The Armada Down Under
A longtime European sea power is deploying a vessel far, far away to enhance global partnerships.
Spain and Australia are shoring up their maritime cooperation through an agreement to send a Spanish Navy ship to operate with the Royal Australian Navy next year. The decision enhances the existing relationship between the nations, while emphasizing the importance of stability in the Asia-Pacific region.
Beginning in February 2013‚ the combat replenishment ship SPS Cantabria will sail in the Southern Hemisphere‚ its 145 crew members working with their Australian counterparts through November of the same year. Officials from the two countries agreed on the dates chosen, which accommodate the foreseeable schedule for the ship’s operating cycle while satisfying the Australians’ needs. Operations will improve the interoperability of the navies as well as demonstrate the ability of the ship to assist in the preparation of logistics support to the Australian naval force. Joint activities will include exercises with Royal Australian Navy (RAN) ships and helicopters. The Cantabria is capable of supplying fuel, food‚ stores and munitions to other surface vessels underway. It also can carry two medium-size helicopters and is equipped with a small hospital containing surgery, X-ray, dental and laboratory facilities along with telemedicine capabilities.
According to Contraalmirante Gregorio Bueno, chief admiral of the planning division, (Spanish) Navy Staff, the countries have mutual interest in deploying the vessel to increase interoperability between both navies, to display the ship’s capabilities and to enhance training. The Spanish Navy and the RAN have been collaborating since 2000 in different areas of mutual interest such as the exchange of ship-design specifications and support to the RAN’s ship-building program. In 2008, the nations signed a memorandum of understanding to solidify further their cooperation efforts.
The current ship deployment comes at a time when the Asia-Pacific region is garnering more attention worldwide, including through the new U.S. defense strategy that shifts the focus of the military to that part of the globe. CA Bueno explains that, “The Asian-Pacific region is of great interest to Spain, both for economic and political reasons. Indeed, within the framework of international relations, the Asian-Pacific region is becoming more and more important, and Spain wishes to be present in this region that is shaping [up to be] decisive in the future.” Part of that increased cooperation involves more training opportunities such as the one for which the Cantabria will deploy.
During its deployment, the Cantabria will not attach to any specific RAN unit. It primarily will operate from Sydney, participating in extensive exercises and training activities. Throughout its operations, the ship will work with most of the RAN’s major fleet units. Australian defense officials call the deployment of Spain’s ship a unique initiative that will achieve important training and capability assessment outcomes for the partner nations. Throughout the period that the Cantabria spends down under, Spain will have an opportunity to try the ship’s full range of capabilities, including the operation/maintenance cycle of onboard systems. It also will focus on the logistics and maintenance support mechanisms for the ship during an extended period of high operational tempo deployed at an extended range from its home country.
Beyond improving defense collaboration, the relationship the Spanish Navy shares with the RAN has facilitated better understanding with industries in the nations as well. Australia awarded Spanish ship builder Navantia the work for design and construction of two amphibious vessels based on the Juan Carlos I Landing Helicopter Dock (LHD). BAE Systems also is involved with the Australian LHDs, which are dubbed the Canberra class. Navantia has another contract with Australia for technical support in the construction of three destroyers based on the Spanish Navy’s F100-class ships, including key features from the F105 Cristóbal Colón frigate. These Hobart-class air warfare destroyers (AWDs) will include an Australianized version of the Aegis combat system. “This three-way collaboration program among the Navy, the RAN and the defense industry continues, and new projects are being evaluated,” CA Bueno explains. According to an Australian defense official, the country’s Landing Craft Medium, which will be embarked in the LHD as the ship-to-shore connector, also has Spanish roots, with the build based on Spain’s LCM1E landing craft design.
Many of the Cantabria’s systems are the same as those in the RAN’s Canberra- and Hobart-class ships. The commonality will allow the RAN to conduct early training for personnel earmarked for the LHDs and AWDs. Earlier this year, Australia and Spain began to integrate RAN personnel with the Spanish Navy’s F100-class frigate crew for exercises and deployments. Australia also has an officer attached to the Spanish Navy’s 31st Escort Squadron.
The deployment of the Cantabria will help Australia make decisions about future ships. Officials will undertake an assessment of the capability offered by the Spanish vessel as they consider the replacements for the aging ships HMAS Success and HMAS Sirius at the end of the decade. Those two vessels will have their capabilities augmented by the Spanish ship during its support to RAN in domestic and international training and exercises. Operations with the Cantabria will reduce the capability risk during the next major maintenance period for the Success in 2013. The Cantabria is a modern auxiliary oil replenishment ship similar to the Success.
While Spain’s ship and crew members operate with them, RAN sailors will conduct training activities to prepare their units for mission readiness competencies. Specific exercises and training include: underway replenishment or transfer of fuel by replenishment at sea (liquid); underway replenishment or transfer of stores/cargo by replenishment at sea (stores) and helicopter transfer; helicopter training; ship handling, navigation and warfare exercises in company; boarding operations; and humanitarian aid/disaster relief and medical evacuation exercises. The vessel and crew will support Exercise Talisman Sabre, a biennial joint exercise between Australia and the United States.
The Cantabria’s schedule also includes an exchange program among the personnel on the ship and in RAN units. This program will offer training and experience opportunities for those involved and will increase the cultural understanding between the two navies, according to an Australian defense official.
Spain is not the only European country with political and economic interest in the Asia-Pacific region. The RAN has close ties with a number of other navies from the continent, and many of those relationships stretch back over many years. As a former colony of the United Kingdom, Australia has natural connections as well as historical links with the U.K. Royal Navy, with which it still maintains a close relationship. Australian sailors also work with European navies as an extension of the NATO Smart Defence initiative. That plan calls for renewed cooperation among allies in creating, procuring and maintaining essential military capabilities through resource pooling and enhanced coordination. “One of the mechanisms of Smart Defence is coordination and cooperation with NATO partners,” the Australian defense official explains. “The deployment of SPS Cantabria is a prime example of this cooperation.”
The Spanish ship’s operations around Australia will culminate in the RAN International Fleet Review 2013 slated to commence in October of that year. Activities such as this review provide opportunities for assets from a variety of foreign nations to participate in mutually beneficial training and exercises with RAN ships and helicopters. Late last year, in preparation for the event, the Chief of Navy of the RAN invited more than 50 of his international counterparts to send a warship and/or a tall ship to the event. The Australian sea service anticipates participation by approximately 40 foreign warships and a dozen military and civilian tall ships, which will sail with up to 18 Australian vessels. Final numbers of international participants will not be available for several months as the Australian navy continues to receive official responses and confirmation of ship types and availability.
The review has significance for Australians beyond the opportunities it affords for modern international naval interactions. Australia is hosting the event to commemorate the centenary of the first entry of the RAN’s fleet into Sydney on October 4, 1913. Defense officials state that the fleet review is not a celebration of the RAN’s 100th birthday; that anniversary was recognized officially in 2011. The country’s navy first formed as the Commonwealth Naval Forces in March 1901 as a small coastal defense force. Eight years later, in response to increasing international tensions and the recognition that Australia needed to assume full responsibility for its broader maritime defense, the nation embarked on a significant naval expansion program. It aimed to create a national navy capable of both defending Australia’s maritime interests and contributing to regional defense. Such a plan has a refreshed emphasis today with tensions over rights in the South China Sea along with other concerns in the area.
Australia’s new fleet required several years to build, but on that October day, the flagship HMAS Australia led the new Australian fleet of seven cruisers and destroyers into the harbor for the first time. “This was a moment of significant national pride and importance,” the defense official says. Next year, Australia’s allies will gather to celebrate with their down-under counterparts, strengthening ties that may become crucial if undercurrents of disharmony in the Asia-Pacific region evolve into open hostilities.