Reversing the slow-motion collapse of our Navy
Australian Navy frigate ARUNTA in drydock

The more high vis vests we see at the Government's Navy announcement, the less likely it'll focus on the critical need - getting ships and weapons to sea before 2030. Image: Defence.

Written by

Michael Shoebridge

The Government’s challenge is to get new, properly armed warships into the Royal Australian Navy before the ageing ANZACs break and well before the first underarmed, over budget Hunter class frigate makes its way into service sometime from 2033 – and have these ships joined by some unmanned systems.

To do this, Richard Marles has to take his symbolic Deputy Prime Minister hat off, put his Defence Minister one on, and get additional money out of the Treasurer and the Prime Minister.  There is no magic money tree in the existing Defence budget that can find the billions of dollars to buy new ships and get them quickly. He also needs to break Defence’s – and politicians’ – bad habits on procurement.

Any new Australian warship – whether it’s labelled a Tier 1 or Tier 2 ship, a corvette, a light frigate or anything else – needs to be better armed than the old ANZACs and be affordable in numbers.  So, a sticker price anywhere near the current Air Warfare destroyers ($3 billion each for the 3 the Navy has) or the even more expensive Hunter class ships ($45 billion for 9 frigates) is out of the question.

But the most well-armed design at the best price is meaningless if it can’t be built and delivered into naval service this decade. So time is a critical factor in any plan we get from the Government.  

After eating a year with the Strategic Review, only to have it spawn another review into the Navy and then taking almost 6 months to consider that, Richard Marles has no more time to waste. 

Grand announcements about doubling the size of the fleet without specific commitments on timeframes, contracts and money are more of what Defence is good at: process without outcomes in any timeframe that matters.

Similarly, cutting the Hunter frigate program from nine to six ships is irrelevant to what happens between now and the 2040s. It doesn’t free up a single dollar before the late 2030s for Defence to spend on anything else and still means the Navy will get 10,000 tonne ships that are amongst the most lightly armed warships of that size on the planet.

The usual political mantra of ‘jobs and growth’ and the employment and economic nirvana to be had in marginal electorates from ‘continuous naval shipbuilding’ must not be the priorities.  This will just get in the way of the actual priority: reversing the collapse of our Navy’s fleet. 

Continuous naval shipbuilding is the approach announced in 2016 by the then Turnbull government and recommitted to by the Albanese government. In 8 years, it has given us the cancelled $90 billion French submarine program, the $3.5 billion unarmed and troubled Offshore Patrol Boat program, and the disastrous $45 billion Hunter frigate program – all distinguished by the failure to give our navy a single ship or submarine, and with no outcomes likely for another decade.  It’s also resulted in Australian companies who make unmanned surface and sub-surface drones getting no contracts. That’s what ‘jobs and growth’ mixed with electoral politics does when it dictates defence choices.

To grow our Navy at a dangerous time in our world, Richard Marles has to avoid all that. He can only do this by not running the usual beauty contest that is Defence’s standard tendering and contracting approach – going to the market for 4 or 5 designs from 4 or 5 different groups of companies, getting their bids against Navy requirements, and then evaluating these in the usual stately Defence way before putting advice to government to make a choice, and only then negotiating a contract with the lucky winner sometime around 2030.

Instead, he needs to direct Defence to do what countless earlier reviews of Defence have said: buy an existing ship that is already in production from a company with a track record of delivery, and not allow the Navy to change it all to meet their own unique, boutique requirements.  It’s time to sole source a ship and the builder and get into contract fast.

The Navy will be far better off stepping back and letting warships get built for it than taking years more refining what it wants and then tinkering with designs they are offered. And government ministers, premiers and backbenchers also need to step back and avoid the temptation that has undercut our Navy in recent years: insisting on ships being built in particular electorates with forced marriages between the companies involved.  That is a familiar path that leads to delays, construction troubles, cost blow outs – and at the end, ships that get into service too late with systems that are overtaken by events and technological change.

All this has to be practical.  Like the Army and the Air Force, the Navy is haemorrhaging people and failing to get young Australians to join up.  It can’t crew the 11 warships it has now and will struggle to maintain the crew numbers for the Collins submarines as these age. 

New warships and drones have to turn up early enough for new recruits to know they will get to use them at sea, instead of these young sailors just marking time for recruits who join sometime in the 2030s. And, because of the Navy’s workforce crisis, any new ship has to require smaller crews than the current ANZAC or Air Warfare Destroyers’ 180 person crews.  

A Navy without warships or sailors to crew them, with no drones but a growing number of Admirals, spending billions of dollars employing shipyard workers, all wrapped up with promises things will get better a decade or more from now is the unacceptable plan we had before the Albanese government came to office. 

Tomorrow’s announcement can change this. Let’s see if it does.