Australia’s Biggest-Ever Warships Still on Track

This article first appeared in Aviation Week & Space Technology.

Five years after contract signature, work on Australia's largest-ever warships, the landing helicopter dockships HMAS Canberra and Adelaide, is going better than for previous large defense programs, according to the Australian government and prime contractor BAE Systems. "The project expects to successfully deliver the LHDs on time, on budget and to the contracted capability," says an Australian defense department official.

Keys to success are that the ships' electronic systems are not complex and that much of the program uses off-the-shelf designs. The fully fitted hulls are the responsibility of Spain's Navantia yard and are near-sisters of the in-service LHD Juan Carlos I.

The hull for Canberra left Spain aboard the MV Blue Marlin last August, only about four weeks late, and arrived at Melbourne in October. Adelaide's hull, intended to follow Canberra's by 18 months, is now expected to lag by only 15 months, providing a buffer against later problems.

Canberra is due to be operational at the end of 2014 and Adelaide in the second quarter of 2016. Each ship should be able to support operations by Australia's Amphibious Ready Element after nine months of service.

BAE is building the island superstructures in Melbourne and integrating the combat, command, communications and sensor fit, which is quite different from that on Juan Carlos I. There are no all-new components in the electronics, but BAE program director Marcos Alfonso says the overall system is new. "We have concentrated heavily on the integration and interface of the combat and communications system," he says, and BAE has built up a complete electronics system on land at its Williamstown shipyard in Melbourne.

For BAE, the second big challenge is precision in fabrication: The structure and internal fittings of the islands must neatly join the hulls. This has been a problem for the Australian navy's Hobart-class air warfare destroyers.

The defense department attributes the program's success to an early focus on risk reduction, leading to solid understanding of exactly what it was buying. Since then, the project leadership has minimized changes to the requirement. "The Mission Platform Specification as approved by the government at second pass [authority to contract] has remained unchanged throughout the construction period," says the defense department official. The only changes are minor, driven by regulatory requirements and differences between European and Australian standards.

"The wider Australian Defense Force now faces the task of introducing the capabilities these ships represent," says the official. "Individually, each LHD delivers more amphibious and sea-lift capability than the ADF has previously been equipped to provide."

When the two ships are in service, the displacement of the navy's amphibious force will have risen 12-fold in two decades, comprising the two new ships and the 16,200-ton HMAS Choules, a six-year-old landing ship acquired from Britain.

The ships will operate from the navy's main base, at Sydney. The hulls are designed to last 40 years, but the project office expects that electrical and electronic systems will be changed several times during the ships' service lives. Upgrades and modifications should be easier than in smaller, tighter ships. "Design margins for space, weight and power have been maximized," says the defense official. "The size brings inherent flexibility to allow choices to be made between cargo and platform upgrades, with an all-electric ship providing a similar level of flexibility."

Although the navy refers only obliquely to their main mission, Canberra and Adelaide are designed for wartime landings; peacekeeping is listed as a secondary role. They were ordered by a government that had found the navy ill-equipped for Australia's peacekeeping intervention in East Timor in 1999.

Analyst Andrew Davies greatly doubts that Australia needed to order the two ships. The country is hardly likely to conduct opposed landings without the help of the abundantly equipped U.S. Navy, and for peacekeeping Australia could have bought cheaper roll-on, roll-off ships built to civilian standards. "The only scenario where I can imagine them being needed would be intervention in case of a collapse of Papua New Guinea," he says.

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