Gaps in the naval shipbuilding programme
7 Aug 2015|

Mind the gap

Andrew Davies and Mark Thompson have pointed out problems with the Government’s recently announced $89 billion naval shipbuilding programme. In an earlier piece on naval shipbuilding, they thought the Government had ‘the tail wagging the dog’—naval shipbuilding is to provide the Navy with ships, not to provide industry with work. Put more simply, politics risked being put before requirements.

According to Andrew and Mark, the first question should be how many and what sort of ships Navy requires to meet our strategic and defence challenges. However, there’s a gap here: it’s not just the perceived naval requirement for ships to meet our strategic and defence challenges that needs be to be identified—it’s the national requirement. It loads the question to look solely at naval (or warfighting) requirements.

Last year, a Senate Committee accepted a recommendation from Anthony Bergin and I that a ‘national fleet’ approach should be considered for building the national capability for blue-water operations. That would ensure important capability requirements don’t fall down a ‘hole’ between national agencies. So far the Government hasn’t responded to this recommendation.

The lack of an effective ice-strengthened offshore patrol vessel in the current national fleet is an example of such a ‘hole’. Defence doesn’t want such a vessel because it’s not for ‘warfighting’, while Customs sees it as beyond their current border protection requirements.

Australia has one of the largest areas of maritime jurisdiction in the world—12.75 million square kilometres. We are often accorded only the third largest maritime area (after the US and France), but that’s because our exclusive economic zone around Australia’s Antarctic Territory is excluded.  When it’s included along with our approved areas of outer continental shelf, Australia may well have the largest area of maritime jurisdiction in the world.

We also have a huge area of search and rescue (SAR) responsibility stretching down to Antarctica and halfway across the Indian Ocean. Every summer Australia is caught short by a lack of capability to respond to an SAR incident or law enforcement requirement in the Southern Ocean. This inability to fulfil our responsibilities is a national disgrace.

A basic problem is that no-one seems to know what we want. There’s no true ‘whole of government’ approach to what might be required. Andrew and Mark in their latest post even question the basic requirement for surface warships.

The Offshore Combatant Vessel project (OCV) (SEA 1180) is a prime example of not knowing what’s required. It’s often referred to as the offshore patrol vessel (OPV) project because everyone knows that the vessel currently in mind would have no real warfighting role. The initial capability description for the OCV makes no mention of possible requirements in the Southern Ocean—in fact it specifically excludes operations south of latitude 48o South and prescribes operations north of the Tropic of Capricorn as the vessels’ principal area of operations.

Current indications are that the Armidale Class replacement may be an updated version of the Cape Class vessels being acquired by Customs. Such vessels are unsuitable for all weather operations round southern Australia let alone in the Southern Ocean and off Antarctica.

Other problems with aluminium vessels, such as the Armidale and Cape Class vessels, were demonstrated last year with the disastrous fire in Brisbane that destroyed HMAS Bundaberg. A conventional steel monohull vessel, designed to Naval Ship Rules or Classification Society Rules for large steel ships, and suitable for unrestricted operations worldwide must be considered for at least some of the OCV build. Some should be OPVs suitable for operations in the Southern Ocean.

Then there’s the uncertainty with the OCV project’s way ahead. The 2013 Defence White Paper committed to the project as a long-term goal, but opted in the short term for an accelerated procurement of an existing design to replace the Armidales. With the improved border protection situation in the North that accelerated procurement has apparently been forgotten.

As Andrew and Mark have noted, RAND has suggested an interim project of building OPVs, but that would have to essentially start now, and would deliver ships for what they say, there’s no obvious need. I fundamentally disagree with that view—it’s looking only at the naval (ie war-fighting) requirement not the national requirement.

It’s a major gap in the naval shipbuilding programme that a respectable OPV isn’t included. Many examples of this class of vessel can be seen around the world. They are relatively unsophisticated vessels that could easily fill the current ‘gap’ in the naval shipbuilding programme without bringing forward replacements for the Anzac Class frigates. Even if Customs and Defence won’t bid for such a vessel, the Government should direct that they be acquired. Who operates them can be determined later.