Future Frigates Industry Briefing: talk to the hand because the face is gagged
18 Jan 2017|

I recently attended the official Defence Industry Briefing in Sydney for not one, but two major ship-building projects: SEA 1180, the Offshore Patrol Vessel (OPV); and SEA 5000, the Future Frigate. Those projects, worth nearly $40 billion over the next few decades, underpin the government’s commitment to a ‘continuous build’ shipbuilding industry, and are supposed to provide thousands of skilled local jobs, and support the myriad of small-medium enterprises that make up the supply chain in Australia.

Close to 200 representatives from businesses turned out, incurring an opportunity cost for their time in order to learn about valuable new opportunities. The introductions and briefings from politicians were surprisingly quick. We reconvened at 10:00am to hear from the project directors themselves. And that’s where brevity turned from refreshing to alarming. By 10:45, the briefings for both projects—over 20 ships, comprising the core of our naval warfighting and constabulary forces for the next half-century—were finished, including question time.

The reason for the lightning pace was openly disclosed. In fact, this disclosure was the only substance in the 10 minutes or so each director spoke. The Government is engaged in a Competitive Evaluation Process (CEP) with three companies bidding for prime positions for each project. While that’s underway, there’s nothing to say to the Aussie industry reps present. Only one of the primes involved in each of the CEPs was present, but they weren’t invited to the podium.

We were told when the CEP processes are set to end, when government second pass approval was scheduled for each project (to the nearest year), and in which yards the ships were to be built—all of that was previously available information. The decisions that affected elections were naturally made well in advance, but the decisions that affect capability and industry still hang in the balance. The familiar top-level requirements for the frigates were repeated, without any hint of the sort of detailed discussion that was already in the public domain. How the ship-builders or system integrators would be chosen and contracted was still undetermined, pending ‘studies’ and the CEP outcome for the primes.

To stretch us out through until the (early) lunch, the next hour was filled with two excited presentations from the heads of two newly-minted organisations (variously centre, hub, fund, or portal) that are (finally) meant to connect and integrate ‘untapped’ innovative industry potential with government grants, contracts or supply chains. These guys get the gong for enthusiasm, and definitely clocked the highest rate-of-fire for management buzzwords. It’s all so much more ‘integrated’ and ‘strategic’ than ever before.

After lunch (wrapped-up by 12:30), we were treated to an external consultant who’d been hired to give a ‘doing business with defence’ presentation. He set a very different pace to the earlier government reps. Half an hour in, he’d just about finished with the ‘top-ten’ list of countries in the world ranked by defence expenditure, and was just about to move through ‘top-five’ lists of defence prime-contractors. Seriously? I can search Wikipedia in my own time.

Overall, it was a really disappointing day. Defence had used their new portals and hubs, along with a consultant as a fig-leaf to hide the fact that they couldn’t give a ‘briefing’, because they’d completely gagged themselves through the probity requirements of the CEP process. A better use of the time for all concerned might’ve been to exclude all government officials and invite the primes to pitch their ships and build programs to the industry representatives present.

The only clear capability ‘news’ we got was for SEA 1180. A question from the floor asked whether any flexible mission-modules might be required to expand the roles of the OPV. We learned that this concept was now officially and properly dead. The program director replied ‘Not in these twelve vessels’. He re-emphasised that the focus is on the constabulary role, and that only the absolute minimum modification from the Off-The-Shelf capability was being sought, essentially just to meet regulatory requirements.

But that’s almost all we learned. ‘Will the OPVs embark a helicopter?’ was another deserving but unanswerable question; ‘Sorry, can’t discuss capability’. The questioner was a Kiwi involved in a similar procurement for New Zealand who seemed eager to offer insights. ‘Have you thought about some dog-kennels? We’ve found using dogs extremely useful in interdicting drug shipments’. The program director gave a muted acknowledgment, and the audience chuckled a little at the cuteness of the unsolicited advice. Apparently our Kiwi mate hadn’t fully imbibed the strictures and seriousness of the CEP processes.

But the situation really wasn’t funny. We were sitting in a room with hundreds of industry representatives and a handful of defence officials. The defence officials couldn’t discuss anything about the vessels because of the CEP. Nor could those few industry people who are actually involved in design of the ships.

I didn’t notice any animal-enclosure experts on the guest list. That could be an unfortunate omission, since I suspect it might be about the ceiling of technical innovation which the government would actually risk procuring from Australian industry in these two major projects. It was a sad day for Australian industry and innovators.