks and intend to run those blocks through the shipyard from a full design reference, to work cards on the shop floor right through to production, as a way of testing the shipyard processes,” he added. “It’s a chance for us to break things. We want to test it in a controlled environment where we are not too worried about getting it wrong.”
Lockhart says these will be fully finished blocks, but they will not form part of the first ship. “This will be a way of testing the technology transfer, a way of testing the shipyard processes, and a way of testing our readiness, but also it gives the supply chain a much earlier engagement,” he said.
For that to occur a shipyard is needed, and construction of the new $500 million facility is well underway at Osborne, where Collins class submarines and Hobart class DDGs were built, and where the first two SEA 1180 offshore patrol vessels (OPVs) are now under construction.
Once completed, this will be the most modern shipyard in the world, and Lockhart said those building Type 26s for the Royal Navy at historic yards in Glasgow were deeply envious of the new facilities
“For the first time, Australia has invested in a tailored and unique ship build facility, where raw materials come in one side, straight into the unit build hall where panel lines and plasma cutters will start to shape sheet metal and build units,” Lockhart said.
“The units will then transfer into the block build hall and be created into blocks. Then assembled blocks will go into the assembly hall where we will have the capability to bring two ships alive at once.”
That’s different to how the three SEA 4000 AWDs were built. Hull blocks were constructed at Forgacs in Newcastle, BAE Systems at Williamstown, and by ASC at Osborne. They were then assembled into complete ships and fitted out in Osborne.
Construction of all the Hunter class hull sections at Osborne means the work isn’t shared around as much to others, but the supply chain will still have significant opportunities to participate.
On the plus side, building everything in the same locations requires less concentration on “dimensional control policies,” one of many issues which plagued the AWD program where blocks manufactured in different yards didn’t always fit together.
The AWD project, now all but completed, encountered numerous problems and ran late and over budget. Only towards the end and after major reforms which brought ship designer Navantia fully into the build process, did this project demonstrate productivity approaching world standards.
Lockhart says although they’re building a new design in a new shipyard, they aren’t starting with a completely clean sheet. “There has certainly been a proper and good discussion in the contract negotiations referencing learning from the AWD program. That’s a very positive thing to do,” he said. “We accept that we will learn lessons from AWD.”
Last year was a very good year for BAE Systems and its Global Combat Ship design. First Australia chose the UK design to eventually replace the RAN’s eight ANZAC frigates with nine new vessels.
Soon after construction of the first of eight ships for the RN began in July. Then in October, Canada announced it had chosen the GCS as its new Canadian Surface Combatant, with 15 to be constructed in partnership with Lockheed Martin in Canada.
That makes a global fleet of 32 warships and, as success begets success, there could well be more than these three programs. New Zealand will soon need to replace its two ANZAC frigates, the second and fourth of the 10 ANZACs constructed at Williamstown between 1993 and 2006.
The New Zealand Defence White Paper forecast that the two ships would remain in service to around 2030, so they would have to start considering replacements around 2023-24.
So could Australian-made Hunters be exported?
“While construction on the first of the UK’s City class Type 26 ships gathers pace, we are confident that the Global Combat Ship has further potential for export and would be a strong candidate should there be future international competitions for a class of anti-submarine warship.” Lockhart said.
“The challenge for ASC shipbuilding and the Australian government is to make sure we deliver against the Hunter program (schedule), and the Type 26 program and that track record will stand for itself.”
The Commonwealth signed the head contract with BAE Systems Australia last December. But even before that, in October BAE signed an Advanced Work Arrangement to allow preliminary processes to begin.
In July 2019, the project passed its first major milestone, the Systems Readiness Review (SRR) in which ASC Shipbuilding, BAE Systems UK, and the Commonwealth assessed design maturity.
“We are being paid against a set of design milestone we have agreed with the Commonwealth,” Lockhart said. “We are working in a collaborative way to achieve them and SRR was one of those first steps and that’s why I am confident in saying we are bang on schedule.”
BAE Systems Australia already has around 400 people employed in the Hunter program, split around between Australia and the UK.
“We have about 40 Australians living in Glasgow and fully integrated not only with the mobilisation aspects of Hunter, but getting heavily involved in the detailed design and construction of Type 26,” Lockhart said.
“They are learning how the reference ship is coming together and are compiling the technology transfer,” he added. “We have a couple of hundred people in Adelaide and in Melbourne who are bringing the early design phase together with the customer. We are bang on schedule. We are where we should be at this point in a complex warship design and build program.”
The Hunters will the first Australian warship designed and constructed to a wholly digital design.
That gives unprecedented opportunity for design changes to be instantly standardised between the UK and Australia, for integration of new or different features, for tracking of every production item, and for maintaining integrity for key design criteria such as the noise and vibration quota, vital for an anti-submarine warfare platform.
However, Hunter will be different from Type 26 in key areas. Australia has mandated the Australian CEA phased array radar, Lockheed Martin Aegis combat system and the SAAB Australian Tactical Interface.
But on the UK’s ships, the key sensor will be the BAE Systems Type 997 Artisan radar. Both designs feature the US Mark 41 vertical launch system, but different weapons. Hunter will be armed with US ESSM and SM-2 missiles, while Type 26 with the European MBDA SeaCeptor.
The Canadian vessels will be different again. The prime contractor is Irving Shipbuilding which awarded the contract to Lockheed Martin Canada. The key system will be the Canadian Combat Management System 330, which includes elements of the Saab 9LV, based on the system aboard Canada’s modernised Halifax-class frigates..
For Australia, the CEA radar and Aegis/Saab combat system drives considerable change in the ship design. “It is a bigger radar, it uses more power,” explained Lockhart. “That gives us a challenge of how we configure it inside. Obviously we have the US Aegis combat system which different from the UK.
“Between Lockheed Martin and Saab, our two partners, we have a busy time in the combat management space identifying how we integrate Aegis, the depth of the Australian interface, and how that integrates with the rest of the ship.”
There are other changes which fall under the general heading of design Australianisation, for example while the RN doesn’t see a collision alarm as necessary, the RAN does.
Then there’s configuration of the ops room, including screen layouts and who sits where. The hangar deck layout will be different as Australia operates different helicopters. Power outlets will of course be Australian not UK standard.
However, much will be the same – the hull, powerplant and ship management system. “We are trying not to limit change,” Lockhart said. “The Lloyds certification for a class of ship in the UK is broadly the same as the Lloyds classification for a ship in Australia.
“Where it has that classification and acceptance standard, we will not seek to change, and we are not pursuing the Australian defcon standard if Type 26 has an approved Naval Standard as the reference design,” he added.
“But we are building new processes as we go through in terms of how we manage the design review between us. That is a challenge for everyone. We have two teams working with different systems knowledge and different experience, but we are bringing them together and making it work.”
Less than six months passed between the Commonwealth’s June announcement that BAE’s design was the winner to contract signature in December. That’s a remarkably short period for a project of this size, duration, and complexity, and contrasts with the protracted period of negotiations with Naval Group for design and construction of the SEA 1000 Attack class submarines.
For the Hunters, the Commonwealth has actually contracted with ASC Shipbuilding, previously a division of the Commonwealth-owned ASC. Under the deal with BAE Systems Australia, ASC Shipbuilding structurally separated from ASC and became a subsidiary of BAE Systems Australia, with the Commonwealth retaining an interest.
To build the Hunters, a workforce will be needed and that has greatly diminished from the peak of the AWD project, courtesy of the ‘Valley of Death’ – as the work has wound down, there’s been no alternative but to lay off skilled workers.
Right now, the only shipbuilding under way at Osborne is residual work on the AWDs and construction by ASC Shipbuilding of the first two new Arafura class OPVs. With completion of the two Arafuras, the South Australian component of SEA 1180 ends next year after which the project relocates to Henderson in Western Australia.
The government’s decision to split the OPV build between SA and WA was initially criticised as a clunky solution to the workforce problem, one which would just add cost and complexity. When that occurs, ASC Shipbuilding will get its workers back just in time for the Hunter prototyping phase.
So now that decision is actually starting to look pretty inspired. The 100 workers engaged on the OPV project actually hold Australia’s most recent actual shipbuilding experience across a range of skills including design, fabrication, and supply chain management.
At the peak, the Hunter program will engage 2,400 employees, and will create and sustain more than 5,000 jobs throughout BAE Systems, ASC Shipbuilding and the defence industry supply chain.
Lockhart said, as the project proceeded it would become tougher to find those with the required engineering and systems skills. “It is part of the challenge to develop that skill base over the long term,” he said. “We are on target. We are doing really well but we have got to move from just being what I would call a South Australian focus to a truly national focus.
“We are tapping into and having good conversation with lots of universities and lots of TAFEs from Western Australian to NSW to Victoria in an attempt to get them aligned to our needs.
“Realistically we are going to have kids who have not yet started school hopefully work at some point on this program. Getting them turned on to the STEM agenda is a big issue for us because I have to think about the next 20 years worth of capability.”
This is a long recognised challenge and not just for defence industry, but Lockhart says the situation is definitely improving.
“Not only is the number improving but the mix is improving,” he said. “We are seeing many more female students interested in science and engineering subjects and we can measure that through our graduate intake.”
At the end of the project, Australia will gain nine very advanced warships, but building new warships for Australia is just part of the government’s plan. The over-arching ambition is to develop a sovereign shipbuilding capability, with the ability to design and build our own ships.
For that Australia needs a Naval Shipbuilding Strategy which is now under development. “I have just reviewed the first draft,” Lockhart said. “We are in early discussions with the customer on what that looks like. That will set the future program for decades to come.
“How we bring it alive is the detailed naval shipbuilding strategy itself,” he added. “It started with a series of questions. We converted that into something we refer to as a definition document.
“It is the early stages of being able to develop that with the customer, which sets up long-term decision – how many ships, to what drumbeat, to what standard, and to what technology are we going to try to build to, and even considering how we fully develop Australian industrial capability.
“By the end of this decade, we need to be a in a position as a sovereign nation to be able to undertake concept design, scheme designs and full detail designs with the capability we have available on these shores.
So what if Australia decided it needed a new type of vessel such as an aircraft carrier? Lockhart said that would start with concept designs. “We would then work with the government on systems definition and requirements. If we got agreement that met the capability requirement, we would then have a contract that went into full scheme and detailed design development,” he said.
“It’s about having the processes, the system, the tools and the know-how on how to do that and bring it alive,” he added. “That’s a big part of this contract – to transfer that knowledge – 100 years worth of shipbuilding knowledge in BAE Systems on the Clyde, and bring it alive over here.”
But BAE Systems and ASC Shipbuilding aren’t doing the Hunters on their own. Many other Australian firms will be involved in the supply chain. Already seven Australian firms are supplying equipment for Type 26 in the UK.
In June ASC and BAE Systems hosted their supply chain conference with some 170 suppliers. In July, a get together of industry, research centres and universities showcased future innovation and technology for the Hunter project.
“The good thing is when we do events like the (showcase) and the supply chain conference…for ourselves as prime contractors, we get to find out things we didn’t know existed in the SME market,” Lockhart said. “There’s lots of innovation in companies, doing really good stuff that we are just not aware of. Even at the basic level, connecting company A with company B has been a valuable exercise.”
Right now ASC Shipbuilding is working with 10 primary equipment suppliers. These include companies such as Rolls-Royce which produces the MT30 gas turbines for Type 26 in the UK. And Rolls-Royce owns MTU which manufactures the ship’s diesel engines.
Could this type of equipment be made in Australia? “Some of those suppliers, like Rolls-Royce are looking at this as a 20 to 30 year program and looking to make that commitment and investment either to initially licence, but then ultimately to manufacture out of Australia,” Lockhart said.
Many other Australian companies are interested in this project, unsurprising as it’s worth $36 billion and will run for decades. That includes four Australian indigenous-run companies, with ASC Shipbuilding working with the Indigenous Defence and Infrastructure Consortium (IDIC) to get them on board.
ASC Shipbuilding sees the Australian industry community in three categories; those firms ready to work on the Hunter project right now, those which could be ready with some help and guidance on contracting procedures, and those which have some interesting capabilities but don’t yet make the grade.
“But we are going to give them some help to move them down that journey,” he said.
This feature appeared in the September-October 2019 issue of ADBR