16/02/2021 - 14:00

National interest key in subs call

16/02/2021 - 14:00

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A decision on future maintenance of the Collins class subs may be delayed until after the next federal election.

National interest key in subs call
Collins class submarines HMAS Collins, HMAS Farncomb, HMAS Dechaineux and HMAS Sheean in formation while transiting through Cockburn Sound. Photo: RAN/Department of Defence, Richard Cordell

The Royal Australian Navy’s fleet of Collins class submarines is ageing, but not headed for the scrapyard just yet.

The subs were scheduled for replacement by new units from the SEA 1000 Attack class program, and were slated for retirement in the mid-2020s, although this has been pushed out to the mid-2030s.

The Collins fleet is therefore subject to ongoing maintenance activities to keep it equipped with the latest technology.

Australia’s six Collins class subs are employed under a rotation program of 10 years of operations followed by two years of maintenance. The modification, upgrade, and maintenance activities are broadly referred to as full cycle docking, or FCD.

The reason for the increased coverage of this issue is the Western Australian government’s August 2019 announcement of its intentions to bring the FCD program to WA.

State government projections at that time indicated 3,000 people would be employed at the peak of the program, which would generate $8.4 billion in gross state product during the full tenure of FCD.

With FCD work currently being undertaken in South Australia, this naturally created some competitive tensions.

The reasons for those competition tensions are self-evident: job creation or loss, economic multiplier effect, skills development, and strategic capability development.

“The co-location of maintenance and operations is in line with international best practice and would create efficiencies and save money for Defence,” acting director general of the Department of Jobs, Tourism, Science and Innovation, Richard Sellers, said.

“The state government has committed up to $350 million to support broader Defence-related upgrades.

“Moving FCD to the Australian Marine Complex will see maintenance of the Collins class fleet occur next door to HMAS Stirling where the submarines are based.

“The AMC will be upgraded to support the Collins class and the state government has already announced $87.6 million in infrastructure development.”

Although Defence SA executive director Richard Price declined to comment for this column, the SA position is evident.

Supporters of keeping the FCD work in SA say there are benefits in their state’s location between Fleet Base West (WA) and Fleet Base East (NSW), and of the existing skills and intellectual property among the existing workforce; not to mention the risks of relocating and retraining a workforce to undertake FCD in WA. 

There are, however, concerns about the capacity of the SA workforce, as highlighted by Mr Sellers.

“Moving FCD to WA would de-risk the construction of the Attack class submarines and Hunter class frigates, ensuring the workforce in SA can concentrate on these important programs so they are delivered on time and on budget,” he said.

The idea, therefore, is not to steal from SA, but rather to assist, and in doing so provide the Commonwealth with the capability and capacity to meet objectives beyond just FCD.

As for potential skills gap issues in WA, Mr Sellers said the state would ensure a mix of experienced workers and highly trained apprentices by funding additional training through South Metro TAFE.

The most critical consideration is the national interest as it relates to defence. While this will no doubt continue to be debated, Mr Sellers notes that the WA government has commissioned two independent reports that identified moving FCD to WA was in the national interest.  Furthermore, the co-location of Fleet Base West and AMC in Henderson is a powerful motive, not just operationally and strategically, but also when considering Defence families.

With both states having made their case, and with a looming election in WA, there are questions about when a decision will come.

The federal government was expected to make an announcement late last year, but COVID-19 has absorbed much of the political oxygen this year.

What is most important in this process is that the decision-making is free from political gamesmanship, that a decision on FCD is made because of its impact on the capability of our Navy and the capacity of our national workforce. It is for this reason that a decision date after a federal election is anticipated in industry circles.

While the WA defence industry strives to support national interest endeavours, with thousands of jobs and billions of dollars at stake, it is clear why FCD is a highly competitive topic.

We must not forget that supporting the Royal Australian Navy remains the priority. Any decision with that as the focus should be embraced by Australia’s entire defence community. 

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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