Naval shipbuilding: how continuous is ‘continuous’?
30 Mar 2016|

In a
joint statement on 4 August 2015, Tony Abbott and Kevin Andrews (then respectively Prime Minister and Defence Minister) committed to a continuous build of warships in Australia, stating: ‘It’s the first time that any Australian government has committed to a permanent naval shipbuilding industry.’

A national Naval Shipbuilding Plan had been expected to follow-on and expand the then Prime Minister’s statement, but all indications are that such a plan is still in an embryonic state and Defence is grappling with the ramifications of how to achieve the commitment to a continuous build.

The 2016 Defence White Paper (DWP) has reaffirmed the Government’s intent to implement a continuous build of both frigates and Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPVs). Whilst the location for the former has been stated in the DWP as South Australia, doubt remains over where the OPVs will be constructed.

The implication from these statements is that Australia will embark on a programme of naval shipbuilding at a ‘drum beat’ that will keep the industry continuously employed, and with ships being regularly launched and into naval service. It also implies that the various skills that are required at different stages of shipbuilding will also be continuously employed. To do otherwise would be to trade the current ‘valley of death’ into a series of smaller ‘ditches of death’ that impact separately and frequently on the various components of the workforce.

Obviously therefore, in order for this continuous build to occur, there must be design activities proceeding in parallel with ship construction, integration of systems and with trials. This requires multiple ships under construction at any given time.

The problem is that the Royal Australian Navy has 12 major surface combatants and typically keeps these ships in service for approximately 30 years. James Goldrick has previously stated: ‘As a rule of thumb, a combatant unit built in 2000 can expect a service life of between 30 and 35 years, whereas that of one built in 1960 was between 22 and 25 years.’ The implication is therefore that warship lives are being extended, albeit with the benefit of a half-life refit to ensure continuing operational relevance. Given that major warships take about 24-30 months to build in an efficient yard, it’s not possible to easily achieve a ‘continuous’ throughput.

There would appear to be five alternatives to this situation, none of which are hugely attractive.  Two options have been previously described by Andrew Davies and Mark Thomson, namely to shorten the operational life of each ship so as to turn them over around the 18 year mark, or increase Navy surface combatant force numbers to equate with an 18 month ‘drum-beat’ of entry into service.

The first of these could avoid the expense of a mid-life update but finding buyers for second-hand ships packed with US equipment—and hence subject to US International Traffic in Arms Regulation controls —could be problematic. In the second option the size of the RAN major surface combatant force would need to increase to 18 ships to retain a service life somewhat approximating the current utilisation. This option would dictate additional costs in fleet expansion, would continue to require half-life refits, and necessitate a boost to naval manpower. It would also require a reassessment of RAN operational, training and maintenance facilities.

A third option is to extend the entire process and to build in ‘slow motion’. A 12 ship navy would require a 30 month ‘drum beat’ for a ‘continuous’ entry into service. Such a suggestion counters the logic that build efficiencies are gained by undertaking the build as quickly as possible, not by arbitrarily extending the process. This approach would also be bedevilled by multiple ‘ditches of death’, most likely one for each trade for each ship.

A fourth alternative is to build an export market so that RAN ships can be part of a larger production line. Although this seems to have gained currency in some quarters, it’s unlikely to occur until Australian-produced frigates have moved substantially away from the base design. Otherwise the ship designer would in effect be establishing a direct competitor to their core business (and potentially impacting on their home employment). This is the ‘Alice in Wonderland’ alternative in the short to medium term.

The final option, which also appears to have developed currency in some quarters, is to ‘flesh out’ the production line by adding OPVs and even submarines into the overall mix. The 2015 RAND study into Australia’s naval shipbuilding suggests the inclusion of OPVs may limit the pending ‘valley of death’. The difficulty is that such an approach will not keep the requisite frigate workforce fully employed and hence will still result in ‘ditches of death’ for some of the required skills, including the critical design skills. The UK has a structure in place for national shipbuilding that is worth consideration, but in large part has been forced into this position through initially poor contracting and poor partnering.

The Government is faced with some tough choices. The Chief of Navy has highlighted some of the advantages that successfully moving to a continuous shipbuilding program will bring. The challenge at the moment is to get to the starting gate.