09/12/2021 - 16:47

Navy chief bullish on WA role

09/12/2021 - 16:47

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The chief of Navy Australia, Vice Admiral Michael Noonan, recently engaged in an exclusive discussion with Business News regarding the current issues facing the navy, the future of navy, and its relationship with WA.

Navy chief bullish on WA role
Michael Noonan paid tribute to the navy's WA-based personnel. Photo: LAC John Solomon

Vice Admiral Michael Noonan assumed command of the Royal Australian Navy on July 7 2018.

He is the federal government’s principal naval adviser, responsible for raising, training, and sustaining Australia’s naval forces.

He is committed to ensuring that the Royal Australian Navy is an agile, resilient and lethal fighting force, which, when called on by government, is able to contribute to the safety and security of the world’s maritime environment and safeguard Australia’s economy by being able to freely navigate the world’s oceans and engage in global trade.

The navy is a critical customer and end user for a significant proportion of Western Australia’s defence industry, which contributes 2 per cent of gross state product with a target of reaching 4 per cent by 2030.

Vice Admiral Noonan recently engaged in an exclusive discussion for our business audience, with Business News defence columnist Kristian Constantinides. 

Thank you for the opportunity to discuss the navy and WA with you today. What brings the chief of Navy to WA?

“It is great to have the opportunity to visit WA. The whole country has been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and it has meant that I haven’t been able to get to WA for two years.

"Given that I’ve got nearly half of our navy based in WA, it was really important for me to get across to spend some time with our people, and also take the time to engage with, and to thank WA industry for the great work it continues to do in support of our fleet in-being and obviously the future fleet.

“We also had the opportunity to commission HMAS Stalwart, the second of our supply class AORs (auxiliary oiler replenisher), so it is always an exciting opportunity to bring a new ship into the fleet. It was just shy of 10 years ago that we last commissioned a ship in WA, so that was a great opportunity as well.

“I also had the opportunity to meet with the governor, the premier, the defence industry minister (WA), the police commissioner and chief health officer to discuss matters of common interest and common commitment. Notwithstanding 14 days in quarantine, the opportunity to spend time with our people was really worthwhile.”

All of that activity and the commitment of 14 days in quarantine in order to come across highlights the importance of WA to the navy, can you shed some light on the strategic importance of WA to the navy?

“As I alluded to, we’ve got essentially half of the fleet based in WA, the entire submarine force is based here, and in terms of how we operate across the Indo Pacific, it’s been an extremely busy couple of years for ships and navy people based here in WA.

"They have been engaged in both domestic and international activities, stretching from local tasks through to regional deployments to bilateral deployments with our close neighbours, namely India, Singapore, US, France, Japan, and the UK.

“We have exercised with all of those countries this year and last year also, so strategically WA and the fleet that we have based here was of extreme importance. That WA-based fleet will continue to grow in size and grow in capability.

“I was delighted to see the crew of HMAS Perth, it was just coming out of the AMCAP (Anzac midlife capability assurance program). As we all know that ship has been out of regular service for the best part of four years as she has undergone some extensive modifications and a period of renewal, and seeing those ships coming out with new and improved capabilities is really exciting.

“Clearly, the AUKUS announcement is something that has seized the attention of our navy, and being able to speak first hand to our young men and women from our submarine force about what that means in the short term and long term for them, and the opportunities in our submarine force in the future is very important.

“There is a very strong industry nexus with regards to the AUKUS announcement, and while nuclear-powered submarines are the first aspect being pursued by our government, areas such as cyber, AI, undersea warfare, and maritime strike, all have a very strong maritime flavour, which industry is very key to talk about and support as well.

“So strategically, WA is vitally important to the navy and it is vitally important that navy engages with all elements of the WA defence stakeholders to ensure we both grow together and have a common understanding of what the federal government is seeking to achieve, both from an operational perspective but also from a long-term capability perspective. So the visit was really important on all of those levels.”

The navy chief was in Perth for the commissioning of HMAS Stalwart. Photo: LSIS Ernesto Sanchez

Within the context of the AUKUS announcement and the full-cycle docking announcement that was very closely linked, Prime Minister Scott Morrison mentioned the intention to engage in discussions with the WA government about the large vessel dry berth (LVDB). From your perspective, how important is fresh investment in new infrastructure, like the LVDB, for the future of the navy?

“From a capability perspective, both current and future, it just makes good sense that we continue to evolve the infrastructure over here in the west. Since I first came to WA into Fleet Base West in about 1986, there has been tremendous growth in both the navy facilities at Stirling and astronomical growth in what we see in Henderson.

“I know there have been some very productive discussions between the federal government and state government here in WA about future infrastructure and I know those discussions are ongoing. But for me, and for the navy, the natural evolution of facilities in the sustainment of our fleet in WA is important. This is also important in terms of being able to simply park ships and submarines that are growing in length and displacement.

“The ability for our allies and partners from the region to come and visit, to interact, operate with, exercise with our navy, and ultimately spend some time alongside in WA getting to know each other, is also very important.

“Clearly, the AUKUS announcement brings a new dimension to that. Opportunities to work with the US and UK as we learn more about nuclear-powered submarines is imperative as we move towards that future, and certainly the recent visit of a Royal Navy Astute-class submarine highlighted that.

“I would like to thank the WA government, particularly the chief health officer, the commissioner of police and the federal authorities of AMSA [Australian Maritime Safety Authority], ANSTO [Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation] and ARPANSA [Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency], who were all able to work very closely together to make the visit of the Astute-class submarine, which came at relatively short notice, such a success.

“I expect we will see more visits of that type from our AUKUS partners and regional partners going forward. Infrastructure is certainly a key, and I am very excited about what we are seeing around the major shipbuilders, but also the number of very, very important SMEs that are resident in WA.

“I had the pleasure of being able to join [Defence Industry] Minister Paul Papalia in the opening of the new facility that Blue Ocean Monitoring has opened, with respect to ocean gliders and where that technology will go in the future. Clearly, the navy needs and has got a very big focus on autonomous and underwater systems, and it nests very neatly and very appropriately with the Navy’s RAS-AI (Robotics, Autonomous Systems and Artificial Intelligence) strategy, so I was particularly interested in the work that was going on with MTS (Marine Tech Systems, a subsidiary of Blue Ocean Monitoring). I congratulate them on that work, and the opportunities for industry are endless.

“I had the opportunity to meet with the operations section of Rio Tinto to see how they use similar technologies to run mines in an autonomous fashion, and the exchange of views and interest there has been really important. So from a national perspective, WA offers a lot, provides a lot, and has great potential for the future.”

Speaking of great potential in the future, what are your views on the skills required to support that future?

“The workforce of the greater navy and industry is important to me, and I’ve certainly been able to address that during the week I’ve been here. We do need to ensure that … we are investing in STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics], and we are building, developing, leading, operating, and sustaining complex systems. Those systems will continue to evolve and they won’t get any less complex than they already are.

“I encourage the academic institutions in WA and nationally to continue the great work they are doing in STEM and engineering.

"Clearly, we now have another opportunity in nuclear engineering that is going to be really important nationally going forward.

"Ultimately, the opportunities that exist within the defence force and within industry are the best I’ve seen in my career and in my lifetime. So, young people who are leaving school and leaving university, I would encourage them to consider a career within the defence enterprise.

"We have a strong team, and we are going to need to continue to have strong people following in their footsteps into the future.”

Earlier you touched on WA’s ambitions in the undersea technology area, and I note that Mr Papalia has been promoting the state’s credentials as a regional hub for Australia’s undersea technology. It sounds from your comments that you agree the development of that expertise in WA would be a wise move from a capability perspective in support of the navy.

“I think from a navy long-term warfare perspective, the undersea domain offers the greatest challenges but also the greatest opportunities. I know we have been working towards understanding the environment and opportunities there, particularly using underwater autonomous systems for some time. I note there are a number of research institutions and companies around Australia investing in this space. We’ve also had the opportunity to leverage some of the technologies from overseas, and AUKUS will enhance that.

“I think WA has the opportunity to interact more closely with the navy and the submarine force directly than other states might have. While that benefits WA, I’m not sure that we are at the point of saying there is a hub located in any one specific location.

“Ultimately, what I need to see is a national united effort to progress technologies and collaborate where appropriate to bring the best possible outcomes and systems into our navy as quickly as possible. We are already using unmanned aerial systems on a number of our surface platforms and the logical extension of that, and of the capability requirement, is that I have functional undersea autonomous systems as soon as possible. I have seen a number of different technologies around the country and bringing those together will be really important.

“As we look to the Indo Pacific 2022 [International] Maritime [Exposition] in Sydney in May next year, I have set the challenge to my team to make the theme of that focused on undersea autonomous systems. We roll out of Indo Pac 2022 into an autonomous warrior 2022 activity at Jervis Bay. That will take place around May 16 and 17.

“It just makes good sense that we will have the best and the brightest of Australian industry innovation and hopefully some of the leading providers from around the globe in Australia at that time, and being able to exchange ideas and collaborate will make us all better as a result.”

To switch from undersea technology back to the nuclear topic; for a non-defence audience, what is the benefit or capability enhancement behind a nuclear submarine versus more conventional submarines?

“The step into the nuclear-powered submarine space is a huge technology leap for our navy and our nation. What a nuclear-powered submarine offers over a conventionally powered submarine is the ability to stay underwater longer, and ultimately travel faster and further. It is therefore about range and endurance.

“A conventional-powered submarine runs on batteries when it is underwater and at sea, and when those batteries discharge, they then need to bring the submarine to the surface, and then run a diesel engine to essentially recharge the batteries. While the diesel engine is running there is a requirement obviously to have an induction mast to allow for the escape of exhaust gases from the submarine. While that is occurring, the submarine is vulnerable to detection. The last thing you want in a submarine is to be detected by the other guy.

“The difference between a conventional submarine and a nuclear submarine is that the nuclear submarine uses a nuclear reactor to produce steam that drives a steam turbine and does not require any time on the surface to support the main machinery of the submarine. Theoretically the submarine can stay underwater for the life of the nuclear reactor, which these days with the technology that exists can be in the in the vicinity of 30 to 35 years.

“The limiting factor for a nuclear-powered submarine actually becomes the crew. What I mean by that is, we need to feed them, we need to ensure they get the other things they need, and we obviously want to get them back to their family and friends when it is appropriate to do so.

“Ultimately, it comes down to indiscretion ratio and the detectability of our submarines, in order to ensure they can continue to operate in the places we currently operate, in the manner that we operate to ensure the prosperity and security of our national interests. The move to a nuclear-powered submarine will allow us to do that into the future.

“Clearly, there is a different set of skills required in addition to our existing skills in the operation and support of a nuclear submarine. From a skills perspective, in the US system it takes about 12 years to grow a nuclear-power qualified engineer. While we are at the starting gates with respect to our decisions and the build of submarines, we are already starting the identification of our young men and women who will undergo nuclear training as early as next year.”

Michael Noonan (left) and Paul Papalia open the Marine Tech Systems/Blue Ocean Monitoring facility in Fremantle. Photo: POIS Bradley Darville

I think that raises the question of the opportunities within industry in connection with the nuclear-powered fleet. Obviously there is going to be a heavy person-in-uniform training requirement as you have just indicated.  It is also likely there will be some form of a nuclear industry in support, and then there is the construction, assembly and sustainment requirements of the submarines themselves. Do you envisage a large involvement from Australian industry in support of bringing this capability to bear?

“I think it is too early to tell as this stage, until we get a better understanding of the platform the government chooses to go with. The beauty about the technologies we are looking at is we don’t actually need a standalone Australian nuclear industry. We don’t envisage being in the game of building nuclear reactors, and as Prime Minister Morrison has made very clear, we have no intentions of becoming involved in nuclear weapons.

“We are clearly going to move to build our expertise in nuclear power supporting the submarine endeavour, but in terms of how that would flow into industry is a little unclear. Obviously there will be role to play for regulatory authorities such as ARPANSA and ANSTO.

“As we look at the build and ultimately sustainment of these submarines, I am sure there will be opportunities for industry as well, at all aspects of the submarine and the nuclear enterprise as it relates to our endeavours.”

You have said the engagement of industry in some of these programs is hard to predict, but from a navy perspective do you have a vision of what the navy’s future in WA looks like, giving consideration to all those unknowns?

“I think the future for navy in WA remains very, very bright indeed. Certainly that was felt with an enormous amount of pride … when we commissioned HMAS Stalwart. HMAS Sirius has obviously been home ported here for a number of years and has served our interests in the west extremely well, but Stalwart is a new and improved capability.

“As I look to the performance of the Anzac frigates that have undergone the AMCAP program and will in time undergo the TRANSCAP [Transition Capability Assurance Program], the strength, size and ultimately the lethality of surface and submarine force based here in the west will continue to grow.

“With that, we will see the growth of infrastructure we alluded to before, both in terms of HMAS Stirling and at Henderson and other precincts where we have naval people working side by side with industry.

“I think Premier McGowan and Mr Papalia can be very, very confident that the navy in WA is strong and will continue to be very strong.”

There is a feeling in the west that a force posture review is, in part, necessary, and that we have, particularly in the north-west, exposure to our region that needs to be addressed from a force posture perspective. Do you hold a particular view on the need for force posture review?

“Obviously federal governments undertake force posture reviews when they see significant change in our strategic environment and I note that, on July 1 last year, the prime minister released the ‘Defence Strategic Update and Force Structure Plan’. That, in itself, guides decision making, although it wasn’t necessarily a full ‘white paper’.

“We have also seen significant changes since the 2016 Defence White Paper. White papers usually roll around every 10 years, but in this instance we have seen the change in our region that has required a strategic update well within that normal timeframe. 

“I think the government will continue to look very closely at our strategic context and the way that we are postured, and most importantly the way we are able to interact with and cooperate with our allies and partners in the region. I think, ultimately, that will determine the timing in which the government undertakes a force posture review, but I am certainly not aware of any suggestion that we might be undertaking one anytime soon.”

You mentioned our allies and partners in region. Do you think there would be any additional exercises you would seek or that the navy would like to participate in that would help address those concerns without entering into a full force posture review? 

“Absolutely the strength of our ability to operate at sea does hinge very, very strongly on relationships that we have with like-minded navies in the region. In the last two years, notwithstanding the challenges we have had with COVID-19, we have had a tremendous level of exercises and activity across the Indo-Pacific.

“The obvious ones that spring to mind include our participation in exercise MALABAR in 2020, and again in 2021. I was speaking to my good friend and counterpart Admiral Karambir Singh in the Indian Navy only last week, and he is absolutely committed and absolutely delighted with what we are doing together.

“That sentiment is about what these exercises bring in terms of the strength of the Quad relationship and what that brings at the national level, particularly as we exercise closely with the Indian Navy, the Japanese Maritime Self Defence Force, and the US Navy. [That] is really significant in terms of capability and operational excellence.

“We have also had the opportunity to do a number of bilateral exercises in the Indian Ocean with the Indian Navy, the French Navy, the US Navy, the Royal Navy and as you stretch into the Pacific, exercises with Japan, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, the Philippines, Brunei and more broadly into the South West Pacific. It has been tremendous. And of course we have run our own Indo Pacific Endeavour exercise consistently, notwithstanding the challenges of contactless visits during COVID-19, so we have been able to maintain that level of momentum throughout the pandemic and that has been tremendously successful in 2021.

“We were one of five nations to send ships to RIMPAC 2020. That was again another successful interaction with like-minded navies in the region, and I have no doubt that Exercise RIMPAC 2022 will see a re-emergence of a number of our friends and partners. We will run Exercise Kakadu, and again that will provide an opportunity for the region to exercise with the Royal Australian Navy and I look forward to welcoming our friends and partners from previous exercises and also some new friends and partners who are keen to operate with us at sea.

“I think that, certainly in my career, the level of interaction we enjoy with our international friends and partners at sea is unprecedented and I think it sends a very strong message of trust, cooperation and collaboration in terms of what the like-minded nations and navies are working towards together.”

We have spoken about the line of thought that our threat profile is changing and, as a result our force structure plan, Defence Strategic Update, continuous shipbuilding plan and formal documents of this nature, albeit only having been updated recently, may need further renewal or further updates. Is it your view that these documents need to be very dynamic, and that even if they are only 18 months old, that these documents in parts have an inherent risk of obsolescence due to our rapidly changing context?

“I don’t think I would categorise the current documents as obsolete but I do recognise … the very close attention that our government pays to the evolving strategic environment we find ourselves in. Clearly, we are in an age of competition in the Indo-Pacific between the great powers, and we are seeing significant militarisation of features of the South China Sea. We are seeing the growth of the maritime forces in our region and internationally.

“The government is very closely and deeply considering all of that through the lens of ensuring that our capabilities in the ADF are appropriate to our settings of shaping the strategic environment, ultimately deterring aggression against Australia and our national interests, and should we ever need to respond with force, that we have a defence force that is able to do so in a very constructive and, if necessary, lethal way.

“So while I don’t necessarily know if there is any requirement to update our strategic guidance at the moment, there is no doubt that things do evolve quickly, and should there be any change in our settings, I am very confident that our government is well postured to respond.”

The final question I have is how we can help. The ‘we’ is WA defence industry as a whole, and how the WA defence industry can prepare to support navy’s mission. What do you need from us?

“[The] WA defence industry is clearly very strong and continues to grow and expand. What we need is the best thinking, the best innovation, the best quality and ultimately the best collaboration and commitment between navy and defence more broadly, and the maritime defence industries of WA. 

“I’ve seen that over many years now and I am delighted to see the strength of the relationships and partnerships. I continue to see the commitment of the defence industry in WA grow and evolve in terms of defence force needs and the changing geostrategic environment.

“I think staying at the top of the game is where we all want to be, and clearly there is economic opportunity in the defence space. The aspect that really excites me and humbles me is the fact that defence industry of WA and nationally are absolutely committed to providing the best possible platforms, support systems and equipment to the men and women of the defence force so that they are safe, they can operate effectively, and should they need to, they are able to fight and win.”

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