Katherine Ziesing | Canberra

In a joint statement on 4 August 2015, then Prime Minister Tony Abbott and then Defence Minister Kevin Andrews announced that the Government would carry out a continuous build of warships in Australia, stating: “It’s the first time that any Australian government has committed to a permanent naval shipbuilding industry”.

Yet greater detail on what continuous or even rolling production looks like is missing. The national shipbuilding plan that was supposed to fill this gap is missing in action. At this stage, there are many industry players who just want to see that the plan exists.

The series of announcements that August day saw the formation of the CEPs for a number of key naval platforms including the OPVs, Sea 5000 Future Frigates and Sea 1000 Future Submarine. To recap, the two Sea 1000 CEPs have since concluded that DCNS will be the design partner while Lockheed Martin will be the combat systems integrator.

Given that the OPVs are to cut steel next year and the Future Frigate in 2020, Defence and government need to make a decision sooner rather than later – or tell industry if the plan has changed.

But what of the two other CEPS? Apart from the announcement that the OPVs will be built in the West with Fassmer, Lürssen or Damen as the design authority partnered with a local builder after the first boat or two is built in Adelaide, news has been hard to come by. By the time this edition of ADM hits your desk, bids will be in the box from the three contenders.

The OPV program office, which ADM understands consists of a majority of contractors rather than Navy or APS personnel, will then assess the bid before making a recommendation to government. Speaking to industry players in this space, the overall feeling is one of confusion. On one hand they are being told ‘off the shelf’ and on the other that they must have sufficient design skills for Australianisation of a number of elements that can intrinsically change the ship.

The Sea 5000 CEP is due to release an RFT style document ‘shortly’. As to what this means in practice is anyone’s guess. The program office is yet to confirm if a CSI role will be included moving forward. CSI contenders are not allowed to communicate with the shortlisted companies of Navantia, Fincantieri or BAE Systems in a meaningful technical way. The conjecture is that companies will collude rather than collaborate in their own best interests rather than that of the end user I assume.

As previously noted by this publication and others, the machinery of government approvals through the National Security Committee is not a quick process. On current planning, both final responses from the CEP frameworks is likely to government before the shipbuilding plan has been released. Industry is working on a number of assumptions that at best, could be slightly off, or at worst, completely wrong. These assumptions are built upon various ministerial and government statements since the August 2015 announcement.

“Our modern navy needs to be increasingly a national enterprise, bringing together the private and public sectors of the economy to deliver a fundamental national objective – security above, on and under the sea,” Chief of Navy Vice Admiral Tim Barrett noted at ADM’s Congress in February. “That means Navy isn’t just about our ships or our sailors. Our Navy is also about the national effort required to have a Navy, to maintain it and sustain it.

“That national endeavour will ultimately manifest itself in a new industrial landscape for Australia. This endeavour underpins Navy’s approach to continuous shipbuilding. Continuous shipbuilding provides the ability to look at analysis, design, construction and sustainment collectively, or, as I would prefer to describe it: thinking, designing and doing, not as a series of sequential activities, but as concurrent activities.

“The old way of acquiring ships and planning for mid-life upgrades no longer provides a solution to our larger more complex warships. It’s unmanageable at best. We cannot plan a fleet we cannot afford to build, sustain and evolve through the life of type and into the next generations. For the first time since we built warships in the country we’ll be building not just for the life of one project, but for sustained capability into the future,” VADM Barrett concluded.

Excellent sentiments. Now where’s the plan on the how?

This article first appeared in the April 2017 edition of ADM.

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