Between 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.