$3bn vessels to give navy a longer grasp

The Australian

By Brendan Nicholson

1 December 2017

Source: http://www.theaustralian.com.au/national-affairs/defence/3bn-vessels-to-give-navy-a-longer-grasp/news-story/ab2b0c2e3272168c5dbe1cf0530bbc27

The winning OPV contender

Australia’s 12 new offshore patrol vessels (OPVs) will extend the navy’s reach far out into the nation’s northern approaches, the Indian Ocean, the Pacific and waters to the south.

Former rear admiral James Goldrick, who once headed the former Border Protection Command, says the much larger size of the OPVs over the patrol boats they are replacing amounts to a significant increase in naval capability.

“It will do the same stuff as the patrol boats but it will do it better, more easily, for much longer and with much less pressure on the crews,” former rear admiral Goldrick tells The Australian.

The OPVs will also be much better able to patrol the exclusive economic zone immediately to Australia’s south, he says. “We don’t spend enough time looking at what’s going on there. We will also be able to do more in the Pacific than we’ve been able to until now.”

Much improved seakeeping and endurance will also give the Royal Australian Navy greater flexibility and reduce crew fatigue.

The vessels’ size will ensure that there is space for extra equipment including unmanned patrol platforms to extend their capacity.

The OPVs will replace the 13 much smaller Armidale-class patrol boats which have, at times, found the very heavy seas encountered during border protection and rescue operations off northern Australia hard-going.

According to navy chief Vice Admiral Tim Barrett, the Australian OPVs will be 80 metres long, with a displacement of 1700 tonnes and a draught of 4m.

With a crew of about 40, they will be fitted with a 40-millimetre gun for self-protection, three 8.4m sea boats, state-of-the art sensors and command and communication systems that will allow them to operate alongside the Australian Border Force vessels, other Australian Defence Force units and allies.

German shipbuilder Lurssen Werft was selected to design and oversee the building of the OPVs, two in Adelaide and the rest in the Perth area.

The family-owned company, which has been building ships since the 1870s, was one of three European contenders for the project with a version of the Darussalam-class corvette it built for the Royal Brunei Navy.

The federal government startled some in the industry by announcing that Lurssen will team up with West Australian shipbuilder Austal and a subsidiary of a WA engineering company, Civmec, to build 10 of the vessels in WA.

The promise to build the 10 in WA was made long ago, but Austal had joined with another German company, Fassmer, in a rival bid while Lurssen was originally teamed with Civmec and the Adelaide-based ASC Shipbuilding.

The third contender for the contract worth well over $3 billion was the Netherlands company Damen, which had also teamed with the Civmec subsidiary and ASC.

The first two vessels will be built in Adelaide by ASC Shipbuilding to ensure continuity of employment for skilled personnel before work begins on nine future frigates in 2020. Work on the first OPV is scheduled to begin there in the third quarter of 2018.

Austal chief executive David Singleton says the decision is a good one. On most of Austal’s shipbuilding projects, about 70 per cent of the work is outsourced to other companies, Mr Singleton says. He says Civmec is a highly competent steel fabricator and the two companies will work very well together.

Mr Singleton says Austal is the experienced shipbuilder of the pair and it will construct the vessels at its Henderson yard, so sharing work with Civmec is not a problem. That will provide shipbuilding in WA with a 15-year backbone.

Earlier, Mr Singleton told shareholders: “There’s only one company building ships on the Henderson coast and you can be sure there won’t be two companies building ships.’’

The announcement in late November by Defence Industry Minister Christopher Pyne contained little detail but said that once the first two OPVs were built in Adelaide, the project would shift to the Henderson Maritime Precinct in WA where Lurssen would use the capabilities of Austal and Civmec to build 10 more vessels ‘‘subject to the conclusion of commercial negotiations’’.

“Under the model announced today, Lurssen will be the prime contractor leading a fully Australian build team comprising experienced shipbuilders as directed by the Australian government,’’ Mr Pyne said.

For decades, while Australia’s shipbuilding industry struggled with delays, cost overruns and uncertainty about its future, Austal was a success story that sailed largely under the radar.

The company began 20 years ago building crayfishing boats and then began making giant aluminium ferries for the international commercial market.

Its civilian ferry designs so impressed senior officers from the US Navy that they borrowed one to try it and then contracted the company to produce a military version for high-speed operations in waters near land.

Austal has also announced the signing of a contract to build a 15th Independence-class littoral combat ship for the US, bringing total sales of the sleek and futuristic-looking vessels to more than $8.5bn.

It is also building 19 steel-hulled Pacific patrol boats at Henderson.

During the bid process, Lurssen said it wants to use the OPV contract to establish a strong enough foothold in Australia to begin exporting warships from WA to regional allies.

The first OPV is due to enter service in 2021.

Brendan Nicholson is the defence editor of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute site, The Strategist.