Rear Admiral (ret'd) James Goldrick AO, CSC is a Visiting Fellow at the Lowy Institute.

The Prime Minister's announcement at the Lowy Institute yesterday of a 'Future Navy' Task Force is a curious mixture of logic and opportunism.

There is a clear need to look at the long-term set-up of ship support, basing and operations for the Royal Australian Navy. However, such a task force will find it difficult to do its work until some key questions are settled, in particular that of the future submarine fleet. The only wholly new requirement for the future Navy, which was mentioned just once in the announcement, will be the need to accommodate extra submarines, if and when the Government in office finally decides to commit to building a larger fleet than the current six Collins class.

Arguably, this is the only truly new home port problem the Navy is facing, since Garden Island has been host in the past to multiple big ships, including RAN aircraft carriers not much smaller than the new amphibious landing ships or LHDs (and, in 1944-45, British aircraft carriers and battleships which were larger than the LHDs).

The Task Force will also find it much easier to do its work if its appreciation has not been first politically situated. If the fleet is to be expanded, then there may be merit in the idea of an additional base in Brisbane. If not, it is difficult to see, bar the issue of cruise ships, what advantages Brisbane has over Sydney, given all the pressures south-east Queensland faces in managing its population growth, as well as the tendency of the Brisbane River to flood, creating significant problems even for the major wharf areas near the river mouth.

The announcement and some of the remarks made in the question-and-answer session at the Lowy Institute continue a confusion which exists in many minds between home port basing, which for ships fundamentally relates to where their deep servicing and repairs are conducted, and forward operations basing, which involves facilities for resupply and only basic unit maintenance.

In the case of the amphibious ships, a forward operating base should certainly include adequate facilities for loading and unloading troops and vehicles, as well as ship refueling and resupply. Developing such infrastructure in Townsville and Darwin where the ready brigades are located should be a high priority for any government. So should a decent forward operating base in the north-west, capable of supporting both patrol forces and larger units. All this will make it easier for the Navy to do what is really wanted: operating more easily in northern waters.

However, home porting major units in developing regions is a very different thing and a recipe for trouble.

Practically speaking, deep maintenance cannot be conducted without much more technical capability than is present in any regional centre in our north. Such capability is very difficult to import and maintain in a remote locality and, even if it can be achieved, the expense is all the greater because it cannot, as in a major industrial centre, be employed on other commercial work.

Furthermore, as demonstrated in the transfer of the First Brigade to Darwin, there is a substantial bill to be paid in housing and educating families in regional centres when existing infrastructure is insufficient for their needs. All this is before one considers the cost of developing from scratch the wharves, dry docks, workshops and other facilities. Some understanding of this problem may have informed the proposal to use Brisbane rather than Darwin or Townsville (although there will still be huge costs involved).

The suggestion that Sydney and New South Wales will be the better off economically for the removal of not only the Navy but, by implication, the ship repair and maintenance facilities at Garden Island too will also need close examination. The crews of the major naval units currently based in Sydney bring with them something like $150 million in salaries and allowances alone. This figure includes neither the contractor nor sub-contractor workforces required to manage their upkeep, nor the food, fuel and stores consumed by each unit.

That the Garden Island facility is also available for commercial ship repair work is a bonus. The cost of the Captain Cook Dry Dock (pictured) may have been amortized over the many years since it was completed, but it and the facilities around it remain an important, if not vital national strategic and industrial asset.

Any NSW State Government would need to think very hard about consenting to the bargain proposed when the return is only what will be created by a highly cyclical cruise ship industry, whether direct (in port fees and what supplies are purchased locally) or indirect (in the passengers’ take up of activities and facilities around Sydney).

Photo by Flickr user commscentral.