Yesterday from the election campaign trail in Western Australia, Prime Minister Scott Morrison made some naval shipbuilding announcements relating to the Royal Australian Navy’s mine-clearing and hydrographic capabilities.
Speaking from the Henderson Shipyard south of Perth, he announced that more ships would be built in … Henderson. After the recent twisted history of our future submarine project, the media and public might be forgiven for suspecting that this is a vote-grabbing exercise in pork-barrelling. So let’s unpack what’s new here, what’s already in the works and, more importantly, what’s actually a good idea.
First, there is nothing new in the plan to build a hydrographic vessel at Henderson. The Department of Defence has the responsibility of providing hydrographic services for the nation, although it has not necessarily always met the nation’s demand for such services. The 2016 defence white paper and its supporting integrated investment program said that Defence would replace its current hydrographic capability with a combination of military and commercial elements from the early 2020s. Essentially it would outsource the routine national support tasks to better meet public demand, and keep the specialised military functions in house.
The 2017 naval shipbuilding plan elaborated on this, stating that a vessel for "strategic" military hydrography would be built as part of the continuous minor war vessel program (which is centred on Henderson in Western Australia) and be delivered in the mid-2020s. The prime minister’s statement that construction of that vessel would commence in the early 2020s is completely consistent with that plan.
So it’s not new. And it’s actually a good idea. The commercial surveying sector can do the routine tasks more cost-effectively, so it is better for Defence to focus on the difficult and dangerous hydrographic missions such as supporting submarine or amphibious operations in unfriendly waters. Making sure Defence retains sufficient critical mass in skilled personnel will be the challenge here, not building the ship.
The developments in the mine countermeasure space, however, are actually new, and, more importantly, they’re also a good thing – but that’s got little to do with shipbuilding jobs. Defence currently operates four manned minehunters (down from six after two were retired early as a cost saving). These vessels perform mine clearance the traditional way – by going into the minefield. That means they are specialised vessels made of fibreglass so they don’t set off mines and are designed to be extremely shock-proof in case they do. It’s still dangerous. They’re also slow, and they’re designed to clear domestic ports rather than deploy with rapidly moving naval or amphibious task forces.
Like many militaries, the ADF has been experimenting with unmanned, more-or-less autonomous systems for mine hunting, so that humans can sit outside the minefield and send drones in to do the dull, dirty and dangerous work. These systems can potentially be operated from any "vessel of opportunity", so we wouldn’t need specialised minehunters anymore. They could be operated from an amphibious vessel, or an offshore patrol vessel, for instance, that was part of the deployed task force.
In fact, back in the 2009 white paper, this was meant to be the future concept. Defence would build a one-size-fits-all minor war vessel that would do maritime patrol and border protection tasks as well as host mine clearance and even hydrographic teams when necessary.
However, the autonomous technology didn’t seem to be maturing quickly, so Defence went back to the safe path of upgrading the minehunters and extending their lives out to the early 2030s, so they wouldn’t be replaced until then. But the complexity of the vessels made the upgrade very expensive – AU$1–2 billion, according to the integrated investment program.
But the technology then matured faster than expected. What exactly was the capability shortfall in unmanned autonomous systems? What could humans do that they couldn’t? And did it warrant sending humans into the minefield? The answer essentially came down to trust. Autonomous systems could do the job (or increasingly more of it, at least). And for many tasks that required routine and repetition, they could do it better. But we still didn’t trust them. Ultimately, we want a human to assure us that that stretch of water is clear of mines before we sail through.
But Defence, through continuous experimentation with unmanned systems in exercises such as Autonomous Warrior, has developed familiarity with the technology – and, rather than contempt, familiarity builds trust. Just think of your own reliance now on your mobile phone for navigation. So, in the mine clearance space at least, autonomous systems have now cleared the trust bar.
The details of the new strategy and the project to deliver it (SEA 1905, according to the prime minister) aren’t public, highlighting again the need for an updated public integrated investment plan. From the capability perspective, the two new "mine warfare support vessels" to be built at Henderson aren’t the most important part of the system. What they will look like is a little irrelevant (probably something a lot like the offshore patrol vessels just starting construction).
The key point is that instead of spending AU$1–2 billion on extending the life of an outdated concept, Defence is embracing the new, retiring the old minehunters and adopting a solution based on autonomous systems. For this, it should be commended.
The question is, how far is Defence willing to go down the path of autonomous systems? And when? In contrast to its mine-clearance capability, in surface combatants and submarines it is doubling down on exquisitely capable, yet exquisitely expensive, manned vessels that consume its capital budget but won’t deliver anything for more than a decade, potentially into a world swarming with autonomous systems and weapons designed to destroy those high-value platforms.
When will Defence trust autonomous systems enough to move away from manned platforms in those areas, or at least adopt autonomous systems that complement and protect those traditional platforms? It will be interesting to see how its experiment in the mine warfare space shapes its appetite to innovate and embrace risk in other areas of warfare.
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