With $90 billion worth of naval shipbuilding programs, the Royal Australian Navy and naval shipbuilding industry would appear to be in an enviable position, however, the long lead time on key programs and ramp up in delivery poses challenges for industry.
As a maritime nation, Australia is dependent on unlimited access to the ocean – as the regional paradigm changes, there is greater strain on the Navy to protect the national interests and naval assets like the Canberra Class amphibious warfare ships, combined with concerns about the continuity of Australia's sovereign naval shipbuilding industry in between major programs.
Despite this unprecedented long-term investment in the nation's naval capabilities, growing concern from members of various state and the Commonwealth parliaments concerning job losses, capability gaps and cost surrounding the delivery and time frame of major naval shipbuilding programs and long-term sustainment of the Navy's Collins Class submarines has seen the public discourse bubble over in recent days.
In one corner is Centre Alliance senator and former submariner Rex Patrick, who has revealed an analysis report commissioned by Defence and conducted by ASC (covering two time frames for full-cycle dockings in Western Australia from 2022 and 2024) with concerns about the relocation of the full-cycle docking maintenance of the Navy's existing Collins Class fleet and its impact on the Adelaide shipyard's workforce ahead of commencement of both the Hunter and Attack Class programs.
"There's no question that the full-cycle docking should stay in South Australia, it will cost more than a billion dollars and involve significant risk to national security if full-cycle docking is switched across to Western Australia. For South Australia, this is a $400 million contract per annum, that's a huge amount of economic activity for South Australia and we've got 700 workers' jobs at risk," Senator Patrick said.
To a lesser extent, Senator Patrick is supported by South Australian Liberal Premier Steven Marshall, who supports the continued full-cycle maintenance of the Collins Class vessels in Adelaide, while retaining the workforce capacity and jobs.
Meanwhile, in the opposite corner stands West Australian Minister for Defence Issues Paul Papalia, who has long advocated for the relocation of the capability to Western Australia, supported by a booming naval shipbuilding capability centralised around Henderson and HMAS Stirling playing host to the majority of the Royal Australian Navy's fleet of Collins Class submarines.
Minister Papalia said, "As far as I understand, there's some secret report written by some South Australians which they're making all their assumptions upon; it's farcical that Rex Patrick or anyone else in South Australia are making claims on a secret report. In 2024, South Australia will be incapable of meeting the demands for a skilled workforce in the range of 15,000 additional people – they just don't have the capacity."
While it is critical to understand and accommodate the political sensitivities of the issue, such a critical national security issue cannot be made solely on the basis of partisan political interests – therefore any response requires both nuance and pragmatism from all concerned parties, moving past nostalgia and concepts of a state's supremacy in a particular area.
Rather, compromise serves as the ideal path forward for all parties as the focus needs to shift beyond the political jockeying and recognise the challenges faced by the nation and the Australian Defence Force in an increasingly contested and challenging tactical and strategic operating environment – and while Defence Connect would never seek to directly impose its own opinions or beliefs, it would reinforce that the national interest should be the primary focus of all parties.
Recognising this, a middle path amenable to all parties must be considered and formally debated, taking into account the varying, yet equally complex industrial, population, finance and, critically, the tactical and strategic needs of the Royal Australian Navy. As a starting point, below is a potential compromise that serves merely as a possible solution to all concerns, while equally supporting the long-term capability of the Navy.
Easing the burden on the existing fleet and crew
Serving as the basis of Australia’s maritime-based area-air and missile defence capabilities, the Hobart Class is a critical capability for both Navy and the broader “joint force” ADF capability. Despite procurement and construction problems, Australia’s Hobart Class destroyers will provide a quantum leap in the capability of the Navy’s surface fleet, serving as a task force air defence screen, secondary command and control hub and invaluable surface and subsurface warfare asset.
HMAS Hobart and her two sister ships, HMAS Brisbane and Sydney, are Hobart Class air warfare destroyers based on the Spanish F-100 frigates. The Hobart Class combat system is built around the Aegis weapon system, incorporating the state-of-the-art phased array radar, AN/SPY 1D(V), will provide an advanced air defence system capable of engaging enemy aircraft and missiles at ranges in excess of 150 kilometres.
Acquiring an additional one-to-three Hobart Class vessels serves to enhance the nation’s naval shipbuilding capabilities – maintaining the critical skills in both Adelaide and/or Henderson shipyards until the major construction Hunter and Attack Class programs commence. Doing so also serves to spread the strategically vital shipbuilding skills essential to the long-term success of the Naval Shipbuilding Plan.
Expanding the acquisition of the Hobart Class will also serve to provide additional redundancy for the Navy in the face of increasingly advanced anti-ship ballistic and cruise missile systems and enhancing the protective layers around other major Navy assets, namely the Canberra Class amphibious warfare ships, while further supporting Australia's growing responsibilities in the region.
Accordingly, the Coalition government needs to lay down a Block 2 variant of the Hobart Class guided-missile destroyers with enhanced area-air and missile defence capabilities and enhanced anti-submarine warfare capabilities – specifically noise reduction characteristics – and begin upgrades of the existing fleet.
Finally, the expanded acquisition of a 'Block 2' variant would enable the lessons learned throughout the 'Block 1' phase to reduce delivery delays, cost overruns and also support the integration of Australian industry with the US Navy's FFG(X) program by supporting the block build of the US Navy's own future frigate program, in which Navantia has presented the F-100 Alvaro De Bazan Class, upon which the Hobart Class is based – enhancing allied industry co-operation and interoperability.
Australia is defined by its relationship and access to the ocean, with strategic sea-lines-of-communication supporting over 90 per cent of global trade, a result of the cost effective and reliable nature of sea transport. Indo-Pacific Asia is at the epicentre of the global maritime trade, with about US$5 trillion worth of trade flowing through the South China Sea and the strategic waterways and choke points of south-east Asia annually.
The Indian Ocean and its critical global sea-lines-of-communication are responsible for more than 80 per cent of the world's seaborne trade in critical energy supplies, namely oil and natural gas, which serve as the lifeblood of any advanced economy. Furthermore, the long lead time of the Hunter Class program will mean that the Hobart Class will serve as the high-end backbone of the fleet until the introduction of the Hunters, placing increased operational and strategic strain on both the platform and crews.