This May will be the third anniversary of the Armidale Class patrol boats, in service with the Royal Australian Navy (RAN).
Since coming on board, the Armidale patrol boats have already proven themselves indispensible across the gamut of border protection, law enforcement and environmental protection activities conducted along the length of Australia's enormous coastline.
The craft are 57m long and capable of reaching speeds up to 27kt. They boast a number of unique features including paperless charts and sophisticated davits capable of launching craft in very rough seas.
Recently referred to as the 'Ferrari of the sea' by a senior RAN officer, The HMAS Wollongong along with Childers, Bundaberg and Launceston are four Armidale Class Vessels which form the Australian Navy's Ardent Division.
BEHIND THE ARMIDALE
Brought in to replace the old Fremantle patrol boats, Armidale Class patrol boats are highly capable and versatile warships which are able to conduct a wide variety of missions and tasks.
One of the primary duties is contributing to Australia's Civil Surveillance Programme. Surveillance and boarding operations conducted by the Royal Australian Navy safeguard Australia's sovereignty and significantly contribute to the security of the country. Operations protect against a number of breaches such as unauthorised entry to Australia, breaches of customs, immigration and drugs legislation.
The vessels work hand-in-hand with other government agencies and each year they provide up to 3,000 patrol days as part of the Coastwatch-managed national surveillance effort. In the event of war they would be tasked to control the waters close to the Australian mainland.
According to commanding officer LCDR Mark Taylor, HMAS Wollongong and its sister Armidale ships, have made an enormous contribution to Australia's border protection, anti-illegal fishing and drug trafficking operations. "They have been extremely effective," he says.
Recent operations that Taylor has been involved in include boarding of Indonesian type 2 vessels (sail boats) off Torres Straight just above Australia. An illegal type 3 (engine powered) boat being used for illegal fishing was successfully intercepted and boarded recently.
HMAS Wollongong is equipped with high-definition navigational radar, high and ultra-high-frequency communications equipment, gyro compasses and echo sounder. Wollongong is also fitted with a satellite navigation system that enables the ship's position to be determined with a high degree of accuracy.
BEHIND THE MECHANICS
The HMAS Wollongong is powered by two MTU 16V 4000 series diesel motors. MTU is a German engineering firm with which the RAN has enjoyed a long association. Australia's Anzac frigates are also powered by MTU motors.
"We've had a long association with MTU as a good reliable diesel with very good power to weight ratio," says Taylor.
The Armidale Class patrol boats are built by West Australian-based boat builders Austal Ships, which supplies craft to navies all over the world and is a leading supplier to the US Navy.
The ships have 29 cabins for crew, not including the captain's quarters; while a further 20 people can be comfortably accommodated.
While not strictly designed for actual combat, the Armidale Class vessels come with some pretty impressive fire power. All are loaded with the Israeli-designed Rafael Typhoon 25mm naval stabilised gun deck and two 12.7mm machine guns.
The boats also boast extremely advanced hydraulic systems for lowering auxiliary boats into the water, commonly referred to as davits.
The Armidales all have two 7m inflatable boats which can be used for quick deployment or evacuation purposes. Unlike with the Fremantle ships, these craft can be safely launched during sea state four, which is very rough seas.
"We can still do our jobs of border protection and board another vessel in very rough seas, safely and very quickly because of the way these ships were designed," Taylor says. The Armidale's also have advanced stabilisation systems used to correct the ship's orientation in rough conditions.
"These vessels are far more comfortable to operate in than the Fremantle Class," Taylor says. "They were smaller, at 43m, and at anything above sea state three you'd be starting to look for cover."
ONCE YOU GET ONBOARD
The Armidale Class boats boast a number of onboard technologies which set them apart from other craft. For instance, they were the first of RAN's boats, and possibly the world's navies, to go with paperless charts. Charts are viewed via two fully computerised systems which together with an additional laptop, provides triple redundancy.
The Armidale craft are all hooked up to the Inmarsat global satellite system enabling full time access to the defence networks as well as email and the internet.
All onboard engineering systems are moderated by MarineLink, a computerised system developed by Austal. This is a Windows-based monitoring system used to manage all onboard engineering activities from the motors to water pumps and even the sewerage. Just about every valve can be opened remotely.
"Armidale was the first class of ship to have engineering spaces which are totally unmanned," Taylor notes. "They are largely leading the way in automation."
MEETING GREEN CHALLENGES
Taylor stresses that the fuel efficiency of the Armidale boats is exemplary. "Fuel efficiency in these ships far exceeds that of the previous class." For instance, at "economical speeds", the boats can travel up to 3,000 miles, say between Melbourne and Darwin without refuelling. In super economical mode the boats can use as little as half a 44gal drum an hour.
"As a result these vessels are a lot more environmentally friendly than the old vessels; it's really amazing consumption," Taylor says. Boosting their green credentials, all sewerage is processed on board the Armidales.
And they are a good deal more self sufficient than their predecessors. Using two reverse osmosis plants, the ships can meet of their water requirements. Between them they can produce 8,000l a day, which is 80% of the ship's entire water carrying capacity.
Unlike the somewhat spartan Fremantle boats, the Armidale's are relatively rich with creature comforts.
All cabins are fitted with en-suite facilities, with toilet and shower, and 30 satellite TV channels.
Down in the mess hall there are much bigger kitchen facilities than on the Fremantle Class vessels, meaning that two cooks are present on board at any time. "The standard of catering on board has improved out of sight," Taylor enthuses.
The boats also boast a sophisticated stabilisation system designed to adjust the ship's orientation in rough conditions.
The crew are also encouraged to personalise the boats. For example, on board the Wollongong, all cabins are named after suburbs in its namesake city. The sea boats are named Woolf and Hawke after Wollongong rugby teams.
All the crews with Ardent division are based in Cairns in far north Queensland and there is often frequent rotation between the four ships, further highlighting the need for crews make their personal statements.
"It's very good for moral and maintaining pride in the vessels," Taylor insists.