A maritime country needs a maritime defence industry

Feb 15, 2023
Australian Submarine Corporation Air warfare destroyer HMAS Hobart in the construction dock at Port Adelaide

There are very sound strategic reasons to continuously build and maintain heavily automated missile frigates and Air Independent Propulsion conventional submarines in Australia, as an alternative to spending $150B-$200B on unmaintainable AUKUS Nuclear Submarines.

“I do not say, my Lords, the French will not come, I only say they will not come by sea” John Jarvis, Earl St Vincent 1803.

Australia is a country with a lot of ocean around it and important maritime trade routes. Until WW2 we felt that if we made our contribution to the defence of the Empire we had nothing to fear. The Fall of Singapore early in WW2 after Japan entered the war moved Australia into action. Australia brought troops home from the Middle East, despite resistance from Imperial leaders. Churchill openly stated we could get Australia back from the Japanese later in the war and Britain would use our troops, ships and pilots to help defeat Germany. Fortunately for Australia we had good leadership that had our own interests at heart, not Britain’s. The Japanese attacks in 1941 on Pearl Harbour and the Phillipines brought the United States (US) into the war, but sadly the US decided to deal with Germany first then Japan.

Australia for the first time in its history realised the need to defend ourselves. We mobilised and started to ramp up wartime industrial capacity. Ships were built, aircraft, weapons and munitions were manufactured in Australia. We built an army that by the end of WW2 was the 5th largest in the world and 36% of Australia’s GDP was dedicated to wartime production.

The Royal Australian Navy, developed from that time on, is very professional, and yet it is stretched to patrol our vast coastline and huge Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) plus protect our very long shipping lanes. The Navy also renders civil/emergency aid to our neighbours in the Pacific and near North. They do a good job with what resources they have, but limited numbers of vessels and crew are serious limitations.

Australia has had a very capable ship building industry, but it cannot compete economically with foreign shipyards that build large supertankers, container ships, etc. However, we are very good at building technically complex smaller warships and submarines. A basic problem Australian Defence shipbuilding industry faces is how Government and Defence commission the building of Navy vessels. An order is placed by tender to build 3 to 9 ships or submarines and then production stops when finished. No shipyard or unsubsidised business can operate like this in the long term because at the end of each contract the skilled workforce is lost and facilities not used. Japan has understood this and with their continuous submarine building program solved the problem. One submarine is built each year and a fleet of 20 maintained; and no operational submarine is more than 20 years old. Combined with this continuous build process is continuous technical improvement, making Japanese submarines among the best in the world.

To meet Australian needs, in the short term we could therefore buy off the shelf Korean, Japanese or German AIP conventional submarines to fill our looming capability gap in submarines and not waste $6B plus on Collins Class refurbishment. Off the shelf options range from low cost (<$1.5B) for 4 German AIP 218 design to more expensive Korean (<$1.5B each) or Japanese AIP submarines. Note all these options would provide submarines with a 20+year life, more than the 10yrs life of the $6 Billion dollar Collins update, and preferable to the massive $150B-$200B of unmaintainable AUKUS Nuclear Submarines.

The $38B Hunter Class frigate program has commenced building ships in South Australia after starting in 2015, the first frigate will enter service in the late 2020s. This program with modifications could provide an opportunity for an evolutionary continuous frigate building program, where skilled staff could stay in the locality. The prime contractor would have some advantages, but should not be able to hold on to a contract indefinitely if work is not satisfactorily completed on time and budget.

Dockyards and associated infrastructure could be Government owned and leased in line with “values-based capitalism”. Contractors would lease (not buy) these Government dockyards and employ a skilled local workforce. Dockyards with local Defence establishments, local TAFE colleges and universities would utilise and train an up to date technological skilled workforce. Strategic Defence planning with an industry focus and continuous building of heavily automated missile frigates plus Air Independent Propulsion conventional submarines would provide maritime security. These two projects could be designed to operate with much smaller crew numbers and in longer term vertical launch missile capability. Long term Naval strategic planning would provide skilled jobs, build Australian Industry and also give Australia a real strategic & operational edge on any potential adversary.

There are very sound strategic reasons to build, design, modify, refit plus maintain Navy Frigates and Submarines in Australia. These defence activities provide skilled jobs and support Australian industries. Making green steel, green aluminium, corrosion resistant metal alloys plus newer technologies such as rare earth magnet electric motors, batteries, fuel cells, electronics and other associated high tech industries give us a healthy heavy industrial base. Larger specialised vessels like oilers, landing ships, etc could be built here, if economic, but could also be bought off the shelf as commercial build vessels. The Australian Government needs to support industries that give us security with self reliance and provide a strong economic drive for our economy through advanced future technologies needed by a trading maritime country.

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