AUSTRALIA’S NAVAL BUILD UP EXPLAINED
The current Chief of Navy, Vice Admiral Michael Noonan, AO, took up his position on 6 July, 2018. With previous postings as the Deputy Chief and also head of Border Force, he is now not only in the job at a time of enormous activity, but also while one of the largest peacetime increases in Australian naval capability is taking place. He was kind enough to bring APDR up to date on a variety of topics.
Kym: Looking at the year that’s gone, what have
been the major activities for Navy? And what do
you anticipate happening in 2020?
Admiral Noonan: I think it would be fair to say 2019
has been yet another busy year for us overall – with a
lot of that activity going very well. A quick run around
the bazaars: we’ve had our ongoing commitment
to Operation Resolute, the standing operation for
maritime border security. We’ve had consistently five
to six boats in that program all year.
Then there is our ongoing commitment to Middle
East operations through Operation Manitou. We
saw HMAS Ballarat up there for a good part of the
back end of last year and into this year. They had
some very significant activity with respect to drug
interdiction – including a couple of record drug hauls.
Closer to home, we saw the Indo-Pacific Endeavour
2019 activity with a significant presence of five ships
and almost 1200 Defence personnel visit seven
countries in the region – which was a great activity.
This is now the third time that we’ve done the Indo-
However, the most significant change, Kym, has
been the Government shift in terms of focus to the
region, especially since October last year when the
Government committed to the Pacific Step Up. The
ramifications for Navy are that we have now had
an almost continuous presence in the Southwest
Pacific. Since February this year I’ve had a vessel
in Papua New Guinea waters – and I’ve had at least
a second vessel, if not more, operating through the
I think that’s going to be part of the new normal
going forward. So, 2019 started busy, and it got
busier. With respect to next year, I would expect that
we will build upon all of those activities. I believe some
highlights of that will be that the Pacific step-up will
be maintained and we will do another Indo-Pacific
Endeavour. Regarding other major exercises, 2020
will be a RIMPAC year so we will deploy a number of
ships to Exercise RIMPAC.
At home, we will host exercise Kakadu off Northern
Australia in the July – August timeframe next year.
Most significantly, Kym, we’ve seen the Prime
Minister’s announcement last month, with respect
to Australia’s involvement in the US led International
Maritime Security Construct. What this means for
our Navy is that HMAS Toowoomba will deploy to the
Persian Gulf in January next year.
We’re likely to see her employed in that maritime
security role, which will be defined over the coming
months. But it will be a shift in the focus in employment
of that frigate from what would have been activities
with Combined Task Force 150, which has been
focussed around the counter narcotic and counter
illicit material and arms trade to what is going to be
a new focused operation around providing security
and escort duties around shipping – namely fuel
tankers transiting the Strait of Hormuz.
Kym: I assume that Navy will continue to support
Australian border security operations as well, just
as part of your normal activities?
Admiral Noonan: Yes, absolutely Kym. There’s
no foreseeable change to that occurring – and our
commitment to that remains enduring. Of course as
we look to introducing future capabilities – particularly
the offshore patrol vessels – we want to ensure they
are designed with that enduring commitment in mind.
Kym: Just that quick overview indicates that you
have a lot happening – and I assume that you
have to keep something in reserve to deal with
Admiral Noonan: Yes, that’s very astute, Kym –
what I just described to you is largely what has been
our off-the-Australian-station commitment. On top of
this, we have other national commitments in terms
of not just responding to crises or exercises, but the
day-to-day raise, train and sustain commitments we
have, which have typically seen between 20 and 27
ships at sea at any one time through 2019.
Kym: That’s impressive.
Admiral Noonan: Which means every day,
we’ve had somewhere between 2,000 and 2,700
Australian men and women at sea from our Navy.
This represents a significant proportion of our overall
force in terms of our sustained commitment. So yes,
we’re pretty busy at the moment.
Kym: It certainly sounds like it. Turning to
acquisitions, you have at least three major
programs underway: OPVs, future submarines
and future frigates. It is a long time since so many
large projects were running in parallel. Does this
give rise to particular challenges?
Admiral Noonan: I think in terms of the magnitude of
what we’re doing, you’re spot on, it is unprecedented.
In terms of overall capability, clearly this is the
single biggest capitalisation of the Navy since the
Second World War. But even back then, we weren’t
doing things like building submarines in parallel with
frigates and other vessels.
So in terms of challenge, absolutely it’s a huge
challenge. But it’s a challenge that I share with
my colleagues in the Capability and Sustainment
Group. I share that challenge with the Australian
ship building industry. I share that challenge with the
Estate and Infrastructure Group who are responsible
for providing the shore support services.
And to a large degree I also share that challenge
with my colleagues in the Air Force and Army as
many of these capabilities will have tri-service usage
as we develop them. In some cases the Acceptance
Authorities, the Test and Evaluation Authorities,
come from other parts of Defence as well.
So while I’m certainly not at all trivialising the
challenge that we have, I do feel both excited by it
– and I’m also well supported across the enterprise.
As we look at Governments’ commitment to it, and
the amount of the resource that they are putting into
not just the Navy but the entire Defence enterprise at
this very important time, I think it really does underpin
the Governments’ commitment to the ADF, and also
their understanding of what is the evolving strategic
context Australia finds itself in.
Kym: All three of these major acquisitions are
in the relatively early stages. Are there any
headaches or standouts?
Admiral Noonan: I think that in terms of the three
major programs, look they’re in great shape. With the
OPVs, the first two are being built in South Australia,
and we’ll see the third through to the 12th vessel
commence production in Western Australia next
year. So that’s a great news story. I think in absolute
terms, there is very little risk to that program.
The Hunter class frigates – I’m very comfortable
with where we’re at with the build of those. Obviously,
part of developing that capability is building the
shipyard where the frigates will be constructed. That
yard will be up and running early next year. And also
later next year we’ll start the prototyping of the first
hull for the Hunter class and then we’ll split the build
with the first ship commencing in 2022.
So in terms of de-risking activities and industry’s
engagement, we’re very well advanced. And of
course we have the ability to learn lessons through
BAE Systems construction of HMS Glasgow,
happening in Scotland as we speak. We’ve had
regular contact there – I visited that dockyard late
I certainly took away some great insights
in terms of things that we need to be planning for in
our Navy.Rear Admiral Pete Quinn, my Head of Navy
Capability, was there only last week. And so we’re
asking tough questions, but we’re asking the right
questions of BAE – and that’s all designed around
ensuring that we are a very informed customer and
we are taking a hands-on approach.
Turning to the Attack class: there is not a day that
goes by that I don’t think or talk about submarines.
That project is pretty exciting too, in terms of what
it represents for our Navy and the nation. Certainly
it’s complex. It’s ambitious, but it’s absolutely vital.
The process that we’ve gone to, to get to where we
are now has been very, very robust indeed. Design
work for that submarine is proceeding very well.
I expect that we will see construction of NUSHIP
Attack commencing in 2023. And we’ll take delivery
of that first submarine in the early 2030s.
In parallel with that, we’ve now got both of the two
new supply ships in the water. They’re being built in
Spain, with the second of those vessels launched
just a few weeks ago. The first ship will be HMAS
Supply, and we’ll take delivery of the capability in the
first half of next year.
Kym: I guess sometimes we forget about the
supply ships because they’re not bristling with
weapons, but they’re a pretty important part of
the overall mix.
Admiral Noonan: Absolutely. In terms of being able
to achieve and maintain the mission that I’ve set for
our Navy in 2022, it’s all about being able to conduct
sustained operations as part of the joint force. And
that sustained increase absolutely is underpinned by
not just our national logistics mechanisms, but also
our ability to replenish our ships at sea from things
like our tanking ships.
Kym: As an aside, I was lucky enough to spend
a few days on board ESPS Cantabria for a NATO
electronic warfare exercise a couple of years ago.
Admiral Noonan: Well that’s great Kym, and
given your firsthand experience, which is even more
current than mine, I look forward to reading your very
impressive summary of the capabilities of our new
oilers! The Spanish have been terrific in terms of their
support for the realisation of our own capability.
In 2013, Cantabria spent three or four months in
Australia and we received a great understanding of
the capability of the ship and in the lead up to taking
delivery of Supply we’ll have a small team over there
learning how to operate her as well.
Kym: I understand you are particularly interested
in the Air Warfare Destroyers?
Admiral Noonan: Yes, and I hope it’s something
your readers are interested in! I’m absolutely
thrilled with the progress that we’ve made with the
Hobart class destroyers. I was able to declare initial
operating capabilities for HMAS Hobart earlier this
year. And that was after she deployed to the West
Coast of the US late last year and conducted her
combat system sea qualification trials.
I would go as far as saying the results of those
trials exceeded our expectations in a number of
areas. Hobart’s now back in Australia, and she’s just
completed her first maintenance cycle, following her
IOC declaration. What that’s allowed her to do is to
conduct some complex missile firings off the East
Coast of Australia.
What that now allows me to do is certify her to
deploy off the Australian station. She will do that
as part of a task group in the September – October
period. I’m really proud that Hobart will lead the
Australian task group into the South China Sea and
will also participate in the Japanese Fleet Review
soon after that.
In terms of the second ship – Brisbane – she
commissioned last year. She sailed out a month
ago on her way to the US to do a similar set of
certification trials to Hobart. Ultimately she will be
ready to deploy operationally from about the start of
The third ship NUSHIP Sydney, she’s well
advanced, she’s about 90% crewed and complete,
so we’re looking to accept her later this year and
commissioned her into Navy service early next year.
They’ve been a tremendous success in terms of the
delivery of those programs – and their operational
performance has been absolutely first class.
Kym: I had a look at Sydney earlier this year when
the decision had been taken to incorporate the
MH-60R helicopter modifications while she was
Admiral Noonan: Yes – I took a deliberate decision
to recommend to Government to leave her there a
little bit longer, and get those mods in, which really
ramps up the overall final operational capability of the
class by about nine months.
Kym: Next on my list is the Collins life extension
program. There seems to be some uncertainty
about numbers: whether it will be five or six. Can
you clear that up?
Admiral Noonan: It’s not my decision to make,
Kym. Ultimately it’s a decision for Government – and
my recommendation has been that we upgrade at
least five of the six. I’ll let analysts and reporters
continue to debate that. Ultimately the point that I’d
underline around the Life Extension Program is that
it’s fully funded.
The capabilities that we will put into that boat are
two fold. One is ensuring that the capability of the
Collins class remains at the cutting edge, and also
that we’re de-risking capabilities that we will build
into the Attack class. Now, at some point there a
funding envelope will dictate the number of boats
that we upgrade, but also the nature of the systems
that we put into that life of type extension.
I’m very confident that those boats will continue
to serve us at the high end of submarine capability
until we see the introduction of the Attack class. But
clearly some of the details around what systems,
and how many boats we extend are yet to be
decided by Government.
The current plan is that the first boat will
commence the life extension program as part of its
full cycle docking in 2024.
Kym: Now, to personnel. How are things looking
there? I recall reading a report recently of an
Anzac frigate being tied up because of a crew
shortage. Can you clarify what is going on there?
Admiral Noonan: Sure – it’s absolutely my
single most important focus is our people and
our workforce. In terms of the ship that you’ve
described, that’s HMAS Perth. She’s not tied up,
she’s out of the water. She’s actually sitting on the
hardstand at the Henderson facility in Western
Australia and she’s been there for two years.
She’s now part of the Anzac capability upgrade
program – so in terms of absolute manning, she
wouldn’t be manned at this point anyway. But my
predecessor took the decision to put Perth into
extended availability on the requirement that we
simply didn’t have the complete workforce to man
her in a sustainable way.
We could’ve put that ship to sea, and it would’ve
been probably at around about a 70% manning
level – and that would have seen good people
overworked, and a capability not fully realised.
So part of a very deliberate strategy that we have
been enacting now for the last two years is about
rebuilding our workforce. I’m delighted to say that
the inroads that we’ve made over the last 12 months
have been significant in terms of our workforce
I monitor the health of our workforce daily – and
each fortnight as we pay our people, I track our
numbers. Last Thursday, we paid 14,682 people.
Which highlights the steady growth that we’ve
enjoyed over the last 12 months, which has been
about a nett increase of 700 people overall.
But there’s two things to add: as you’ve alluded
to, we’ve had workforce shortages and part of my
biggest challenge is that we’ve got a Navy workforce
that’s been critically hollow in the mid ranks. I’m
about a 1,000 people short the ranks of Leading
Seaman to Petty Officer, Lieutenant Commander.
So while recruiting is going gangbusters at the
moment, overall, it will still take time to rebuild the
experience off the Navy to get us to the full, currently
authorised strength. I expect that we will hit the
authorised strength of our Navy, which is currently
14,774. We’ll hit that pretty soon.
But in terms of being sustainable, and being able
to deploy capability, we need to get experience and
depth back in the workforce.
That’s going to require two things. I need to
continue to grow the workforce. And I need to work
very hard at retaining the men and women whose
skills we rely upon every day.
So we’ve undertaken a number of very targeted retention initiatives to
ensure that we provide a great opportunity for
people to continue to serve beyond what has
become an average length of service of around
about seven years.
That seven year average is not sustainable in
terms of the future capabilities that we’ve got
coming towards us. As part of the force structure
planning activity that’s currently under way through
the Department, one of the biggest things that I’ve
put on the table, is to grow the Navy workforce. And
how I’ve gone about that is through careful analysis
of what our future fleet looks like.
We have to plan for how we will look in 2035 –
and we’ve got a very clear understanding of what
the fleet is going to look like. We’ve probably got a
less certain view of what we’ll be doing. But some
of those things that we spoke about at the start of
the interview, gives you a sense of where I think
we’re going. And so my belief, and my advice to
Government is that we need to significantly increase
the number of people in our Navy.
I’ve stood up a new directorate within Navy that’s
absolutely committed to understanding what our
future workforce needs to look like. And developing
those strategies to ensure that we can achieve it
once we get approval from government to grow.
Kym: A supplementary question on that,
because it’s obviously a vital topic. Do you have
an ultimate figure in mind of how much larger
you’ll need to be in terms of personnel say at the
end of the decade when platforms like the future
frigate and the future submarines start to come
Admiral Noonan: The Director General Future
Navy Workforce and his team have commenced
detailed analysis of this very question, and I will
be seeking to provide input to the force structure
planning process currently being led by the Vice
Chief of Defence Force in the coming months. But
it would be fair to say that I expect that the Navy
will need to grow in the coming years in order to
fully exploit the capabilities which will be delivered,
which I expect Navy to be directed by Government
Kym: There has been a bit of publicity about
networking Air Force and Army assets – is that
just as important for the RAN?
Admiral Noonan: Bottom line, absolutely! In as
much, Kym, as that we don’t deploy as a Navy, we
deploy as part of a joint force. This is certainly the
case if you’re looking at it through experiences such
as the recent Exercise Talisman Sabre. If you peel
back what we achieved out of that exercise, it was
all about being part of a networked enabled force.
We were actually operating the two LHDs together
for the very first time – and that has allowed me now
to progress towards the final operating capability of
the LHD platform. But moreover, we’re talking about
the amphibious ready group – and that’s all about
command and control and networks.
It’s all about being able to plan in an aggregated way. Sharing
information between land systems, air systems and
maritime systems. That really is now the way that we
do business. The end state for me, as I reflected earlier,
in terms of Plan Pelorus 2022 is about being able to
conduct those sustained operations in the joint force.
The things that we are looking at in terms of future
Navy and maritime capabilities, are well beyond
even networking. The opportunities around cyber;
around advanced ICT systems; around space;
around satellite protocols.
We’re thinking about those every day. Even some
of the trials that HMAS Brisbane will conduct during
her time in the US, will be a step up from what
Hobart’s done previously in terms of their networked
abilities. In terms of sharing targeting information
from the third party and real-time activities that
absolutely make full use of the electro-magnetic
Kym: Any final messages? I assume you will be
looking forward to discussing this at the Pacific
Admiral Noonan: Yes – and my only final comment
would be to say thanks for this opportunity – and
certainly going forward in the context of the Sea
Power Conference and Exhibition, I’m delighted that
we’ve got this opportunity to engage with industry
and engage with our academic colleagues – who I
now see as being not just part of the commentary,
but they’re truly integrated partners in the capability
that the Navy is fielding.
I see this relationship developing in the future –
and certainly my hopes and expectations for this
upcoming Sea Power Conference is that everybody
leaves feeling that they are part of a very important
time of our Navy’s history.
And I certainly look forward to receiving advice – I
get plenty of that!
Kym: Thank you for your time – and see you there.