Australia Approves 2 Finalist Designs for $2B Amphibious Ships Project
The Australian government has approved the first stage of a $2 billion LHD Amphibious Ships project that will provide the Royal Australian Navy with two new multi-purpose ships that would have air support, amphibious assault, transport and command centre roles. They will replace the Navy’s two existing Kanimbla-Class LPAs (HMAS Kanimbla and HMAS Manoora) from about 2010, significantly upgrading Australia’s force projection capabilities.
The government has now given first pass approval to the project and committed $29.8 million towards the Design Development Phase. The finalist ship designs include:
- Spain’s Navantia has designed a new LHD ship at approximately 27,000 tonnes.
- France’s Armaris is offering its Mistral-Class LHD ships with modifications for additional troop carrying capability, at approximately 22,000 tonnes. See also A study on the feasibility of local construction of an LHD/assault and command ship for the Royal Australian Navy [PDF]
Each ship will preferably have the ability to transport up to 1000 personnel, have six helicopter landing spots and provision for a mix of troop lift and armed reconnaissance helicopters. It will also be able to transport up to 150 vehicles including the new M1A1 Abrams tanks and armored vehicles. Finally, each ship will be equipped with medical facilities, including two operating theaters and a hospital ward.
For comparison purposes, the USA’s Wasp-class LHDs are 42,000 tonnes, and the proposed LHA-R would weigh in at 50,000 tonnes.
Australia’s selection tradeoffs include the fact that the Navantia LHD would have a greater carrying capacity, but construction of the first ship has only just started in Spain. In comparison, the French Aramis-Class ship has slightly less carrying capacity but has been built and is undertaking its final tests with the French Navy. A number of observers believe the Navantia design has a slight edge at this point in the competition.
Australian shipbuilders will be invited to tender for either or both of two designs, and a Request for Tender will be released to the Australian shipbuilding industry in the second quarter of 2006.
Funding for the program’s Design Development Phase will enable Navantia and Armaris to work on defining the requirements for the ships, incorporating necessary Australian environmental, safety and technical requirements. The tender documentation will allow bidders to make teaming arrangements, propose innovative solutions to improve price and schedule, submit a fixed price bid submission, and bid through life support solutions.
Nonetheless, overseas build options will be considered and to quote Defence Minister Sen. Hill: “The Government’s preference is to see the ships built in Australia, however Australian industry will need to demonstrate it can deliver the project at a competitive price.”
As might be imagined, this approach has provoked some lobbying and controversy in the Australian shipbuilding industry, which has also pointed to gaps in the program.
Australian shipbuilding sources claim that building the two LHDs overseas would cost Australia’s naval industry around 1,000 jobs and weaken it severely. They also note that cost estimates are unrefined and don’t yet incorporate any dialogue with the designer over technical issues and possible cost reduction measures.
The Australian Defence Materiel Organisation (DMO) commissioned Canberra-based economic consultancy ACIL Tasman to undertake a study, “Skills shortages and the Amphibious ships project,” whose final report was completed in April 2005. Despite a reducing number of naval construction projects over the past five years, it noted that Australia’s broader naval and marine construction capacity has actually expanded. The DMO itself has also committed some $200 million over the next ten years to the Skilling Australian Defence Industry (SADI) initiative in order to raise both skills and workforce numbers to meet the demands of the Defence Capability Plan.
State efforts are underway to secure shipbuilding for this contract, and private companies are also making investments. In addition to Forgacs’ existing construction and refit facilities at Cairncross dry dock in Brisbane, ADI’s Garden Island yard in Sydney and Tenix’s Williamstown Naval Shipyard, Western Australia is already planning a major expansion of its recently completed Australian Marine Complex south of Fremantle which will strengthen its bid to carry out module construction and consolidation of the LHDs.
For an Australian build, the Amphibious Ships contract would be awarded in early 2007, with the in-service date for the first ship being 2012.