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Stone the Crows! What price a national maritime welding capacity.
CAN AUSTRALIA BUILD WARSHIPS AT ANY PRICE?
There is talk of giving the Royal Australian Navy a fourth air warfare destroyer.[i] Not necessarily because it is needed, the current white paper specifies three, but to give the ship building industry something to do.[ii] Apparently dockyards are approaching a “valley of death” (shouldn’t that be an ocean of expiration?) – between completing the AWDs and starting work on the new generation submarines.[iii]
The Crows don’t dispute we need new assets. As Defence Minister David Johnston rightly states, we are an exporting nation and need to keep the sea-lanes open.[iv] That our capacity to refine oil is reducing is another reason why we need keep the seas secure between here and Singapore.[v]
And it seems our circumstances are such that we need warships specifically designed for our circumstances, which involve much longer ranges than European off-the-shelf boats can manage.
What the Crows want to know is whether we have the sea going smarts to build warships at any price?
This goes beyond the argument over the Collins Class submarines, whether they are submersible lemons or the fruit of Australian engineering excellence. Apparently, the answer is even if they were they aren’t now. According to Rear Admiral Rowan Moffitt, the problem with the Collins at the start was that expectations of what brand new designs could accomplish were too high. But not to worry, since “all of the Collins’s problems are now understood and most have been fixed by Australian engineers and scientists with help largely from the US.” [vi]
The Collins subs are not the only examples of warships gone wrong. Fleet supply ship HMAS Sirius was only commissioned in 2006 but it is being withdrawn from service early, because it is unstable in high seas. The problem is that Sirius is a former merchant tanker and as such is designed to sail empty or full.[ix] The Crows have no clue how this occurred; there is certainly no mention of stability problems in the project history. [x]
The AWD project is delayed by errors in constructing keel blocks. Whether the problems are due to the designers or builders matters less than it occurred in Australian yards. [xi]
Of course, building a warship is an expensive complex business and problems occur. As Greg Sheridan, who visited the Adelaide site where the AWDs are being built as a guest of Defence SA puts it:
The AWDs are among the most complex artefacts ever built in Australia. They have had their problems in construction, which is common in such projects. But the people putting it together, from the engineers to the tradies, are highly skilled. Their cumulative expertise represents an enormous national security resource.[xii]
Except when the industry gets it wrong and makes mistake creating, or even just assembling, what we can buy.
Senator Johnston, when in opposition, explained re the Collins that “the drive train is a problem, there is a whole host of issues with the Collins, it’s been extraordinarily unreliable, nobody has any of the motor or parts, the drive train parts in their submarines, we’ve had to do everything on our own, re-machining parts and pieces, it has been a very expensive operation.” [xiii]
As Andrew Davies puts it; “We’re not at all sure that government money is well spent in effectively duplicating the capabilities of other countries that have comparative advantages in the area.”[xiv]
Yet everybody agrees that we will build, or at least assemble, the next generation of submarines, which are equipped with foreign designed kit – everything from weapons systems to propulsion – in a single Adelaide yard.[xv] Which in itself is a problem. While the Australian Submarine Corporation, since Steve Ludlum took over, is generally considered vastly more efficient and reliable public funds do not efficient manufacturing make.[xvi]
It’s a hell of a way to ensure we know how to weld hulls.
[iii] Sarah Martin and Verity Edwards, “Bring the work and they will build it,” The Australian, May 4
[iv] David Wroe, “War footing: minister eyes next hotspot,” Sydney Morning Herald, September 21
[v] Phillip Coorey, Jonathan Swan and Brian Robbins, “Energy security under threat – Shorten,” Sydney Morning Herald, July 27 2012
[vi] Brendan Nicholson, “Subs need to be out there doing the damage,” The Australian, May 25
[vii] Cameron Stewart, “Not a single submarine seaworthy,” The Australian, June 10
[viii] Cameron Stewart, “Submarine’s crew was 20 seconds from death,” The Australian, December 26 2008
[ix] John Kerin, “Labor red-faced over costly refueller plan,” Australian Financial Review
[xi] Cameron Stewart, “$8bn navy flagship founders after construction bungle,” The Australian, October 26 2010, Cameron Stewart, “Labor warned of air warfare destroyer delays and blowout,” The Australian, May 28
[xii] Greg Sheridan “Warships well worth protecting,” The Australian August 10
[xv] Peter Cosgrove, “No sense in not building subs ourselves,” The Australian June 10