By Peter Roberts
The navy emerged from the Defence Strategic Review released on Monday as the future of Australia’s defence posture, but there are warnings that some programmes might be cut in favour of others, and that a big shakeup is in the wind for naval shipbuilding in Western Australia.
One thing the review did not recommend was the predicted slashing of the navy’s fleet of Hunter-class frigates now being built in Adelaide from nine to six, and offshore patrol vessels being built in Perth to be cut from 14 to six.
These predictions appeared in every media outlet last week. Instead, the review recommended a ‘short, sharp’ review of Australia’s combat surface fleet, which the ABC has reported will be conducted by former US Navy Vice Admiral William H. Hilarides.
So while predictions of the slashing of the number of Infantry Fighting Vehicles made it to the final review report exactly as leaked, predictions of the slashing of ship numbers did not.
A cynic would say that having floated the idea of cutting ship numbers, there was a behind the scenes backlash led no doubt by the WA and SA Labor Premiers that caused it to be excised at the last minute from the report.
Certainly, there has already been disquiet in Adelaide’s SME manufacturing community about the AUKUS pact decision to build nuclear powered submarines instead of French conventional vessels, thus delaying for years, perhaps a decade, a flow of orders that many companies have already invested for.
We may never know as the government did not respond to this comment in the strategic review: “Enhancing Navy’s capability in long-range strike (maritime and land), air defence, and anti-submarine warfare requires the acquisition of a contemporary optimal mix of Tier 1 and Tier 2 surface combatants, consistent with a strategy of a larger number of small surface vessels.”
Those early predictions I mentioned earlier interpreted this as cutting the number of frigates and offshore patrol vessels.
While Adelaide SMEs remain disappointed and sceptical about the timing of new defence contracts, those around Western Australia’s Henderson shipyard must be very worried indeed.
For while the strategic review recommended work begin immediately to build the much larger submarine shipyard in Adelaide that will be needed to built nuclear powered submarines, Henderson was earmarked for ‘rationalisation’.
The review said: “Under current plans there is simply not enough work to sustain the number of shipbuilders located at Henderson.”
And further: “Industry consolidation options for the Henderson shipyard should be examined as a matter of urgency.”
While the government did recommit to a continuous naval shipbuilding programme, clearly it is not all clear sailing ahead.
Picture: Defence Strategic Review