A PLAN to save Australia’s ship building industry by bringing forward construction of eight potent new frigates for the Royal Australian Navy is being considered by the Abbott government.
This option to bridge the so-called “valley of death” for shipbuilding would mean constructing sections of some of the new frigates when the hulls of the three air warfare destroyers (AWDs) are completed. That would mean the 7000-tonne frigates would use the same hulls as the destroyers so that they could be built with the existing equipment and the same workforce.
The sections, or “blocks” can be built in different shipyards and then welded together.
This option will be discussed in a speech to be made by Defence Minister David Johnston to key defence industry figures in Canberra today.
The valley of death is the tag given to the point when current defence contracts run out with the completion of the AWDs and two giant landing ships. Companies say they will have to sack thousands of skilled workers unless more ships are ordered.
That follow’s last night’s warning by Royal Australian Air Force chief Geoff Brown that the world was entering a period of political and economic instability “which will shape a potentially volatile and dangerous security environment, especially in our region”.
“Of particular concern to Australia is the rising tension in the South China Sea where our vital interests are directly engaged,” Air Marshal Brown told The Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
He said air power was the most agile and responsive military instrument available to government.
The use of air power by the US to save refugees trapped on Iraq’s Mount Sinjar had demonstrated how decisive it could be.
Senator Johnston will tell the industry representatives today the AWD project is running 21 months late and more than $360 million over budget.
He stresses the option of building the frigates in Australia depends on the shipbuilding industry demonstrating that it can complete the destroyers without further cost overruns or delays.
“This is to ensure everything is in place to allow a continued naval shipbuilding industry in Australia,” he will tell the Australian Business Defence Industry Group.
“All we are asking is that industry demonstrates it can meet an acceptable benchmark for cost and productivity.
“Part of the work on the future frigate program is to examine whether we can commit to the construction of some early blocks to ensure there is no break in production overall.”
Senator Johnston says no decision has been made on the design of the navy’s new submarines but work is progressing well on options. The government has already provided $78m for preliminary work on the new frigates.
The new class was set out in the Rudd government’s 2009 defence white paper which intended they’d be operational by the mid-2020s.
The ships were to carry cruise missiles and they were likely to be equipped with a system able to destroy ballistic missiles.
Co-operation on such a system was announced in Sydney last week at the annual AUSMIN talks between Australia’s foreign affairs and defence ministers and their US counterparts.