Stephen Smith quietly sinks fast-cat buy
March 19, 2012
DEFENCE Minister Stephen Smith's push to buy a giant high-speed navy catamaran capable of carrying more than 300 troops to a disaster zone or regional conflict has been quietly shelved.
Mr Smith ordered Defence to investigate the potential purchase of a fast catamaran last year to ensure there was no repeat of the Cyclone Yasi debacle, when navy did not have any amphibious ships available to assist in the clean-up from the February 2011 disaster.
The 100m fast catamaran would have given the navy the ability to move troops and vehicles at a speed of about 35 knots to a range of up to 1500km.
It would also have been a major boost to local shipbuilders, Incat in Hobart or Austal in Mr Smith's home town of Perth, which both produce large high-speed catamarans for the US navy.
But sources say Defence decided against the highly capable vessels because it needed ships that could more easily load and offload cargo in disaster zones where there are no fixed port facilities.
Mr Smith is believed to have agreed with Defence's final assessment despite his initial enthusiasm for the fast-cat purchase, which had not been budgeted for in the formal defence procurement schedule known as the Defence Capability Plan.
In 1999, the navy chartered an Incat 86m vessel for use during the East Timor crisis, and it made more than 100 trips between Darwin and Dili to transport troops and supplies.
The rejection of the fast-catamaran concept means Defence is likely to choose a more conventional amphibious vessel later this year to supplement its current amphibious fleet, made up of HMAS Choules and HMAS Tobruk.
The plan to purchase a third amphibious ship was announced in December. The three vessels will ensure the navy can respond to humanitarian and disaster relief between now and when the giant Landing Helicopter Dock ships arrive in the middle of the decade.
In February last year Mr Smith lashed out at Defence for having a "can do and make do" culture that paid too little attention to bread-and-butter issues such as the maintenance of its fleet.
He was speaking after the navy had informed him that in the wake of Queensland's Cyclone Yasi, none of the navy's three large amphibious ships was able to go to sea to potentially assist with the clean-up operation.
The embarrassing bungle triggered a review of the navy's amphibious fleet and also of maintenance issues.
The government entered into an arrangement with the New Zealand navy to share its amphibious ship, the Canterbury. It also purchased the Largs Bay, a giant amphibious ship from the British navy and renamed it HMAS Choules.
The navy's newest amphibious ship, to be purchased in the coming months, will be an off-the-shelf vessel to allow it to be brought into service as quickly as possible.