One of the key officers responsible for managing the Australian navy's shipbuilding and sustainment program says the lack of a second large vessel dry berth in Australia is keeping her awake at night.
Rear Admiral Wendy Malcolm told industry representatives who attended a briefing at the Australian Marine Complex in Henderson this morning she was nervous about the Royal Australian Navy's sustainment capability, given the only large vessel dry berth in Australia was the Captain Cook Graving Dock, in Sydney.
The briefing was organised by the state government's Department of Jobs, Tourism, Science and Innovation, which is looking for industry support to help fund and design a $500 million-plus large vessel dry berth at the AMC.
"If I tell you what keeps me awake at night it's that I've only got one Captain Cook Graving Dock and I've got an awful lot of large ships," Rear Admiral Malcolm told industry representatives.
"So just from the sustainment perspective, I'm becoming increasingly nervous about our ability to be flexible to be able to respond to short-notice requirements. It only takes one thing to get stuck in the dock or not to be able to get in and in the past we have always gone 'oh well, we will head elsewhere'. I feel very strongly that it's important we have that capability here in Australia.
"If you look at the forecast of the ships that will be based here, of the work that is coming, I have no doubt that there will be usage. And I do believe that it's a case of 'build it and they will come'."
Rear Admiral Malcolm, who is head of maritime systems within the navy's capability acquisition and sustainment group, laid out the RAN's $170 billion-plus future shipbuilding program and outlined about $2 billion in annual sustainment expenditure. She said the program timeline was approaching "like a steam train" and would provide opportunities that industry would not want to miss.
JTSI Defence West infrastructure development director Simon Bell also told industry representatives the 2020 Defence Force Structure Plan required a large vessel dry berth that could accommodate ships that were bigger than the AMC's current 115m capacity.
Two multi-role sealift and replenishment vessels to replace HMAS Choules would be built between 2024 and 2034, at about 176m, while a salvage and repair vessel required to support large ships would be about 173m in length.
The US Navy was also interested in using a large vessel dry berth in WA, especially given recent changes in the geopolitical situation, he said. US consul-general David Gainer attended the briefing.
Rear Admiral Malcolm said the state government had made an excellent decision to build the AMC common user facility, suggesting a large vessel dry berth would deliver similar results.
"I think that there is more than enough just in the sustainment side," she said.
"I'm now getting into a boxing match with the shipbuilders because they want to get things built in a hurry. So if you actually look at the detail in the shipbuilding forecast about when we want to start large replenishment vessels, we are going to really need to get cracking to have something to build those vessels in.
"So we're really interested in what the market thinks about that, but I don't think there's any doubt about demand both on the sustainment and the shipbuilding front and I would really encourage everybody to get involved."
Industry representatives who attended the briefing, either in-person or virtually, were provided with a document that outlined the state government's high-level requirements for a large vessel dry berth, inviting industry to respond by February 25.
The state government wants to gauge industry interest in being involved in the funding, design, construction, operation and use of the dock.
There are only about 300 large vessel dry berths around the world and the Captain Cook Graving Dock is only able to accommodate one ship at a time.
It’s understood the state government will consider alternative types of large vessel dry berths, including those that use a modular design or floating options, which would allow more than one vessel to be docked.
The necessity for a new large vessel dry berth was identified in the recently released AMC Strategic Infrastructure Land Use Plan, but it was expected to be built in the 2030s.
The state government now wants to investigate whether the pay-for-use AMC could become home to a large vessel dry berth in the mid-late 2020s.
It would allow the RAN to dry dock some of its biggest ships at Henderson, and provide opportunities for local shipbuilders to complete bigger builds locally.
The plan is not related to the submarine full-cycle docking issue and Rear Admiral Malcolm would not comment on it, other than to say that WA industry should take a great interest in a large vessel dry dock.