SingaporeBetween the cancelled Attack class submarine contract, the Air Warfare Destroyers delivered late and delays along with cost overruns facing the Hunter class frigate program one wonders if anything can go right.  What was meant to be one of the simplest of the acquisitions, the Arafura class offshore patrol vessels (OPV), were placed on the government’s list of Projects of Concern on October 20.

It was all meant to be simple: the Australian build of four 1,600 tonne OPVs that German shipbuilder Luerrsen delivered to Brunei a decade ago.  Meant to replace Armidale class patrol boats, the design was selected after a three-way competition and when the winner was announced in November 2017 it seemed uncontroversial.  But then Defence decided that they didn’t want the 57mm main gun that was on the original ship, nor the four canister-launched surface to surface missiles.

To add to the complexity of the project, the Coalition government of the day mandated that the 12 new ships would be built in two separate locations.  The first two would be constructed at Osborn in Adelaide and the balance at Henderson in WA.  This was to mitigate the looming “Valley of Death” between the end of work on the AWDs and the start of construction of the new Hunter class.

A further brief complication was that the government attempted to bring shipbuilder Austal – who had teamed with one of the unsuccessful designers – back into the project.  However, after a few weeks of effort nothing was achieved, and Luerssen stuck with their original partner Civmec.  That relationship now appears to have gone sour.

Then Covid hit, which was a particular complication because it crippled travel between three key locations – Bremen in Germany and the two in different Australian states.  Around the same time in a still unexplained development, Defence cancelled the contract for the 40mm main gun from Italian supplier Leonardo, apparently believing it carried a high level of technical risk.  This was after selecting it in the first place.

In September last year, Defence officials told Senate Estimates that a decision on a new gun was imminent – implying an announcement was only weeks away.  Since that time there has been no known progress with the RAN instead developing a plan to retrofit older Typhoon 25mm systems onto them, meaning that at least the first four Arafuras would go to sea with no weaponry apart from two heavy machine guns – hardly likely to deter the might of the Chinese Navy and no better than the Armidales.

Understanding the reasons for the delay is difficult with Defence not commenting and also banning Luerssen from speaking with the media.  However, they cannot muzzle all the subcontractors to the project who report a nightmare of ever-shifting requirements from the RAN that have made it close to impossible to finalise construction.  Even though an OPV was specified by the RAN they now want something different – though exactly what is unclear.

Placing the company on the list of Projects of Concern just months before the government responds to the review into the future of the surface fleet is a worry because at the very least it smears the reputation of Luerssen, who have been successfully building ships for around 150 years.

The company has presented to government a powerful case to seamlessly switch from the construction of the Arafura class to building heavily armed Corvettes, using the same Australian production line. However, some people in the RAN are now believed to want something even larger – and at this rate might just end up with nothing at all.


For Editorial Inquiries Contact:
Editor Kym Bergmann at

For Advertising Inquiries Contact:
Director of Sales Graham Joss at

Previous articleIndo Pacific News in Brief- Day One
Next articleDroneShield teams with ADF Drone Racing Association
Kym Bergmann
Kym Bergmann is the editor for Asia Pacific Defence Reporter (APDR) and Defence Review Asia (DRA). He has more than 25 years of experience in journalism and the defence industry. After graduating with honours from the Australian National University, he joined Capital 7 television, holding several positions including foreign news editor and chief political correspondent. During that time he also wrote for Business Review Weekly, undertaking analysis of various defence matters.After two years on the staff of a federal minister, he moved to the defence industry and held senior positions in several companies, including Blohm+Voss, Thales, Celsius and Saab. In 1997 he was one of two Australians selected for the Thomson CSF 'Preparation for Senior Management' MBA course. He has also worked as a consultant for a number of companies including Raytheon, Tenix and others. He has served on the boards of Thomson Sintra Pacific and Saab Pacific.


  1. One wonders whether China’s strategic – intelligence boffins require urinary incontinence aids when reviewing Australia’s deterrence policies, procurement processes & operational outcomes.

  2. Between the R.A.N. And the Government interfering with the project I’m surprised it’s taken this long to be placed on the ever growing list of Projects of Concern. It’s absolutely ridiculous that such a simple thing as buying a proven design, that Luerssen had already built and delivered, has become such a debacle. At this rate I wouldn’t be surprised to see the project is cancelled, leaving the Navy with nothing and the Government with another compensation bill, as well as irreparable damage to the industry base and Australia’s reputation. Honestly ,I’m reminded of Einstein’s definition of insanity .

  3. I believe my comments on the OPV debacle in an earlier article of APDR are still relevant. Someone needs to be held accountable for the mess that has been created within the RAN but it would be like trying wrangle cats. The Stakeholders need to sit down and come up with a credible plan for the way ahead for the OPV build and do it quickly. I still believe that in their present form they have no credibility as a surface combatant. I think that a decision needs to be made to either them over to Border Force or repurpose them as Mine Warfare vessels if they are suitable. Even then they could do with additional weapons.

    I see an announcement today that BAE has put forward a proposal to modify the Hunter Class design to fit more VLS capacity – albeit at the expense of ASW equipment. Waiting with much anticipation as to how that discussion goes – if at all.

    The RAN seems to stumble from crisis to crisis.

  4. What, not yet another cock up by Australia, how could that possibly be?
    What was it that ex defence minister Johnson said about Australia not being able to build a canoe?
    Anyone unsure then can rest assured now that be was, and still is, correct.
    Australia is now a nothing place run by nothing people with nothing to offer.

  5. This is what you get when you replace warriors with bureaucrats in uniform. As Douglas Murray superbly put, “the barbarians are at the gates and we’re worrying what pronoun to call them”.

  6. Kym
    As further evidence that the ship design was never the problem, you only hav to go back to look at the record of delivery for the first two ships in ASC Adelaide. Despite covid and numerous supply chain disruptions at that time, Arafura was launched largely on schedule and budget. So if the edsign was so bad, how come ASC had no problem building it?
    The problem was obviously that Defence decided to order a lightly armed ship, then found that even the one gun they ordered was unavailable, leaving these as large, overpriced patrol boats. Yet that is the fault of the orderer, not the designer or builder.

  7. This is what you get when a decade of the Navy playing border policeman with Operation Sovereign Borders, leaves it ill-equipped to face the reality of a risk of real conflict.

  8. Does anyone know if OPV6 is actually under construction down in Henderson or if the entire programme has come to a halt?

    • There are 2 complete – or almost complete – ships at Osborn awaiting sea trials. In WA there are a further 4 in various stages of construction. I assume some work is continuing but everything has slowed down waiting for the government’s response to the Hilarides review, which they are sitting on for reasons that remain opaque.

  9. Perhaps there’s a cunning plan.
    6 ships – 4 MCM and 2 Hydro or similar combination.
    Ships 7-12 to be something else that has teeth?

    • RAN’s original plan was out of 12 OPVs, 2 would be for MCM and 2 would be hydrographic work. RAN themselves have swung a complete wrecking ball through all of that because basically they have no idea what they want.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here