In 1890 Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan published his influential geostrategic masterpiece, The Influence of Sea Power upon History: 1660–1783.
Mahan’s understanding of naval power and its intimate links to economic security was based on his analysis of the role played by the Royal Navy in underpinning the success of the British Empire. He lived long enough to see the power of his thinking made manifest in the Anglo-German naval arms race that preceded World War One.
There are many lessons in Mahan’s work that remain as relevant today as they were a century ago including in relation to the RAN’s Future Submarine Project (FSP) and where and how Australia’s next generation boats should be procured and built.
That an effective naval force is one supported by highly-skilled and responsive engineering capacity remains a constant in naval warfare.
Comparing the strength of the English and French navies in 1758, Mahan notes that the ability to repair damaged ships quickly and effectively is what makes the decisive difference:
‘It seems to have been somewhat forgotten that England’s leadership in mechanical arts gives her a reserve of mechanics, who can easily familiarize themselves with the appliances of modern iron-clads; and as her commerce and industries feel the burden of war, the surplus of seamen and mechanics will go to the armed shipping.’
If the RAN is to effectively manage whole-of-life maintenance and systems upgrades for its fleet, then our government must again ensure that Australia produces and maintains world-class maritime engineering capacity.
And the simplest, cheapest and most effective way of establishing and embedding that capacity is to confirm that the construction of the Future Submarine Program takes place here in Australia.
By building the FSP squadron in Australia we can ensure that we properly embed a deep organisational understanding of the boats—their structure, systems and the numerous interfaces that characterise vessels of this complexity.
Mahan refers to the ‘mechanical arts’, which for the FSP include boilermakers, welders and fitters, electrical and instrumentation trades, and drafting and other support classifications.
These are all skills that have been allowed to dissipate following the steady elimination of heavy fabrication in Australia. If we’re to ensure that we’ve the engineering capacity to properly support the FSP, we need to rebuild those engineering skills anew, and we need to do that in a way which produces tradesmen and women who are world-class in quality and productivity.
How do we build the training infrastructure necessary to create a new generation of mechanical and electrical trades together with the requisite supervisory and managerial capacities? History provides a guide.
When ASC set out to build the Collins-class submarines, the Adelaide- and Anzac-class frigates, and the Huon Minehunters in the late 1980s, the government had the wisdom to get out of the business of building warships. The Newcastle and Cockatoo dockyards were closed down, and the Garden Island and Williamstown dockyards were sold to private enterprise.
A brand new, state-of-the-art submarine building facility was constructed in South Australia, and a naval repair and maintenance yard was established at Henderson in Western Australia.
Experienced and proven skills found employment in these new naval ship building establishments. Much of this engineering capability emanated from a thriving Australian oil and gas development industry.
Importantly, a major contribution to this naval ship and submarine capability also came from the RAN. The Naval College at HMAS CRESWELL at Jervis Bay, the Navy Apprentices’ School at HMAS NIRIMBA in Western Sydney and the Recruit School at HMAS CERBERUS in Victoria turned out highly skilled artificers and naval engineers.
But the Naval Engineering Division in Canberra closed long ago. In its wisdom, or more the lack of it, the government no longer funds a Naval Design Directorate, and the corporate memory of vast numbers of civilian and government naval engineers is largely lost for ever.
What led to the privatisation of the Australian naval shipyards in the 1980s still holds today: Government has no business and no capability in the management and operation of a shipyard. A prerequisite for warships to be successfully built in Australia is that ASC is returned to private ownership.
Since Australia doesn’t have indigenous, proven naval submarine design experience the government has decided correctly to procure this capability from overseas. But it isn’t only the intellectual property of the design, the calculations, modelling, tank testing and drawings that Australia requires in order to build the submarines successfully in-country.
The submarine designer also needs to transfer its building technology to Australia, and the Australian submarine yards need to acquaint the overseas submarine house with the local rules and regulations, management styles and systems, and work practices.
A crucial prerequisite for the success of the FSP will be the establishment of a dedicated, stand-alone technical training college. Building on the work that’s been done by ASC in its apprenticeship training and in all probability incorporating the SA State Government Maritime Skills Centre; the Training College should be unashamedly modelled on the best trade training system on our planet, and it should operate independently of existing vocational training regulatory and licensing regimes, and remain free of external supervision.
There’s another critical area that needs, in my view, to be the subject of a new approach, and that is labour relations and labour productivity. In my 40 years of working in Australian shipbuilding, heavy engineering, mining and construction, the one constant concern that’s expressed by foreign investors and overseas contractors is Australian industrial relations.
A range of issues must be addressed, including general labour productivity, barriers to exercising managerial prerogative and the taking of industrial action (be it lawful or otherwise).. The fact that we’ve become the most costly construction destination on Earth is one reason manufacturing in Australia has been shut down. It must be addressed if heavy engineering is to be restarted.
We need to do everything we can to ensure that we have meaningful job opportunities for skilled workers, engineers and project personnel. The FSP represents an unparalleled opportunity to enhance national security, develop new engineering standards and embed naval shipbuilding firmly into the Australian economy.