SEA 1180: Modernisation and Modularity
Recent announcements by Government have once again focused attention on major naval shipbuilding projects to be started over the next decade but there has been a subtle shift in policy regarding SEA1180, the $3-5 billion multirole Offshore Combatant Vessel (OCV), also known as the Littoral Multirole Vessel (LMRV).
Deemed only two years ago to be a “possible longer-term capability outcome” with an initial construction year of 2020, the vessel is now due to enter production in 2018 as part of a continuous build.
There has been relative silence from Government regarding the OCV, such as the promised competitive evaluation process, the bidding contractors, or even the designs to be considered. What we do know about SEA1180, however, paints a fascinating picture of the vessel destined to become the workhorse of the Royal Australian Navy into the next decade and beyond.
Role and Requirements
SEA 1180 aims to produce a single replacement vessel to fulfil the Navy’s requirements for a patrol boat, counter-mine and survey vessels. Historically, the RAN has met these roles with a mix of specialised vessels of comparatively short range and endurance, as with its current mix of 13 Armidale Class Patrol Boats (PB), six Huon Class Coastal Mine Hunters (MHC), four Paluma Class Coastal Survey Vessels (AGSC) and two Leeuwin Class Survey Ships (AGS). Deployments over the past decade, studies of likely future engagements, and the ongoing drive for operational efficiencies have led the Navy to the view that SEA1180 must not only replace its predecessors but surpass their capabilities.
The first of these areas is flexibility. The future OCV needs to be able to fill roles beyond those normally assigned to smaller vessels, including littoral warfare, Special Forces support, counter-terrorism, support for regional security missions, and counter-piracy. These new vessels would also be required to modify their weapons and equipment at short notice, to be able to adapt to an array of missions. The result would be greater capability to deal with complex situations below the level of major warfighting, and a freeing up the larger frigates that formerly carried out those roles.
The second area is that of sea capability. In future operations OCVs would likely be attached to maritime or amphibious task groups operating far from the Australian mainland, or combing the country’s enormous Exclusive Economic Zone. The new class of vessels would, therefore, have to be large; with greater range, endurance, fuel efficiency and survivability than current types. The Huon Class MHCs, Leeuwin Class AGSs and Paluma Class AGSCs lack the range, speed and endurance for Maritime Task Group operations, while high tempo, long range border protection missions has resulted in structural hull cracking in at least six Armidale Class Patrol Boats.
The third new factor is cost efficiency. Training personnel, organising maintenance and sourcing components for four different classes of minor warfare vessel made standardisation difficult, and resulted in excessive costs across the life of type. A major stated aim of the 2009 Defence Whitepaper was to “realise potential operational efficiencies and reduced cost of ownership.”