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Aussie Navy Lumbered with Sub-Par Hardware

We are, as the torturous lyrics of our national anthem remind us, “a nation girt by sea,” a condition that ensures that we rely heavily for our continued existence on ships.

One wonders, then, why the Royal Australian Navy and the contractors that supply it have such an appalling record in delivering naval vessels that go anywhere near performing the tasks required of them to defend our island continent.

The performance of the locally built Collins-class submarines has been a scandal since the first was launched in 1996. The fleet has suffered an endless litany of mechanical, electrical and computer malfunctions, which has meant it has never been able to carry out the national defence tasks for which it was designed.

The boats were too noisy, the combat systems didn't work, the torpedoes didn't fit and they were not cheap, having to date cost $10 billion.

According to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, some of them only received fully functioning combat systems last year.

When HMAS Farncomb limped into port last week after its generator failed, it meant that only the oldest, HMAS Collins, was fit to put to sea and then only for training purposes – and this from the fleet that was supposed to provide Australia's front line of defence.

There are also concerns that the Swedish-supplied Hedemora diesel engines may have to be replaced, an enormous task that would cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

The problems surrounding these intended monuments to Australian technical achievement were all but fatally underlined in February 2003 when a hose failed on HMAS Dechaineux while it was submerged. With 12,000 litres of water flooding the hull, it came within seconds of being lost with all 55 hands.

In May 1998, four sailors died in a horrific engine room fire aboard HMAS Westralia. An inquiry found the fire was caused by the non-standard flexible fuel lines fitted.

In August 2006, four sailors aboard the patrol boat HMAS Maitland were gassed with hydrogen sulphide.

One, Chief Petty Officer Kurt MacKenzie, has launched legal action for compensation, claiming the boats, which were never intended for the RAN but were a commercial design adapted to military use, were rushed into service.

Last week, with much fanfare, the RAN accepted four upgraded frigates into service. They are a welcome addition to the nation's maritime defence ability but were delivered five years late and hugely over budget.

The fleet's supply ship HMAS Success does not meet the International Maritime Organisation's requirements for oil tankers to have double hulls. As a result, the Defence Department is seeking a waiver of this requirement from the international body.

In March 2008, the navy got rid of its Seasprite helicopters for $40 million, which may sound like a good deal until you appreciate that it paid $1.4 billion for them and that they were withdrawn from service shortly after being introduced because they were too dangerous to fly and had hopeless combat systems.

Why did we blow more than a billion dollars on junk? Well might you ask, for the decision to scrap them, taken seven years after they were supposed to start flying, ended one of the greatest debacles in the disaster-strewn history of Australian military purchases.

The navy is at present flying Sea Hawk helicopters, which Defence Minister Senator John Faulkner has admitted are "increasingly difficult to support". Faulkner has also revealed that the fleet's mine hunters have "obsolescence issues" and that three of its six landing craft would soon have to be withdrawn from service.

Against this background, the Government has declared that it wants to acquire a new fleet of 12 submarines, with Prime Minister Kevin Rudd talking up the likelihood that these will be a uniquely Australian design.

The other option is to buy a proven, off-the-shelf European model.

The political advantages of designing them and building them in Australia are obvious, although even the Defence Materiel and Science Minister Greg Combet has admitted that building the submarines ourselves would be "at the margins of our present scientific and technological capability" and the most complex project ever attempted here.

Worryingly, Combet also added a political message, saying it would contribute to the modernisation of the Australian manufacturing industry.

But when the flag waving has ceased and the cheering faded, will we be left with a $36 billion fleet of Made in Australia vessels that are incapable of defending the country?

The experience of the Collins-class vessels suggests that if political expedience triumphs over common sense, as invariably happens in this country, our coastline may be left unguarded.

The Collins subs have never been called upon to fire a shot in anger. It would be a brave soul who would suggest that their replacements will enjoy the same good fortune. (ends)

Royal Australian Navy Lumbered with Sub-Par Hardware