Pyne flags missile defence system
24 Mar 2017|

The Turnbull government has ramped up its push to train the specialised workforce needed to build $95 billion worth of warships in Australia over the next three decades and hinted that Australia will have a ‘very expensive’ system to protect it against missile attacks.

In a speech to ASPI last night, Defence Industry Minister Christopher Pyne said a new $25 million Maritime Technical College would be established in South Australia where nine frigates, 12 submarines and the first of 12 Offshore Patrol Vessels will be constructed. Mr Pyne also announced that the Request for Tender process for the $35 billion Future Frigates programme would be brought forward and released to the three tenderers by the end of next week.

As well, the Minister foreshadowed an announcement to be made soon of a ‘very expensive’ missile defence system.

‘The missile defence for the future will obviously be extremely important, I can’t make announcements about the missile defence plan that we have because we haven’t necessarily decided that yet. It is obviously very expensive, but there will be decisions being made about this in the very near future.’

Mr Pyne provided no details, and so it’s not clear whether he was envisaging national missile defence, which would be extremely expensive and technically challenging, or a more localised ‘theatre’ missile defence. The latter would be much easier to implement, and one way to contribute to such a system with allies such as the United States and Japan, would be to upgrade the weapons on the Navy’s three Air Warfare Destroyers to enable them to shoot down ballistic missiles fired by a nation such as North Korea.

Mr Pyne said defence industry was a critical pillar of Australia’s national security and he’d asked ASPI to develop a report for him on how to promote a closer, more open, more innovative discussion between defence and industry. Industry had to be drawn more closely into discussions with the Government and Defence about how to extract more innovation, agility and cost savings from the defence-industry relationship. While he was pleased when industry and defence leaders told him they saw ‘green shoots’ in defence and industry interaction, he also heard the opposite from time to time. ‘Sometimes it is more difficult for the two groups to have open and frank conversations than it should be.’ He’d receive the report in the second half of this year.

The role of the new maritime college would be to ensure the shipbuilding projects had the skilled personnel they required. ‘It is critical that the number of workers available expands,’ Mr Pyne said. ‘We cannot have each project cannibalising neighbouring industries.’ The college would be national in scope because no one state could do that by itself. It would need to work with, rather than compete with, existing institutions like the Australian Maritime College in Launceston.

The College would be initially required to ensure that the Offshore Patrol Vessel project has sufficient workers available when construction began in 2018. The Future Frigates project, due to cut steel in 2020, would need more than 2500 additional(?) skilled workers. This would mean re-training workers from other industries, particularly the automotive sector. Others would go through a full apprenticeship.

Mr Pyne said a Defence Export Strategy would be released later this year to plan, guide and measure defence exports.

The past 12 months has seen the acceleration of strategic changes around the world, with a more assertive Russia and China, the Brexit, North Korea’s highly dangerous nuclear and missile brinksmanship and a new broom sweeping through in Washington DC. Mr Pyne said:

‘These developments put a premium on the need for Australia to be able to act for itself, and make national security decisions that maximise our strengths at a time of unprecedented global strategic change.’

In the past, Australia would buy defence equipment from overseas and take delivery a few years later. Some training and sustainment work was done here, but the high quality and high value work would always be done somewhere else. That can no long be the Australian approach. ‘We can and should be able to do more,’ Mr Pyne said. ‘We should have the ability to stand on our own two feet. That means developing the ability to design, build, maintain and repair our own equipment. We need to grow our own defence industrial capability.’

As to why we’d be pursuing those goals, the Minister concluded that Australia must be able to better express itself as a middle power in the world. ‘We do this through regionally superior capability, and by being able to deploy that capability where needed.’