Talking to the chiefs: Tim Barrett (part 1)


Australia’s massive shipbuilding program must become a strongly focused national effort involving government, Defence and industry, says Chief of Navy Tim Barrett. ‘It will only work if it’s a national enterprise, a national endeavour’, Vice Admiral Barrett tells The Strategist.

Barrett says the government’s decision to build many new warships in Australia has launched the nation on a naval ‘build and sustain’ process. ‘I think that’s a sovereign capability we should seek’, he says, ‘but I’m not naive to the challenges we will need to work through’.

Barrett says:

Shipbuilding is a combination of many things. It has tentacles which spread well beyond a dockyard in South Australia or Perth. It’s not just the workers in the dockyard. It’s the design and production capability for all of the sub-components, the education process to deliver those with the capacity to design and build in-country, the industry process and the financial process within governments—federal and state—and the research capabilities to develop what’s needed.

Early this year, Barrett published a detailed essay setting out where he wanted to take the navy. He wrote when the nation was being tossed on a political storm, originating in South Australia, over whether warships should be built here at all or simply bought ‘off the shelf’.

I felt the need to put a narrative out there that hopefully defines some of those things which need to be considered that go beyond a political issue or an industry issue. I’m trying to have people look at a 30-year horizon because the task of continuous build does not happen overnight and it doesn’t even happen within a political cycle.

It’s important to settle people’s minds on what it might look like. I felt that the navy over the last couple of years had been concentrating more on what’s happened in the past, or in being reactive to issues which have arisen, and there was a need to promote why it was happening and what was likely to happen in the future.

This is me as Chief of Navy telling our sailors and officers why I think the navy is what it is and trying to set a theme for everyone within navy to work towards a common outcome and to understand why.

Barrett says there was always a need to weigh the purely economic idea that Australia could buy warships from overseas without the cost of developing and sustaining its own industry against the view that the nation should have its own self-contained industry.

There’s been a lot of debate, particularly through the defence white paper process, and reports by the RAND Corporation and others, and some pretty poor experiences in terms of the air warfare destroyers, where initial high costs of establishment and high production costs caused you to think, is it really worth it?

Barrett says a successful continuous shipbuilding program will see the nation 30 years from now in possession of highly sophisticated shipyards that allow us to design, build and sustain warships.

‘It’ll require a workforce we can sustain which will have been trained and gained experience through that entire period.’ A range of government departments, not just Defence, will sustain the yards and the industry and all of the supply chains that go with it, the navy chief says.

‘It will also drive the way we do capability development, because we may be building ships for 20 years rather than 30 years as we now do, and that might change the entire upkeep cycle and refit regime and half-life upgrades.’ The design of a ship is likely to change because of that continuous build process, and the rate at which ships are delivered may depend not just on the navy’s need for replacements but on the need to sustain a strategic industry, he says.

I’m going to have to teach my people to think about how we deliver a warfighting effect based on those new priorities. Currently we build ships that might be sustained for 35 years, knowing that halfway through we are going to have to spend an extraordinary amount of money on a refit or a life extension. How we manage our combat systems is driven by that thought process.

That could now be completely different in a continuous build because it will be part of the vessel’s original design parameters. Barrett says that while a design is still to be chosen for the navy’s nine future frigates, Defence will start planning their replacement within five years of work starting on the first of them.

We are already considering everything from the drumbeat of when they are to be delivered to our ability to update the ships and refresh the combat systems. If you have that capacity with the continuous build and an industry that is able to do that, then you are able to make far better decisions on replacements of individual hulls and the combat system. You can make design decisions now about whether you’ll be operating that ship for 20 years or 30 years.

In the past, the sustainment and technical integrity of the fleet were poorly managed, says Barrett. ‘It’s more difficult and more expensive to sustain these ships in their later years.’

Continuous build will bring new options for designing and building ships.

We’ll have an industrial capacity to experiment, to consider different options. We might be building a larger number of smaller vessels, which might flow from how the United States is looking at certain things at the moment.

If you don’t even have the industry to do that, then it makes those sorts of elements very expensive and very difficult to imagine how you might do it.