13/11/2020 - 14:00

Naval dry dock wanted in the west

13/11/2020 - 14:00


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Australia was incredibly fortunate that Kim Beazley was appointed defence minister in the Hawke government in 1984.

The AMC is one of just two locations identified for warship construction in Australia. Photo: Gabriel Oliveira

Australia was incredibly fortunate that Kim Beazley was appointed defence minister in the Hawke government in 1984. 

In a remarkable piece of politicking, Mr Beazley convinced his parliamentary colleagues that the Indian Ocean was as strategically important to Australia’s security as the Pacific. 

In 1987, he introduced the Two Ocean Navy policy, which led to half the Australian fleet being moved to HMAS Stirling in Western Australia.

Fifty per cent of the world’s container traffic, one-third of bulk cargo transport, and two thirds of the world’s maritime oil traverses the Indian Ocean.

The region is becoming increasingly militarised, with both India and China building up naval forces capable of projecting significant power far from their shores. 

Numerous other countries, not necessarily friendly to Australian interests, now have submarine fleets more than capable of disrupting Indian Ocean shipping. 

It has long been understood that whoever controls the Indian Ocean dominates Australia and Asia’s critical supply lines. 

Although the Australian government moved half the navy to the west coast, it has done little to provide the repair and refurbishment infrastructure required to support its western fleet. 

Having repair and refurbishment infrastructure as close to the point of naval operations as feasible is a major force multiplier.

Due to a lack of a large dry dock on its west coast, Australia is unable to effectively support its larger vessels, such as the two 27,000-tonne Canberra class amphibious assault ships.

The lack of this key support infrastructure also calls to question whether allied navies would risk their larger warships in the Indian Ocean if Australia needed long-term assistance securing its seaborne supply chains from an aggressor. 

Australia’s two-ocean defence policy has always required the construction of a west coast dry dock of similar capacity to the Captain Cook Graving Dock (CCGD) at Garden Island, Sydney.

The CCGD, which was built during WWII, can drydock vessels up to 320 metres in length.  

With the closure of Cairncross Dock in Brisbane in 2014, the CCGD is now the only dry dock in Australia capable of holding the Royal Australian Navy’s larger fleet units and providing emergency drydocking of allied warships and large commercial ships.

The Department of Defence views the CCGD as critical infrastructure to support naval operations in the Pacific and Southern oceans.

Not having this capability duplicated on the west coast continues to expose the nation to unacceptable risks to its supply chain.

Fortunately for Australia, the implementation of the two-ocean policy spawned WA government interest in building a marine construction facility at Henderson, 23 kilometres south of Perth. 

At that time, Henderson already had the largest commercial shipbuilding industry in Australia, accounting for approximately 55 per cent of national production. 

The WA government believed a new multi-purpose facility, adjoining the existing shipbuilding precinct, would allow local industry to compete more effectively for resources and defence contracts.

The WA commerce and trade minister at the time, Hendy Cowan, championed the project, rounding up the political support and $180 million in funding.

The Henderson project, eventually named the Australian Marine Complex (AMC), opened for business in 2003 and has become home to hundreds of businesses, generating $2.5 billion for the local economy. 

The AMC is unique in its ability to support a diverse range of industry sectors including resources, transport, commercial shipbuilding, and defence.

As highlighted in the federal government’s 2017 Naval Ship Building Plan, the AMC has multiple lines of business beyond naval work that allows it to maintain a highly skilled workforce. 

The AMC is now one of just two locations identified for warship construction in Australia.

Osborne in South Australia undertakes the construction of all major capital ships, with the AMC tasked to construct minor vessels such as patrol boats. 

The bipartisan support to fund the ongoing development of the AMC by WA’s major political parties has provided the RAN with repair and refurbishment infrastructure capable of supporting its frigates and submarines based at HMAS Stirling.

What is still lacking and urgently needed is a large drydocking capability. 

 In June 2020, the WA government released a draft plan detailing potential upgrades to the AMC, which includes a location where the Commonwealth can construct a large dry dock of similar capacity to the CCGD. 

This is a project the Commonwealth should have started construction on 20 years ago as part of the two-ocean policy.

It is critical infrastructure required for the defence of the nation.

David Kobelke spent 15 years managing CCIWA’s Australian industry participation unit


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