SEA 1180 – Four into one does go

Byline: Geoff Slocombe // Victoria

SEA 1180 is the project to replace four RAN classes, totalling 26 small vessels in service at present, with a single class of around 20 Offshore Combatant Vessels (OCVs). This would require a major shipbuilding program which could be beyond the capabilities of any one Australian shipyard.

The current small vessel fleet comprises patrol (14 ships), mine counter measures (6), oceanographic and hydrographic survey (2) and survey motor launches (4). These four classes were all designed and built to provide the right capabilities for their planned roles. Will this be true of their replacements?

Developments in naval technology mean the use of lightweight swappable modular mission systems, and remotely operated underwater vessels and small unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), allow one platform to undertake patrol duties, hydrographic survey duties or mine warfare missions depending on the module(s) installed.

These result in a significant reduction in the non-recurring cost associated with the development, design, and production of customised platforms for each mission. Training and manning costs are also reduced by having a core crew supplemented by specialists depending on the mission.

The project is to provide mission modules which can also be fitted to other naval vessels, leased commercial vessels, or in some mission-specific module designs self-deployment from land or ports.


How can a standard hull, propulsion and support systems, an on-board aircraft and limited self-defence capability be adapted to different RAN missions?

Traditional mine counter measures (MCM) meant building specialist hulls which had little or no magnetic influence, very little acoustic noise, and created minimal pressure waves. Developments in sonars and remotely operated underwater vehicles (ROV), mean that mines can now be detected, identified and neutralised from a safe distance.

There is a lot of commonality between the sonars and ROVs required for mine counter measures and those required for survey and oceanography work. It is therefore possible to combine both survey and MCM functionality on a single vessel. This will prove invaluable for amphibious operations in littoral warfare, or landing troops and supplies for disaster relief or humanitarian aid.

Patrol boats are the work horses of the Navy. Remote sensors on satellites, aircraft or land identify potential or actual illegal activities, but enforcement and collection of legal evidence requires a surface ship. Patrol boats are ideal for these missions as they are relatively cheap to crew and operate. However, because of Australia’s vast EEZ, these vessels need to be large, at least 80 metres length overall, and very seaworthy to provide for crew comfort during lengthy periods at sea. They have very limited self-defence and therefore will need to be escorted when entering militarily contested waters. Addition of a helicopter or UAV greatly extends their radius of surveillance and response.

OCVs will be highly useful for other roles including search and rescue, counter-terrorism, customs, disaster relief, humanitarian aid, border protection, fisheries patrols, anti-piracy actions, defence diplomacy visits, marine pollution detection and cleanup, bio-security, resource protection, VIP transport to and between islands, special forces lodgement and extraction, troop deployments, fleet training, etc.

Some OCVs might remain in one role throughout their working life, but they will always have the potential to change rapidly at dockside to another role. The interchange between roles using mission modules will be readily accomplished. Apart from the base crew, only a few specialist crew change over, being required to operate the newly fitted mission modules.


Which navies are already travelling down this path?

Certainly the Royal Danish Navy with their StanFlex design. Unable to afford the replacement of 22 ships on a one-for-one basis, they came up with 11 different mission systems contained in modules which could be fitted into a stainless steel container weighing less than 15 tonnes. These can be loaded in about 30 minutes onto standard fittings and connected to services aboard their new warships. They replaced 22 ships with just 16 vessels. Over 100 modules have now been produced covering Harpoon missile launchers(10), Sea Sparrow missile launchers (20), 76/62mm super rapid gun (19), torpedo launchers (4), crane to launch RHIBs and sea mines (22), active/passive sonars (4), remotely operated mine hunting and disposal vehicles (5), oceanography (1), survey (1), storage (14), anti-pollution (3), and SIGINT/ELINT (1).

The US Navy similarly has chosen their Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) to be capable of multiple missions by swapping modules. The mission modules will have the capability to be changed, tested and working within 24 hours. These packages are for anti-surface warfare (SUW), mine counter measures (MCM), and anti-submarine warfare (ASW).

The mission modules are integrated into standard-sized containers that can be installed in the ship and other systems that can be transferred onto the ship on pallets. The mission systems connect to the ship’s network and communicate with the other ship systems and other surface ships and aircraft. Successful trials have been completed with the recent commissioning of an MCM module on LCS-2 INDEPENDENCE.

The Royal Canadian Navy’s 12 strong multi-role Kingston Class’s primary mission is coastal surveillance and patrol. Payloads can be added to provide limited mine countermeasure capabilities. The vessels’ design accommodates three modular payloads: a mechanical minesweeping system (MMS), a route survey system, and a bottom object inspection vehicle. These can be on- or off-loaded within 12 hours.

During Route Survey tasks, the ships deploy a partially controllable ‘fish’ fitted with side-scan sonar. This towed system creates imagery and a database of the condition and objects on the seabed for subsequent investigation. The database can later be used during mine hunting tasks for example, to avoid investigating previously located and known objects. A remote operating vehicle (bottom object inspection) can also be deployed to closely investigate objects that have been observed.

Basic capabilities and baseline design for the Royal Navy’s Type 26 Global Combat Ship (T26 GCS), the next generation of warships which are due to come into service after 2020, have been unveiled this year. With a displacement of around 5,400 tonnes, the T26 GCS will be around 148m in length, and among the most advanced vessels in the Royal Navy’s fleet.

The T26 GCS is expected to feature vertical missile silos capable of housing a range of different weapons; a medium-calibre gun; a hangar to accommodate a Merlin or Wildcat helicopter; a flexible mission space for unmanned air, surface and underwater vehicles, or additional boats; and the most advanced sensors available to the fleet.

This is a different concept from the OCV, in that the T26 GCS will be permanently fitted for multiple missions, whereas the OCV will gain its multi-mission capability by swapping modules.

At the unveiling the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope, said: “The T26 GCS will be a multi-mission warship designed for joint and multinational operations across the full spectrum of warfare, including complex combat operations, maritime security operations such as counter-piracy, as well as humanitarian and disaster relief work around the world. It will be capable of operating independently for significant periods or as part of a task group and will play a major role in the defence of this country for many years.”


The RAN is attracted by the possibility of swappable mission system modules. Project SEA 1180 Offshore Combatant Vessels (OCV) is proceeding to develop requirements, establish feasible capabilities, and estimate likely construction and through life costs for a fleet of 20 vessels.

The background preamble to the SEA 1180 littoral warfare project states “The government has directed that Defence develop proposals to rationalise the Navy’s Patrol Boat, Mine Countermeasures, Hydrographic and Oceanographic forces, potentially into a single modular multi-role class or family of around 20 Offshore Combatant Vessels (OCV), combining four existing classes of vessels. The new vessels will likely be larger than the Armidale Class Patrol Boats.”

The studies will look at various ship designs to deliver a multi-role ship class with a common hull, propulsion and support systems, a flight deck, and fitted with self-defence weapon systems as well as ISR sensors and networking capabilities.

The ability to embark a helicopter or UAVs will allow a surge in surveillance and response capabilities without the need for additional ships to be deployed.

It is anticipated that the project will generate a range of longer term savings in operating and training costs by rationalising four classes of vessels into one.

Classes slated for replacement by the OCV over the next fifteen years are the fourteen Armidale Class patrol boats; six Huon Class mine counter measures craft; HMAS LEEUWIN and HMAS MELVILLE oceanographic and hydrographic survey vessels; and four PALUMA Class survey motor launches.

SEA 1180 Phase 1 describes the project’s concept as “. . . to develop an Offshore Combatant Vessel (OCV) as part of a system that has at its centre transportable and deployable mission modules to deliver the effects currently achieved in the existing role-specific vessels, including the inherent support to sustain them. The mission modules will maximise the use of unmanned technologies including surface, sub-surface and air systems needed to achieve the required effects. “

“The mission modules will be capable of transportation by land, air, rail or sea and be deployable from the OCV, other Naval vessels, vessels of opportunity, or independently from ashore (ports).”

“In addition to the traditional roles of the current fleet, the OCV and mission systems will provide support to long-range counter-terrorism and counter-piracy operations.”

With First Pass Approval due in FY2014-15 to FY2015-16 investigations by the project team are already in full swing. There is a wide range for the Year of Decision, being shown as FY2016-17 to FY2019-20 with Initial Operating Capability (IOC) to be two years after the decision to go ahead.

Constructing and supporting a class of twenty vessels will be a very major defence project and one that will be keenly contested by most Australian shipyards. The current description in the 2012 Public Defence Capability Plan (DCP) indicates the project could have an acquisition cost in the range $5 – $10 billion (middle of band) i.e. about $7.5 billion.

This will be largest shipbuilding program to follow the two Canberra Class Large Helicopter Dock ships and three Hobart Class Air Warfare Destroyers. Only the ANZAC ship replacements and follow-on submarine programs will be bigger in the next 20 years.

It could be that the project will be delivered by more than one shipyard, either working in an alliance or each on its own.

Related projects include JP 1770 Phase 1 for Rapid Environmental Assessment (REA) and SEA 1778 Phase 1 Deployable MCM – Organic Mine Countermeasures.


The 2012 Public DCP states that the Acquisition Strategy is planned “. . . to encourage an open and competitive environment, in which a range of options can be explored to identify the projected costs, schedules and risks involved. During the initial concept phase, the focus will be on the definition of the Modular Mission Systems, and related support infrastructure. Following ‘proof of concept’ studies, options for the maritime platforms will be investigated, including a range of OTS (Off the Shelf) options.”

“The acquisition process will be consistent with the Commonwealth Procurement Rules, and may include ITR (Invitation to Register), RFP (Request for Proposal), PDS (Project Definition Study) and RFT (Request for Tender) stages. As with previous acquisitions and in the interest of self-reliance, the PIC (Priority Industry Capability) will focus on the capacity of Australian industry to maintain, repair and adapt the mission systems and the ships on which they are embarked. These are primarily systems integration and ship repair capabilities. Noting that naval shipbuilding is a SIC (Strategic Industry Capability), Defence may consider particular options to promote Australian industry’s capability to manage the design, integration, construction and testing of the ships.”

Apart from the possibility of participating at each stage of the acquisition cycle, industry will also have a significant role in Through Life Support (TLS). The DCP states “TLS may take various forms, depending on the outcomes of further studies. An important consideration will be the support for Mission Systems, including an in-country capacity to maintain, repair and service any automated technologies acquired under this project. The Australian naval shipbuilding and repair industry is expected to play a significant role in the systems integration, construction and support of this capability.”

Defence has categorised this project at Acquisition Category (ACAT) Framework 1 i.e. “Projects which are major capital equipment acquisitions that are normally the ADF’s most strategically significant. They are characterised by extensive project and schedule management complexity and very high level of technical difficulty, operating, support and commercial arrangements.”


The littoral combat ship (LCS) is designed to satisfy the urgent US Navy requirement for shallow draft vessels to operate in the littoral (coastal waters) to counter quiet diesel submarines, the potential to carry explosives and terrorists on fast inshore attack craft (FIAC), and growing potential ‘asymmetric’ threats of coastal mines..

OCVs will need to handle blue water conditions throughout Australia’s exten sive EEZ, and will not have the speed requirements of the LCS, but it is instructive to look at the two alternate designs.

The two LCS designs chosen are quite different, although both satisfy the top-level performance requirements and technical requirements of the LCS programme. Both achieve sprint speeds of over 40 knots and long-range transit distances of over 3,500 miles. The Austal/General Dynamics Independence Class design is a trimaran with a slender stabilised monohull. The Lockheed Martin Freedom Class design is a high-speed semi-planing monohull.

Lockheed Martin’s advanced semi-planing seaframe is based on technologies introduced by Italian shipbuilder Fincantieri on the 1,000t Destrier commercial vessel, which holds the transatlantic speed record.

The ship has a steel hull with aluminium superstructure and is powered by two Rolls-Royce gas turbines and two Fairbanks Morse Colt-Pielstick diesel engines driving four large, acoustically optimised Rolls-Royce waterjets. The vessel has automated stern doors, stern ramp, side launch doors and overhead crane for the launch and recovery of manned and unmanned vessels.


During APDR’s discussions at Austal’s WA headquarters on their Littoral Combat Ships (LCS) program, the question of their capability relevance to SEA 1180 OCV requirements arose. The Austal spokesman said “We are excited by the SEA 1180 program, and believe our experience and local shipbuilding, systems and through-life support capability can provide tremendous value to the RAN. We are continuing to develop our skills, resources and experience in each of those key areas to maximise the value we bring to the table.”

“The Austal Littoral Combat Ship trimaran design now in service with the US Navy has already proven such a design approach with the recent commissioning of an MCM module on LCS-2.”

“Of course we are also continuing to develop our Multi-Role Vessels (MRV) platforms to take advantage of new technological developments, the lessons we learn from the over 240 Austal vessels already in service and other feedback from end users, and to refine the platform capability to changing strategic circumstances.”

“Austal is an advocate of the stated desire of the RAN to use a common platform to perform a number of mission capabilities.”

The 80 metre 400 tonne Austal MRV trimaran design is a wide and very stable platform, offering excellent sea ride comfort. It has 500 square metres of mission/logistics deck and 290 square metres of flight deck, plus a medium helicopter hanger which could hold one MRH-90 or similar aircraft. With a crew of 35 and berths for 87, the MRV has 28 days endurance, a top speed of 26 knots, and a range of 4,500 nautical miles at 12 knots.


The Offshore Combatant Vessel Capability Development Group will be challenged to keep track of evolving technology and its implications for planned OCV capability. Will they adopt the Royal Danish Navy’s StanFlex concept? Or go with the US Navy’s LCS approach? Or take an entirely separate approach?

The greatest danger to this project is the addition of too much functionality to the basic ship so that the cost, weight and size of the OCVs will defeat the original intention of a straightforward small host vessel which can be adapted easily for different roles.

Timing will be impacted by the progress of the predecessor LHD and AWD projects. Will they be completed on time, releasing a skilled workforce and shipbuilding space to take on OCVs?

On the other hand will the decision on OCVs be delayed by analysis and budget considerations, so that the skilled workforce dissipates or gets re-directed to the strategically higher priority of the Collins Class replacement submarine project?

The OCV is a good concept for the RAN whose time has come.




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