Australia has long built warships and submarines, albeit on a stop-go basis. However, the shipyard infrastructures for each new build and the associated skills developed during the construction phase have generally dissipated after the project finishes and the ships delivered. No more.
The Australian government is determined to create an enduring naval shipbuilding industry, by developing a detailed shipbuilding plan and allocating considerable funding to achieve its goal.
The government’s ambitious objectives are to be met through a whole-of-nation, multi-generational effort extending well into the future. This is – the government believes – Australia’s biggest ever project, surpassing even the iconic Snowy Mountains water storage and hydroelectric scheme that remade Australia’s economy and society in the post Second World War era.
Under the shipbuilding plan Australia would be transformed from a ship purchaser to a ship producer, with a significant flow-on impact on the Royal Australian Navy’s (RAN) force structure. Under the plan, the driver of the Navy’s future would be the timings of the new ships to be built, as much as – or maybe even more than – the quality of ships acquired. Production schedules appear set to dominate the RAN’s future force structure deliberations rather more than capability considerations. This shift also seems likely to fundamentally change the RAN’s current force structure warship paradigm of build/midlife-upgrade/replace to a build/replace pattern.
Under the plan, the shipbuilding industry would not be remade simply to meet the RAN’s needs or to be solely dependent upon RAN contracts for its future. Instead, the vision is for industry to prosper by being integrated into global supply chains and by exporting products and services.
This is more than fine statements with substantial long-term investment underpinning it, thereby motivating deep ongoing defence industry participation. Over the next few decades, A$89bn is planned to be spent on acquiring new warships and submarines. Sustainment costs over their service life would further increase this figure significantly.