Strategic Importance of Western Australia for Navy’s Submarine Sustainment Future

November 18, 2019
Minister Paul Papalia speaking at CCIWA’s breakfast event themed “Sustaining Australia’s Submarine Future: Full Cycle Docking in WA” which was held in Perth on 12 November 2019. Photo Copyright: CCIWA.

Key Points:

  • As the location of Defence’s major build programs for the Navy’s future submarines and frigates, South Australia’s demand for skilled labour to execute these projects will increase markedly in the years ahead.
  • Recognising an opportunity, the WA Government has made a strong case to the Australian Government and has launched a major campaign to relocate Full Cycle Docking of submarines from Adelaide to Perth.
  • The WA Government believes the relocation of Full Cycle Docking is both militarily and economically in the national interest, enabling co-location with the Navy’s largest base – HMAS Stirling – homeport to Australia’s submarine fleet, which is in near proximity to its area of operations off northern Australia. Further, it is also recognised that such a move would also complement the families of submariners by significantly reducing time away in transit and thereby enhancing morale and retention of personnel.

On the eve of SubSTEC5, it is timely to reflect on the recent national discussion around Collins class submarine maintenance. Western Australia has called for consolidation of all Collins class maintenance at the Australian Marine Complex in Henderson. This has prompted some alarmist claims that Western Australia had emerged suddenly from nowhere to make a brazen attempt to “steal South Australian jobs”.

WA Government Strategy

In reality, Western Australia is pursuing a widely published course of action that was determined in collaboration with the Federal Government and Defence over two years ago.

The McGowan Government went to the March 2017 election intent on giving Western Australia a voice on the national defence stage. We promised to: (a) establish a dedicated Defence Issues Minister and portfolio, (b) appoint a Defence Advocate, (c) create a dedicated Defence Issues agency in state government, (d) and host a defence conference to showcase local industry capabilities. Within seven months of taking office all of these commitments were delivered.

In addition to these actions, the WA Government commissioned Major General Jeff Sengleman DSC, CSC Rtd to draft the WA Defence and Defence Industries Strategic Plan. Notably, this task was undertaken in complete collaboration with the office of then Defence Minister Christopher Pyne and, through that office, with Defence. The objective was to ensure whatever Western Australia proposed would meet the needs of both the Federal Government and the ADF. The Strategic Plan was unveiled by the Premier at the inaugural Indo Pacific Defence Conference in Perth in October 2017. It was reported in the media, distributed widely and published online. It was never concealed.

A key action identified in the Strategic Plan was to make the case for Western Australia to be the principal location for maintenance and sustainment of all Australian submarines and frigates.

Whither Full Cycle Docking?

Immediately after the 2019 federal election, I met newly appointed Defence Minister Senator Linda Reynolds CSC. I made it clear to the Minister that Western Australia intended implementing our Strategic Plan and that the first item on the agenda was making the case for consolidating all Collins class maintenance in Western Australia.

The State Government sought independent expertise in putting its case. PwC was commissioned to develop a strategic analysis of the case for shifting Full Cycle Docking and ACIL Allen was tasked with assessing the economic implications of the move. Both papers were delivered to the Minister for Defence and subsequently published online.

The independent reports confirmed that by 2024, South Australia would be required to build and sustain a skilled workforce of 15,000 people across a range of demanding tasks including Hunter class Frigate construction, Attack class submarine construction and Collins class Full Cycle Docking. The problem in South Australia, as identified by its own Premier Steven Marshall, is not a lack of jobs, rather it is finding enough people for the number of jobs the State must fill.

Statements to Senate estimates confirm that ASC in South Australia is already confronting attrition of its workforce. A potential failure to sustain adequate numbers of skilled workers in South Australia represents a real threat to new ship and submarine builds and the operational capability of the Collins class.

The solution to this threat was identified by PwC as preparing to shift Collins class deep maintenance to Western Australia for the 2024 cycle. Given a decision by the end of 2019, necessary infrastructure could be built and a workforce trained, ready to undertake the task in four years’ time.

This move would result in a range of additional strategic benefits to the nation including less disruption to the lives of submariners as a result of the move. Although some might dismiss this as a second order consideration, the truth is that personnel are a critical resource. It wasn’t that long ago that Australia’s submarine operational capability was seriously impacted by inadequate numbers of submariners being attracted and retained. Boosting morale of the nation’s submariners and their families is in the national interest.

Obviously, apart from benefiting submariners, moving all maintenance to within close proximity of the submarine operating base will result in significant time and resource savings through eliminating long transits between Western Australia and South Australia. Co-location of maintenance with operational basing aligns with world’s best practice.

Another outcome is expansion of a strategic workforce. Developing a highly skilled submarine-related workforce in Western Australia whilst retaining a similarly highly skilled workforce in South Australia ensures a larger pool of specialist skilled individuals and a redundancy in capability that doesn’t currently exist.

The fact that all submarine maintenance would be undertaken in closer proximity to areas of operation is a final and not inconsequential benefit of the move. It’s a fact that Perth is half a continent closer than Adelaide to areas of operation like the Middle East and Asia. Of course, the ever increasing importance of the Indian Ocean as an area of interest for the world’s navies is another factor supporting the move.

In September 2019, the Western Australian government compiled a Preliminary Business Case for bringing Collins class Full Cycle Docking to the state and presented it to the Prime Minister, Minister for Defence and Minister for Finance. The document was informed by specialist advice from consultants Advisian and Oropesa who have been working in collaboration with Defence on a Strategic Infrastructure and Land Use Plan for Defence requirements at the Australian Marine Complex and Henderson.

In the Preliminary Business Case, the State Government undertook to fund a range of infrastructure needed to enable the task including; a new wharf, submarine transit infrastructure, transport upgrades and a multi-storey car park for workers. It also made a commitment to funding South Metropolitan TAFE for the development of any additional training facilities and costs associated with training the workforce for Full Cycle Docking. A commitment to undertake all necessary planning changes to establish a Defence precinct with a security buffer was also included in the document.

Although not deemed necessary for the task, the Preliminary Business Case indicated the State was willing to consider other measures such as facilitating Public Private Partnerships necessary to deliver additional infrastructure like a graving dock or enhanced ship lift facilities.

Finally, the Preliminary Business Case indicated the State had received unsolicited approaches from Defence prime contractors indicating their willingness to fund Federal government infrastructure (such as sheds to house the Full Cycle Docking activity) in the event they were engaged in the task.

National Interest Considerations

It should come as no surprise that the Western Australian State Government is doing what we said we would. We developed a Strategic Plan with the collaboration of the Federal Government and Defence. That Strategic Plan indicated our intention to make the case for being the principal location for submarine maintenance. The first step on that path is shifting Collins class Full Cycle Docking to the West. The case for the move has been made in the national interest. It is now up to the Federal Government to make its decision in the national interest.

About Paul Papalia CSC, MLA

Paul Papalia CSC, MLAHon. Paul Papalia CSC, MLA is the WA Government Minister for Tourism; Racing and Gaming; Small Business; Defence Issues; Citizenship and Multicultural Interests.