Finally some certainty for naval shipbuilding


Kym Bergmann / Canberra


April 2016 has been one of the most significant months in history for the future structure of the Royal Australian Navy.  The Government not only shortlisted three bidders each for the Future Frigates and Offshore Patrol Vessels but, perhaps most significantly, selected a design partner for the Future Submarines – DCNS of France.  Taken together, these projects mean that by the 2030s Australia will have by far the most powerful navy in the entire Southern Hemisphere and the seventh most capable in the Asia Pacific, ranked after the United States; China; Japan; Russia; India and possibly South Korea.


Even better – for both the RAN and Australia – there will now be a continuous rolling build program for submarines and surface combatants forever.  Or at least until a future Government decides otherwise.  The strategic importance of continuous production should never be overlooked because ramping up shipbuilding from a cold start is far more difficult than pressing the accelerator pedal when there is already an experienced workforce fully engaged with an active supply chain utilising leading edge technologies.


In simple terms, defence procurement is hoping for the best, but necessarily planning for the worst.  In today’s relatively low threat environment – despite the blatant hysteria about terrorism – a continuous building program for submarines and surface combatants might not seem a high priority.  However, as many others have observed, the existing regional order that has been dominated since the end of the Second World War by the United States is gradually coming to an end – to be replaced by something that is more multi-polar and therefore less predictable.  As well as adjusting to the rise of China and India a number of other factors can be added to the mix, including possible conflict on the Korean peninsula and a resurgent Russia.  Taken together – and looking into the 2030s – defence planners and politicians have enough concerns to commit to a major strengthening of the RAN.


The importance of the navy was first understood by Kevin Rudd in the 2009 White Paper – after all, we are surrounded by water  – but then was completely frittered away in the remaining four years of Labor through inactivity, waffle and budget cuts.  Having said that, it has taken the Coalition a further two years to reach the point of making lasting commitments that will start to deliver the goods relatively quickly in the form of Offshore Patrol Vessels, followed by Future Frigates and finally next generation submarines. 


It is a refection on the complexity of submarines that even though this project is more advanced in terms of process – a design partner has been selected – it will be the last to deliver a product.  But there might be more to it than this.  Looking at other submarine programs, the Australian timetable appears to be very drawn out.  The optimistic estimate is that the detailed design phase will take between three and five years – while others have suggested it could take between five and seven years. 

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