The design for Austral’s fleet of Pacific patrol boats. Images Austal PPB Photo: Austal PPBIt’s one small step for an Australian shipbuilder, but a giant leap for the country’s plans for a major defence industry.
When the first steel plates for a new fleet of Pacific patrol boats are laser-cut at a small plant in southern Perth on Wednesday, it will be the start of a continuous 30-year program that Australian companies and the federal government hope will help spur a major export industry.
The 40-metre boats are being made by shipbuilder Austal for the government, which will give them to 12 Pacific island countries to help regional maritime security.
The construction of the 19 Pacific patrol boats will lead into the bigger Offshore Patrol Vessel program for the Royal Australian Navy, and then the massive project to replace the nation’s fleet of frigates.
It is a 30-year endeavour that will sustain a continuous industry, rather than one that stops and starts, shedding skills and tools which then need to be created from scratch next time. This is the so-called “valley of death” that has plagued Australian shipbuilding in the past.
Including the new fleet of submarines, the shipbuilding program will involve $89 billion in production over the coming decades.
Austal chief executive David Singleton said that 20 or 30 years of continuity enabled companies to not only retain expertise but to innovate and invest in more efficient production.
“I can guarantee you that as a result of this, we will end up with a very high-class, export-capable steel shipbuilding industry,” he said.
“The best way to export is to have a ship that is being bought by your home navy ??? That’s what foreign buyers want ??? If it’s designed under Commonwealth rules, following Commonwealth production standards and supported by the Commonwealth support system, they know it will be a bloody good ship.”
Mr Singleton said Austal had been approached by a “first-class Asian country” with a view to a Pacific patrol boat order, and was speaking to a Middle Eastern country about a patrol boat contract that would be Australia’s largest defence export.
But it all depended on continuity to keep the industry sharp, he said.
“No one would think you can build a shed and tomorrow build a world-class car,” he said. “Ships are enormously complex, especially military ships, packed with complex equipment, all of which has to work in difficult circumstances.
“It’s absurd to think that you can simply start a shipbuilding capability up from nothing.”
Defence Industry Minister Christopher Pyne, who will be at HD Plasma and Laser Cutting Services – an Austal contractor – in Perth for Wednesday’s steel-cutting, said Austal expected the Pacific patrol boat program to involve 350 Australian companies in the supply chain. He said it was expected to create up to 207 direct jobs, while supporting 300 more in the supply chain.
Meanwhile, on Tuesday, Defence dismissed reports that maintenance bungles including oil replacements might have been responsible for engine problems on its newest and largest warships, the two Landing Helicopter Docks.
It said it had maintained the ships “in accordance with the builders specifications, including the oils and lubricants used in their operation”, though it acknowledged it was still working with the manufactures to find the cause of the problems.
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