Challenges and complexities of Australia’s offshore patrol vessel program

Challenges and complexities of Australia's offshore patrol vessel program

Australia’s offshore patrol vessel (OPV) program faces many challenges and uncertainties, raising concerns about the country’s defense procurement. The IPO program was originally conceived as a simple acquisition, but experienced delays, cost increases and unexpected complications.

The decision to replace the aging Armidale-class patrol boats with 1,600-ton OPVs from German shipbuilder Luerrsen did not seem controversial at first. However, the project became more complicated when Defense officials decided to make significant changes to the original design, including the removal of the 57mm main gun and four launch pods inside the content.

Adding to the complications, the government has decided that the construction of 12 new OPVs will take place in two separate locations: Osborn in Adelaide and Henderson in Western Australia. This decision was intended to address the potential gap in shipbuilding activities, known as the “Valley of Death,” between the completion of the air battle destroyers and the start of the new Hunter-class frigate program.

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Further complicating matters, the government tried to involve shipbuilder Austal in the project, but the partnership failed. Luerrsen ultimately decided to stick with his original partner, Civmec, but their relationship has soured ever since.

The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic poses additional challenges by disrupting travel between Germany and Australia. At the same time, the government canceled the contract for the 40mm main gun from the Italian supplier Leonardo, due to technical risks. Despite promises of an imminent decision on a new cannon, no progress was made, leaving the OPVs without adequate armament.

The availability of information about the delays is limited, as Defense officials remain silent and Luerrsen is prohibited from speaking to the media. However, the subcontractors involved in the project revealed a frustrating experience with the constantly changing requirements of the Royal Australian Navy (RAN), which made it almost impossible to complete the construction. The changes in the RAN’s demands not only caused delays, but also raised questions about the clarity of its original specifications.

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Luerrsen’s inclusion on the Projects of Concern list just months before the government’s surface fleet review is worrying. This cast a shadow over the company’s longstanding reputation as a successful shipbuilder. Luerrsen proposed a seamless transition from the Arafura-class OPVs to the production of heavily armed corvettes, using existing Australian production lines. However, there are reports that some people within the RAN are now looking for bigger ships, leaving the future of the program in doubt.

The challenges facing the OPV program highlight the complexities involved in defense procurement. These obstacles must be carefully navigated to ensure the successful delivery of capable and effective naval assets to Australia’s defence.

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