Naval shipbuilding in Australia: a strategic necessity?
31 Aug 2015|

ormer Destroyer Escort TORRENS being hit by a Mark 48 torpedo fired by HMAS FARNCOMB off the West Australian coast

Both Kevin Andrews, the Defence Minister, and David Feeney, Shadow Assistant Minister for Defence, were kind enough to respond to my criticisms of the Government’s naval shipbuilding program in a recent column, and especially its plans for the Future Frigate. In a striking display of bipartisanship, they both offer very much the same defence of the Government’s plans. Alas, I think they also make very much the same mistakes.

First, both gentlemen seem sure that building our own warships in Australia is strategically essential. Supposedly that’s because it’s much easier to operate and maintain locally built ships. But is this advantage real, and if so, is it big enough to balance the extra cost and risk of a local build?

Experience suggests not. For example, the Oberon submarines were built overseas, but we maintained and upgraded them effectively here in Australia. The Collins were built here and we have struggled to keep them at sea. And the cost and risk difference between local and overseas builds can be huge, as the AWD project shows. We could have bought Arleigh Burkes off the US production line for not much more than US$1 billion each, and we would have them at sea by now. The AWDs are coming in at US$3 billion each and counting, and delivery is still years away.

The Government’s enthusiasm for buying our new submarines overseas shows that they understand this perfectly well. But if there’s no overriding strategic imperative to build our own submarines, why must we build our own warships? Well, we all know the reason, and it has nothing to do with Australia’s defence.

Both Mr Andrews and Mr Feeney are relaxed about this because they say the ANZAC project shows we can build warships competitively here in Australia. But the acquisition strategy for the ANZACs was different from the one the Government has announced for SEA 5000.

The ANZAC project involved stringent competition, with an exhaustive, competitive Project Definition phase between teams of designers and builders leading to fully-detailed tenders for a fixed price contract to a prime contractor solely responsible for delivering the agreed product at the contract price.

Compare this with the AWDs, where the builder was selected before the design, the design was selected before it was fully developed, and responsibility for delivery was entrusted to a committee with no one clearly in charge, and almost all the risks falling on the Commonwealth. That’s why it’s gone pear-shaped.

And yet the plans outlined for SEA 5000 resemble the AWD project much more than the ANZACs. The Government will give the job to ASC, they will select the design from a perfunctory ‘Competitive Evaluation Process’ before it’s been fully developed and before the costs and risks are known, and they will end up with a project managed by a committee, and with the Commonwealth again wearing all the risk.

And don’t imagine that a ‘continuous build’ will solve all these problems. More likely it will compound them. So if we do want to build the future frigates in Australia, we shouldn’t build them the way the Government now intends to.

But the most important question is whether we need the Future Frigate at all. That depends on whether we should build our maritime forces to achieve sea control against highly capable adversaries. Both Mr Andrews and Mr Feeney think we should.

There are two reasons why they are wrong. First, we can’t do it. As Andrew Davies and Mark Thomson explained with startling clarity, defending ships is hard and getting harder as they become easier to find and to hit. This reflects technological trends that began in the late 19th century and are much more likely to accelerate than abate.

This doesn’t mean warships can’t be defended, but it does mean that the costs of trying and the chances of failing both rise to the point that it’s not worth the effort. No matter how much we spend on warships, Australia won’t be able to achieve strategically significant degrees of sea control against any of the highly capable maritime forces now evolving in Asia. So it’s a waste of money to try.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that with careful investment we can turn these tables and deny sea control even to very capable adversaries. All the factors that make our ships so hard to defend make it relatively easy for us to attack an adversary’s.

The second reason we’d be wrong to set our sights on sea control against capable adversaries is that we don’t need it. With effective sea denial we can defend our own territory, help prevent the intrusion of hostile forces into our neighbourhood, and support our allies in the wider Asian region. We couldn’t project land power by sea—but our land forces will always be too small to achieve any serious strategic effects against any major power anyway. So that’s no loss.

Some say we need sea control to protect our trade. But against whom? Not our principle customers, surely? Interdependence and mutual vulnerability mean that the kind of ‘trade wars’ which have framed naval thinking for centuries disappeared long ago. No major power has tried to interdict another’s maritime trade for 200 years, except in the two world wars.

And how could we defend our trade anyway? A dozen frigates couldn’t defend even a fraction of our massive trade flows. A far better way to prevent attacks on our trade would be to threaten retaliation against the trade of our adversary—for which we need sea denial forces, rather than sea control.

Of course warships remain invaluable for operations in uncontested waters, so we need a good-sized fleet of modestly-sized and equipped ships just like the old ANZACs. Let’s build more of those, and build them the way the ANZACs were built. And spend the money we save on more submarines. And if we get the acquisition strategy right, we might even be able to build them competitively in Australia.