LHD communications suite

A transformational capability

1st Aug 2010


When the RAN’s new ‘Canberra’ Class LHDs (Landing Helicopter Dock) reach full operational service around the middle of this decade, they will give the ADF a hitherto undreamt of capability for force projection and amphibious assault. Just as importantly they will give the Australian nation the ability to provide humanitarian assistance and disaster relief in the Asian region on a scale until now the sole preserve of the United States Navy.

While the parallel Air Warfare Destroyer project has to date received more attention, the two LHDs are just as important – if not more so – in providing the entire ADF, not just Navy, with a quantum leap in capability. Designed to replace HMAS Manoora and HMAS Kanimbla – themselves second hand USN platforms – the new LHDs will be three times larger and will be able to embark more than twice as many troops.

The ‘Canberra’ Class will be the largest ships ever operated by the RAN at 28,000 tonnes – by comparison the aircraft carrier HMAS Melbourne was 18,000 – but of greater significance are the command, control and communications systems on board. These will allow the ships to be floating command centres able to co-ordinate the activities of Army, Navy and the RAAF over a wide area. More than that, the ships will also be fully interconnected with allied forces, most importantly the USN.

The essential element in all of this is the ship’s communications suite, which will be far more capable than those on the ‘Hobart’ Class Air Warfare Destroyers.

To use the jargon, the LHDs will not only be ships, they will be massive “nodes” in the forthcoming fully networked ADF. The challenge of conducting large scale amphibious operations is new to Australia and co-ordinating the 6 embarked helicopters – with or without embarked troops - assorted watercraft, other ships, nearby aircraft and possibly UAVs requires considerable resources.

To make all of this possible, Australia has selected L-3 to provide the integrated communications suite, which will interface with a variant of Saab’s well-known and proven 9LV Command & Control system already on the ANZAC frigates. Even though L-3 is a relatively new corporate entity created in 1997 from some of the unwanted parts of the Martin Marietta / Lockheed merger, its pedigree goes back more than 100 years. The communications part of L-3 started life as the Victor Talking Machine Company and then morphed into RCA, then General Electric before entering the modern era in 1993 when acquired by Martin Marietta.

A factor influencing the choice of L-3 for the ‘Canberra’ Class is the company’s track record with the USN, where its systems are on more than 100 platforms - including a large number of submarines - but most importantly Arleigh Burke Destroyers (where they provide part of the communications suite) and LPD-17 amphibious assault ships. They are also part of the Austal / General Dynamics offers (the 2 companies have de-merged their bid) for the Littoral Combat Ship project, currently under evaluation.

The ten LPD-17s on order for the USN – half have been delivered - have some similarity to the ‘Canberra Class’, though are slightly smaller at 25,000 tonnes and consequently will carry fewer troops and aerial assets. Where they are vastly different is in their very ambitious sensor and self-defence weapons mix, reflecting the possibility of the Marines needing to deploy in extremely hostile environments. There has been some criticism of the project, though this has related mainly to poor quality workmanship on the first few hulls and their associated pipe work rather than the electronic systems. Nevertheless, the LPD-17s will be the backbone of USN / US Marine Corps operations in the future. L-3 has been able to use their experience on this program to reduce the risk for the ADF on the ‘Canberra’ Class.

As well as having numerous systems in service with the USN, L-3 has also undertaken work with the navies of Australia and New Zealand.

In 2005 the company was awarded the contract to provide the communications suite for HMAS Sirius, the RAN’s converted commercial tanker replenishment ship. The ship was delivered by prime contractor Tenix ahead of schedule. The communications work involved not only installing new equipment but also integrating some legacy systems taken from the de-commissioned HMAS Westralia and this mix has worked without problems ever since.

Across the Tasman, L-3 have upgraded the external communications systems of the RNZN’s two ANZAC frigates, giving New Zealand – not for the first time – a level of capability better than Australia’s. The project also freed up considerable space and weight in the communications room with the replacement of a number of items. In turn, this means that the frigates now have 30% of growth potential as new communications technologies emerge. The contract was signed in March 2008 with the first ship set delivered a year later.

L-3 say that for the ‘Canberra’ Class LHDs they are providing the largest integrated IT system ever deployed by the RAN, with more than 70 cabinets of equipment.

The solution uses a highly flexible open-architecture approach based on a core of proprietary digital products. The principal elements are:

- External voice and data (including radios, SATCOM, antennas, cryptos, switching etc)
- Internal voice communications (Ship-wide, Tactical, Wireless and Soundpower systems; VoIP Admin network)
- Ship-wide data networks; Maritime Tactical Wide Area Network
- Combat System Interface
- Entertainment & Training; CCTV (with audio and video on demand)
- Broadcast alarm system

In turn, all internal and external communications are integrated into a single operator panel using an L-3 product known as MarCom – meaning that it replaces previously separate telephone, intercom and radio systems. MarCom is common to a number of ship solutions, including Arleigh Burke Destroyers and the LPD-17s. It is described as the USN’s latest low cost fully integrated voice / data switching system. The use of this product has greatly reduced the amount of hardware required and it is estimated that the ‘Canberra’ Class communications solution will occupy 30% less space than the baseline Spanish BPE design.

Another element of the solution is the Keyswitch Integrated Terminal Equipment (KITE) – a small press button screen that allows an operator to listen in to multiple conversations. According to L-3’s Alfred ‘AJ’ Whittle, Vice President Integrated Communications, this “has had a dramatic impact on situational awareness” where, for example, the Commanding Officer could progressively listen to conversations between helicopter pilots, then add in shore-based troops, other ships, and so on. Mr Whittle explained to APDR that while at first this might seem like a jumble of noise, with a small amount of training operators are improving their efficiency by up to 400%. This system also allows progressive radio conferencing over all bands: VHF, UHF, SATCOM, VHF-HI etc – all of which can be done by a series of button presses.

These types of capabilities will be vital as the ADF moves down the network-centric path, giving decision makers a great deal of information over and above what could be acquired using older technology.

The suite of equipment will be of enormous benefit for combined operations, be they with other ADF assets, allied forces, or both.

For functions such as communications planning, L-3 have developed a product known as Symphony which, according to Mr Whittle “takes the brain of a sailor with 20 year’s experience” and uses that to provide an automated solution. Whereas previously it would take a highly trained specialist three or four hours to set up and test various mission-critical communications circuits, this can now often be done in less than a minute – and with a greater degree of reliability. Rather than being entered in manually, communications plans (COMPLANs) can be inserted on a cd-rom.

The communications requirements for the ‘Canberra’ Class are vast because the ships themselves will have to perform such a large variety of missions. The ships will have two Joint Operations Rooms, two joint planning centres and a number of other communications-intensive facilities. The main two functions of the JOR is for the Commander Amphibious Task Force (CATF) and Commander Land Forces (CLF) to perform command roles in the amphibious environment. As well as controlling helicopter operations the ship will be responsible for amphibious missions involving up to 4 watercraft – basically everything involved in deploying a full battalion, into combat if necessary.

And many of these functions are just as important for humanitarian missions and disaster relief. After the Boxing Day 2004 Asian tsunami the USN was able to provide a formidable amount of assistance to the island of Sumatra, not only using ships for urgent supply missions but also to provide hospital facilities and even power generation for extended periods of time. The ‘Canberra’ Class will give Australia the ability to provide similar levels of assistance if and when that will be required in a region prone to natural disasters.

L-3 convincingly argue that their approach, based on a huge amount of experience leads not only to high levels of system performance but also lower acquisition and life cycle costs. The team working on the ‘Canberra’ solution is made up of 75 engineers with an average of 20 years experience – a massive total of 1,500 years of naval communications knowledge. The companys says that by drawing on this skill base they are able to:

- Eliminate redundant systems and terminals
- Reduce cable, plant and footprint
- Provide a single logistics tail
- Minimise costs of operator/maintainer training

As described above, navies can also significantly reduce not only the number of onboard communications personnel through the one console per operator approach, they can also reduce the amount of specialized training required through the use of products such as Symphony.

The LHD program is well advanced and the communications system passed its critical design review last year. As well as a large team in the US, L-3 is also undertaking work in Australia and has subcontracted around 10% of the work to CDM, who are providing the IT equipment for IP Networks and Operator Positions aboard the ship and some of the integrated IP services. These include: IP based CCTV Camera’s and Servers, IP based Entertainment & Training (TV’s, Video on Demand, Free to Air TV, Satellite TV, and Radio/Music, mini TV studio) and, VoIP Admin PBX and Ship’s time.


One cannot help contrast the differing approaches being taken by Defence to the communications suites for the ‘Canberra’ Class and – quite separately - the Air Warfare Destroyers. While the outcome for the LHDs is clearly defined, has passed key milestones and involves a highly experienced contractor, the AWD Alliance is still in the process of selecting eight “product groups” that will supposedly form the communications suite. It is worth asking why L-3 is not doing the work for both projects. This would seem to be a logical, low risk and sensible approach that would guarantee commonality not only between the two classes of Australian ship but also with important USN assets such as Aegis-equipped Arleigh Burke Destroyers and the LPD-17 assault ships.

Defence has sensibly used the C2 9LV ‘kernel’ from the ANZACs for the LHDs, with an associated reduction in risk and presumed savings in training and through-life support. It would seem even more sensible to strive for communications commonality between the LHDs and the AWDs, with the possibility to retrofit this solution to the ANZACs under Project SEA 1448.

If this approach has already been considered and rejected, it would be interesting to learn why and by whom.

The construction of the AWDs is now underway and presumably the Alliance is simply leaving large gaps in the detailed design where they assume the communications equipment will be located. Let us all hope that when sea trials begin the crew has access to something more than their personal mobile phones.

APDR at a glance