According to this online piece from News Limited,
Adelaide is in line to secure a fourth $2 billion air warfare destroyer because the Federal Government wants a major shipbuilding project in its defence program.
The project will be included in next year's Defence White Paper.
The Government wants to help bridge the national skills gap and a fourth air warfare destroyer is the likely choice.
Leaving aside any question of whether we needed the first three Air Warfare Destroyers, let alone a fourth, and leaving aside that this represents a Government that is highly unlikely to be elected at the next election thinking aloud about what it will do following the election after that, this seems a curious way to shape the Royal Australian Navy.
Let us leave aside also the fact that if the Government had conducted itself with any meaningful sense of purpose in relation to the future submarine we would have been cutting metal by 2016 in order for the first of the new submarines to go into service as the Collins Class submarines reach the end of their planned service life from 2025. That didn’t happen; instead, the Government presided over a charade in which the Defence Materiel Organisation ran around the world trying to drum up a design competition when it has been clear from the start (including, apparently, to the European submarine builders) that the only way for Australia to procure a submarine that is fit for purpose is to have the Government’s very own ASC Pty Ltd build a submarine that takes HMAS Collins as its starting point, evolves the design both to build on what we have learned from designing, building and operating the Collins Class and to take account of perceived changes of requirement. We must be the only country in the world in which the Government owns a submarine builder and yet agonises for years over who should build its submarines.
I would be the first to agree that continuity of work for Australian defence industry and the preservation of its very high skills is important, and if any Government were to start to talk seriously about a “continuous build” approach to both its surface ships and its submarines (there is talk of this for the future submarine build) I for one would raise a cheer.
Meanwhile, I would have thought that an adequate maintenance and refit budget to keep Australia’s six submarines and 48 commissioned surface vessels in fighting trim would be more than adequate to maintain all the shipbuilding and maintenance skills we would need to support the RAN – especially as the Government’s antics in relation to the future submarine mean that it has inadvertently committed us to cutting up and refitting some number of Collins Class boats – a major shipbuilding task in itself, the end result of which will be a 1980s submarine for the 2020s-30s.
Whatever the case for the Air Warfare Destroyer, I think the certainty of being able to deploy two vessels in fighting trim, while a third undergoes maintenance or refit, would be preferable to having four in various states of disrepair. Given that the Navy could not muster a single seaworthy amphibious ship to assist in disaster relief during last year’s cyclone season, there is plenty of work to be done. What is required is the money and the political will to do it.