/ 21 February 2024

Shaking up our ships

Image source: AAP
Image source: AAP

The Squiz

Defence Minister Richard Marles has found $11 billion to overhaul Australia’s Navy, adding combat-ready warships laden with missiles to the ‘Enhanced Lethality Surface Combatant Fleet’. We’re getting 11 more of those, taking it to a total of 26, including 9 ‘Tier 1’ frigates and destroyers, and 11 smaller/general-purpose ships. We’ll also get 6 new “optionally crewed” surface vessels – aka “drone boats” – which can be operated remotely. It means $54 billion has been committed to increase our defence capabilities over the next decade, and Navy Chief Vice Admiral Mark Hammond says it’s a “real shot in the arm” for the Navy, making it more prepared for any future trouble in the Indo-Pacific.

Is that really necessary?

An independent review of our Navy as it prepares to add the AUKUS nuclear-powered submarines to its arsenal found the existing fleet is the oldest we’ve ever operated, and it’s not “fit for purpose”. Marles says the updates are “needed given the complexity” of our strategic circumstances (which is a nice way of saying China could have ambitions in our backyard). And it’s not just about spending… The number of Hunter-class frigates on order will drop from 9 to 6 because Marles says the previous Coalition government left a $20 billion funding hole. As for the new vessels, they will be constructed in Western and South Oz, which will create “thousands of jobs” over the next 10 years. Minister for Defence Industry Pat Conroy called it a “great day” for our shipbuilding industry.

Who is going to crew all of these new ships?Good question, because just last week, the Australian Defence Force revealed it is already understaffed and needs thousands of Aussies to fill their existing roles, which has seen the government consider drastic solutions… They include allowing foreigners to serve, cutting recruitment times by 200 days, and reducing fitness standards for recruits. Marles conceded yesterday that getting “the human equation right” is a “significant challenge” but says the opportunity to “participate in one of the most modern navies in the world” will help. But Coalition defence spokesman Andrew Hastie isn’t convinced – he says the Albanese Government has “a major recruitment and retention crisis on its hands” and that “morale is at an all-time low”.

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