A curious approach to SEA 1442 Phase 4

Moving naval communications into the internet era is a high priority for the ADF and one of the more important projects is the multi-phase SEA 1442. The Defence Capability Plan says it: “…..aims to upgrade and modernise maritime communications systems on RAN ships to allow networked communications between selected major surface vessels within a task group.”

4th Apr 2012


 SEA 1442 Phase 4

 A curious approach to SEA 1442 Phase 4

Byline: Kym Bergmann / Canberra


Moving naval communications into the internet era is a high priority for the ADF and one of the more important projects is the multi-phase SEA 1442. The Defence Capability Plan says it:

“…..aims to upgrade and modernise maritime communications
systems on RAN ships to allow networked communications between selected major surface vessels within a task group.”

After definition study work, the first actual system to be introduced into service was provided by Thales, the 2008 winner of Phase 3 in what was originally a $45 million contract. The company describes their solution, based on commercial ICT technology thus:

“SEA 1442/3 has introduced an Internet Protocol (IP) based Maritime Tactical Wide Area Network (MTWAN) into the Royal Australian Navy, supporting the Australian Defence Force’s Network Centric Warfare concept....“

An early demonstration of the solution took place during Exercise Talisman Sabre in 2009 when the FFGs HMAS Darwin and HMAS Newcastle were able to communicate with each other using Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) and Video Conferencing. This was done in a secure military environment, using low power products and with VOIP as the IP “core“ rather than an add-on.

In essence, this is part of the process of moving maritime communications from the analog era to digital and is part of a global trend towards EOIP – Everything Over Internet Protocol. So far the Thales MTWAN has been fitted to the four FFGs, two ANZACs, HMAS Success, several shore installations and interestingly HMAS Choules – more on that shortly.

With this brief background, we now come to Phase 4, which has a projected value at the lower end of the $300 million - $500 million band and is to upgrade the communications systems of all eight ANZAC Frigates. The RFT closed in August 2011 and there were four responses. As has been previously reported, these were from Thales; Rhode & Schwartz; Rafael; and Selex.

The Department has down-selected these to Thales and possibly Rafael, but typically has not made an announcement to this effect and seems to be cagey about the details. Even in answer to a question about the purpose of Phase 4, the response was merely a repeat of what is in the DCP:

• upgraded network-capable switching;
• tactical intercom and secure voice system;
• cryptographic equipment to support secure communications;
• communications management system;
• high data rate line-of-sight capability; and upgraded radio system to support wideband networked communications.
Why Rohde & Schwartz in particular missed out when they are a key supplier on the Air Warfare Destroyer is a mystery.

When APDR started making inquiries of industry the result was one close to abject terror, with not a single company prepared to speak or provide information about their offers – or in the case of others to discuss why they did not bid. One of the most noticeable things about the four companies who did bid – or rather who APDR believes bid – is that not one is from the United States. This seems odd when one examines the pedigrees in naval communications of companies such as: Boeing; L-3; Lockheed Martin and Raytheon – to mention but the most obvious.

So what is going on? Two factors seem to be at work. The first is a concern that Thales are in such a good position that competing with them will be very difficult. The second is that the terms of tendering are so extraordinarily oppressive and risky that only the bravest – or silliest – company would sign up to them. The even higher than usual level of industry paranoia is an indication that something strange seems to be going on.

In an unusual approach to the tender, the Department apparently asked for companies to not only provide the communications suite but also to be responsible for its installation – thereby bypassing the ANZAC In Service Support Alliance (made up of BAE Systems, Saab Systems and the Department of Defence). But not only that, bidders were apparently informed that they would be told by Defence when ships would be available and that they would be given a fairly short 3 month notice period. But on top of that, the successful bidder would be liable for liquidated damages of $450,000 per day for every day late – in circumstances where the selected company would have limited control over the schedule.

Additionally, data packs were only available at very short notice.

The Department must have been aware that US companies in particular would never sign up to such a contracting formula. The decision to bypass the ANZAC Alliance seems to be an important factor in the way things have played out. It has been well known for many years that some senior Departmental personnel have been critical of the costs of the Alliance – even though Defence itself is a contributor to the overhead. In recent times BAE Systems – responsible for physical installation tasks – has received a particular bashing for their costs.

It might be that the Department in delivering a slap to BAE Systems has instead come up with a structure that has greatly limited the amount of choice available to it.

Making an assessment of the respective merits of Thales and possibly Rafael in these circumstances is difficult. Rafael have presumably based their solution on the C4I-ConNect product, described in part:

“I-ConNect technologies provides the modern battlefield and C&C centers with the ability to incorporate Voice, Radio, Video, Data and Telephony applications over the standard IP network.

“Using this everything-over-IP technology the C4I-ConNect solution creates a full connectivity and acts as the cornerstone of the modern Network-Centric Warfare (NCW).”

Certainly this marketing language is entirely consistent with what the RAN says they are trying to achieve. In addition, Rafael have a related system, SEA-COM:

“Within the framework of developing communications and control capabilities for the modern battlefield, RAFAEL has developed Sea-Com - a tactical communications suite for sea-going vessels.

Israeli in general is a world leader in communications technology and Rafael has been involved in a variety of related activities, not just those described above.

Thales also has an excellent pedigree, as discussed with reference to SEA 1442 Phase 3. The company can not only draw on Australian in-house skills that can probably be traced back to ADI’s acquisition of Stanilite in the mid-1990s, well before being purchased by Thales. The parent French company also has a very strong background in maritime communications and has been at the leading edge of the use of IP-based open architecture solutions. When combined with the company’s network centric warfare laboratory in Sydney it is not hard to see why several rivals have calculated that there is little point in trying to compete. Furthermore the most recent relevant decision regarding surface ship communications was to award a contract to Thales to upgrade HMAS Choules.

Selex will neither confirm nor deny that they are even bidding.

Without detracted in any way from what Rafael – or anyone else - might have offered, for them to win would seem to cut across all recent trends in RAN maritime communications – but this is Australia and one should never expect consistency or commonality to be factors in any final decision.

Thales and possibly Rafael or possibly someone else are now engaged in an Offer Definition Activity. The failure of any company to respond to requests for information is an indication that the Department has again muzzled them with the usual blanket clause forbidding them to publicly discuss their tender on pain of being kicked out of the competition. The Department itself has confirmed that they expect to go to Government for Second Pass Approval in 2012 / 2013, which might be an indication that the ODA is limited in scope and timing.

If anyone has the courage to say more on the topic, APDR will take the call. The Department is up to something.

 

 

 

 

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