Hunter-class frigates key to avoiding defence ‘valley of death’

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The Hunter-class frigate program has been revealed as the key to ensuring navy vessels are built in Australian shipyards forever, avoiding any future “valleys of death” that put skilled workers out of a job.

Despite a government-ordered review of the navy’s surface fleet causing speculation to swirl around the Hunter program, Defence Minister Richard Marles has thrown his support behind the crucial shipbuilding project.

“The Defence Strategic Review made it really clear that we, as a country, need to maintain a continuous shipbuilding capability, and as a government, we totally accept that recommendation,” Mr Marles said.

“The commitment to see shipbuilding happening in Adelaide as an essential feature of our sovereign capability is fundamentally important for our country, and we are very committed to it as a government.”

BAE Systems has made major progress in developing its Osborne workforce, which will be crucial to future shipbuilding projects. But the key is to ensure there is enough work to keep the shipbuilders engaged so they don’t abandon the industry in pursuit of more constant work in other sectors, such as mining.

The Hunter-class is the first defence acquisition program to include a contracted commitment to “continuous naval shipbuilding”.

BAE’s Continuous Naval Shipbuilding Strategy Director, Sharon Wilson, said she treated the commitment as a “calling”, rather than a job, to secure the future of Australia’s sovereign capability and independence.

She said at the core of the strategy was making sure ships are built in Australia forever, which would mean a steady supply of skilled workers.

“It is critical, because if people see a long-term career, then they will invest in it by going to university or retraining,” Ms Wilson said.

“So if we don’t have that, then the run-up to the AUKUS (nuclear submarine program) is actually quite difficult, because suitably qualified people don’t turn up overnight – it’s a long run-up.”

Sustainment is also a key part of the plan to avoid a “valley of death” scenario.

While Australia plans to operate a fleet of eight nuclear-powered submarines, not every boat will be out at sea at any given time due to ongoing maintenance cycles.

This is why some of the country’s biggest defence companies are placing a huge emphasis on “stewardship” to ensure as many key defence assets across Australia are ready to be used or deployed when needed.

BAE Systems’ program director in maritime sustainment, Shaun Connelly, is responsible for ensuring sovereign sustainment on the navy’s Hobart-class air warfare destroyers based in Sydney.

“The core function is to provide through-life asset management of the Hobart Class Destroyers, ensuring the Navy have materially seaworthy and eminently capable Destroyers – on time, every time,” Mr Connelly said.

“This involves ensuring maintenance activities are planned and conducted in the most effective manner and that Navy obtains the maximum efficiency from its sustainment dollar. This is a very different role to the contractor-customer relationships of the past.

“The benefits of increased collaboration and a shared vision for a class of ships, bring enormous efficiencies in terms of the time taken to undertake work.”

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KBR’s senior vice president of government services, Rob Hawketts, said naval vessels were “complex systems that require ongoing management and attention” to ensure they remain in good condition.

“It’s not an overnight solution, and requires enterprise-wide support, but by taking the right steps now we can ensure future success,” he said.

Originally published as Hunter-class frigates are key to avoiding ‘valley of death’ in SA shipyards: Defence Minister

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