LHDs powering along.

 Kym Bergmann / Canberra

Given the recent very public problems with the Navy’s existing amphibious ships, there are high hopes that the 2 Landing Helicopter Docks (LHDs) currently under construction will be more than adequate replacements. And at a mid-way point in the programme, work seems to be progressing extremely well. Despite still having some way to go – especially with a few complex electronic systems integration issues coming up – all of the contractors spoken to by APDR expressed quiet satisfaction about how successful the programme has been to date.

The hull of the first LHD – HMAS Canberra – was launched in February and a mere 24 hours later the keel was being laid for the second ship – HMAS Adelaide – at Spanish firm Navantia’s yard in Ferrol. In Australia, the prime contractor BAE Systems started work several weeks ago on the superstructure sections, which will be lifted onto the hull when it arrives in Australia next year to complete the build. This will take place at the Williamstown yard in Melbourne – builder of the Navy’s excellent work-horse the ANZAC Frigates – and already steel modules weighing up to 300 tonnes each are starting to take shape.

BAE Systems says that their project team numbers 150 and there are an additional 100 works presently engaged in the superstructure work. This number will increase dramatically once the first hull has arrived from Spain on a heavy lift ship. It will need to be an exceedingly large transporter, because each hull is 230 metres long and 32 metres wide – making them by far the largest ships the Navy will ever have operated. When finished they will weigh over 27,000 tonnes and be able to transport almost a thousand troops, a dozen helicopters and a huge amount of equipment more than 9,000 nautical miles.

Work on the crucial electronics contracts are also reported to making good progress. The Command & Control ‘kernel’ is a version of the Saab Systems 9LV found on the ANZACs. The current variant is known as the Mk 3E, an enhanced version of the original 1995 product. A further refinement of it is now on board HMAS Perth for the very promising Anti-Ship Missile Defence programme, using CEA’s advanced active phased array radar. The system currently being developed for the LHDs does not have a separate designation from the Mk 3E, even though it has some additional functionality, such as the ability to control a large number of aircraft and watercraft. It also does not need the same level of weapons control processing because for the moment the amphibious ships carry only very light armament for limited self-defence. Saab is about two thirds of the way through the task and is comfortable with progress to date.

The supplier of the very large and complex communication suite is L-3 and – like Saab – they report that their part of the activity is coming together very satisfactorily. L-3 has now completed all of the system design and has just delivered the complete first ship set of equipment to the Land-Based Test Site at Williamstown. Here it will be set to work along with the hardware and software supplied Saab, and also that of the various sensor manufacturers. This major activity will de-risk and de-bug the entire system, which will actually be installed on the second LHD, with the first of class receiving brand new equipment.

Once all of the equipment is on board, HMAS Canberra will start harbour acceptance trials (HATs) that might take many months to complete as all of the systems are trialed at length, followed by sea acceptance trials (SATs), which might be conducted as the ship journeys to its home port of Sydney.

Once accepted into service, the two ships will give the ADF unprecedented power projection capabilities as well as giving the country the ability to assist with disaster relief and humanitarian operations on a major scale. In the event of tragedies such as the Asian and Japanese tsunamis, a single ship would be able to deploy a fleet of helicopters, provide power, drinking water and major world class medical facilities to an effected area. The communications suite will be the largest ever sent to sea on an Australian ship.

Assuming everything continues to go to plan, it will be worthwhile for Defence to study what has made this project such a success when many other experiences have been less than happy. Like the ANZAC frigates, this relatively low profile and cost-constrained acquisition could be a useful model for future procurements.

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