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New destroyers too expensive?

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New destroyers too expensive

June 8, 2005 - 1:34PM



Australia is running the risk of buying expensive navy destroyers it doesn't need, forcing cuts to other key defence programs, a top defence analyst warns.


Former defence official Hugh White said the most likely tradeoff for commissioning the $6 billion air warfare destroyers (AWDs) would be cuts to an RAAF plan to buy 100 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters (JSFs).


Such a cut would have serious strategic costs, he said.


Mr White said the navy maintained it needed the AWDs to defend amphibious landing forces against air attack.


However, there were few credible scenarios where such defence would be required.


In an analysis released by the Lowy Institute for International Policy, Mr White said it made no sense to invest $6 billion in AWDs to support maritime operations if it meant cuts to frontline combat air power or to the land forces they were intended to protect.


"There is no compelling strategic reason to buy AWDs and even less to build them in Australia," he said.


Under the AWD plan, the navy will acquire three advanced warships, able to defend against aircraft, cruise missile and even ballistic missile attack, at a cost of $6 billion.


The government has already specified that the ships will be fitted with the Aegis combat system and built in Australia by the Australian Submarine Corporation. It's yet to decide on the actual ship design.


Mr White said there was really only one credible scenario when AWDs would be essential and that was if Australia needed to dislodge bases established by a hostile major power from somewhere like PNG.


He said in most scenarios that protection could be just as well provided by the RAAF while in coalition operations that would be done by US forces.


Mr White said the AWDs should not be acquired to the detriment of RAAF or army programs.


"As things stand, buying AWDs might mean we need to cut the JSF program to as few as 60 aircraft. Apparently this possibility is now being seriously considered within defence," he said.


Mr White also warned that the purchasing strategy, in which the navy is seeking a ship designed exclusively to meet Australian requirements, imposed high risks of cost blowouts, delays and capability shortfalls.


"The AWDs would be by far the most complex naval project undertaken by Australia since the Collins Class submarine project and they carry many of the same kind of risk that caused such problems in the Collins," he said.


Mr White said there was no rush as the navy's four FFG guided missile frigates were now being upgraded and would remain in service long after the planned AWD proposed entry to service in 2013.


"There is plenty of time to consider this important and risky project more carefully," he said.

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