By Robyn Molloy

Heavy hitters in the defence industry turned out to last week’s CCI Defence Industry Conference including the three contenders in the battle to win the $3 billion contract to build 12 offshore patrol vessels (OPV) for the Royal Australian Navy.

With a decision imminent, CCI CEO Deidre Willmott says the SEA 1180 program will see a great WA company partner with a great European designer – Austal has joined forces with Germany’s Fassmer, while Civmec/Forgacs and ASC have both formed partnerships with German shipping giant Luerssen and Dutch shipbuilder Damen.

“There is no doubt that the OPV contract will build our export capabilities and opportunities for WA businesses supplying that project,” Willmott told more than 230 representatives from politics, industry and the supply chain. 

A Federal Government requirement is that the successful bidder must maximise Australian industry opportunities via a local workforce, use local steel and specify how they will transition their existing supply chains to Australian supply chains.

All three bidders have promised to transfer intellectual property to Australia to help build the country’s naval shipbuilding capacity and the future export potential of OPVs.

Willmott raised concerns that the contract for the $35 billion SEA 5000 Future Frigates program – which has shortlisted UK’s BAE Systems, Italy’s Fincantieri and Spain’s Navantia – does not seek the development of a partnership with a local shipbuilder.

“We believe that the transfer of intellectual property for the design, build and maintenance of the future frigates must be mandated from the very beginning of the design process,” Willmot said.

“I have already written for the Minister for Defence Industry Christopher Pyne expressing concerns about the approach of the process that is under way and will be meeting with him later this month to discuss our concerns further.”

Austal CEO David Singleton said despite the company having been an exporter for nearly 30 years, the country’s record as a defence exporter was “terrible” and it had to aim for 50 per cent exports.

“Fifty-per cent of Australian defence sales as exports – it sounds like a moon shot … but moon shots are the thing of the industrial world today,” he said.

Luerssen Defence Managing Director Dirk Malgowski said there was no better place in Australia than WA to base an export industry, which is why the company set up its first Australian office at Henderson, south of Perth.

“Australia stands on the brink of a new era of export-led naval shipbuilding and in our vision of this new era Western Australia we lead the way,” he said.

“WA will be the epicentre of manufacturing and engineering in this country grounded in its experience in mining and resources.”

Malgowski said the great thing about shipbuilding was that it required all kinds of businesses to bring the ship to life, from exhaust system suppliers to logistic companies.

“In the event we are successful with our tender, Luerssen Australia will immediately ramp up to coordinate the recruitment of sub-contractors and suppliers,” he said. “And representatives of ASC and Civmec and Forgacs will be seconded to Leurssen in German for in-depth knowledge transfer of Leurssen supply chain specialists and processes for subcontractor induction and management.”

Damen Shipyards representative Mark Todd said WA already had a strong workforce to build the OPVs because of the trades and skills required for mining. 

“It’s about training that workforce into shipbuilding. It’s about giving them shipbuilding 101,” he said.

“And building an OPV is not nearly as complex as building some of the stuff Civmec do for the underwater oil and gas industry – they have to work at the depth of 200m.”

Todd said the OPV would form the base for commercial vessels that might be used in aquaculture, as tugs, dredging, or explorer yachts for the Antarctic, for example. 

“The only way to get a stable employment in WA is to ensure it is more than just naval.”

Willmott said it had been a year since CCI launched the WA Defence Directory in partnership with the departments of Commerce and Training and Workforce Development and it had become a central resource for those involved in the industry. Companies can register at www.wadefence.com.au.