The future of the OZ navy and current concerns about falling manpower hitting sub opertaional readiness.http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/st ... 37,00.html
All hands on deckFont
Cameron Stewart | November 04, 2008
TO listen to the Defence Department spin doctors, the future of the Royal Australian Navy has never looked better. They boast of how during the next 20 years a new fleet of deadly destroyers and futuristic submarines will rule the waves, posing a substantial deterrent to the rising naval powers in the region.
One of the navy's Anzac class frigates, the Arunta, off the coast of Fremantle.
But the navy of tomorrow is a far cry from the navy of today.
What the defence public relations team won't tell you is that these are testing times for the navy. There are not enough sailors to man its fleet, many of its ships and helicopters are ill-equipped for war, half of its submarine fleet lives in dry dock and a new generation of young Australians are baulking at a life on the high seas.
Not surprisingly, morale also is being tested, with squabbles breaking out among overworked sailors and commanders firing off orders telling them to stop complaining about their lot and display greater leadership. The top brass is so concerned about disgruntled sailors talking to the media that it issued a warning that leakers were a betrayal of the "value set" of the RAN.
Last week, Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon declared he was sick of people talking about the future when so much of today's Australian Defence Force was ill-equipped forcombat.
"We spend a lot of time thinking and talking about important capability as we look far out into the future, but we seem to spend much less time talking about the capability we need to do the things we do right now and on a regular basis," Fitzgibbon said.
Naval expert Andrew Davies, of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, says the navy is facing one of its most challenging eras. "They have had a lot of trouble getting war fighting capability on to the frigates, the submarines are undermanned and the helicopters especially, with failure of the (now scrapped) Seasprites, do not provide the capabilities a modern warship needs.
"The navy is at a point now where it really has to step up.
"We know they are going to be getting new submarines of some kind, air warfare destroyers and I think the (forthcoming) defence white paper is also likely to flag new helicopters and new frigates, but the trick will be to get the right balance of capabilities and to get platforms (that) actually deliver the capability that is advertised."
The navy's woes are a combination of bad luck, bad management and bad timing. Mismanagement of important projects has resulted in the planned upgrade of four of the navy's FFG frigates being delayed by almost five years, blowing out the total cost to more than $1.5 billion. The disastrous Kaman Seasprite helicopter project finally was cancelled by Fitzgibbon in April at a cost to the taxpayer of $1.1 billion.
Other weak spots include the abandonment of plans to upgrade the Anzac class frigates into capable air defence platforms and a continuing and alarming shortfall in the navy's anti-submarine warfare capabilities. "The surface fleet is ill-equipped for high-level operations," Davies says.
But the biggest single challenge to the navy today is not its lack of capable equipment but its lack of qualified people to operate it.
The navy, along with the army and air force, was initially slow to respond to the ominous signs early this decade that recruitment was slowing as the economic boom took hold. This boom-bust cycle -- where people leave the navy in boom times and return in hard times -- is familiar to defence planners, which prompts the question why more was not done earlier to tackle what was clearly a looming recruitment crisis.
By the time they realised the gravity of the problem, the mining boom was in full swing, with potential recruits and navy veterans, especially those with technical skills, being lured by better-paid jobs in the private sector.
The navy finds itself in a desperate position. It has only enough crew to man three of its six Collins class submarines, a 36per cent shortfall in required numbers. This is an enormous waste of vital operational capability, not to mention a poor return for taxpayers who sank $6 billion into building this fleet.
In the past four years the navy achieved only between 67 per cent and 79 per cent of its recruitment targets and is now experiencing a shortfall of 13.3 per cent in its overall trained workforce.
In response, the navy has launched an aggressive and dizzying range of emergency measures to win recruits and keep its existing sailors on board.
It has promised what Chief of Navy Rus Crane describes as a wholesale cultural shift in the way the navy treats its people.
"We are working hard at dealing with some of the pressures that our people tell us about," Crane told a Senate estimates committee last month. "That goes to time away from home and programs for our ships and is all part of a cultural shift that we are looking at very closely."
The navy is offering large cash bonuses to sailors with specialist technical skills and is introducing more family-friendly policies such as longer postings, flexible working hours, more time at home and extra allowances for health and housing.
Submariners, who start on a salary of about $76,000 a year, are being offered an extraordinary $60,000 bonus to stay on for an extra 18 months. Initially, the submariner bonus helped stem the tide of resignations.
"I can tell you that on the day that the navy capability allowance was announced, that very morning a number of submariners in Western Australia withdrew their resignations," Crane says.
But he admits the cash bonuses have been less successful in retaining some of the navy's more specialised technical tradespeople.
The rushed implementation of these bonus schemes also has been problematic. That the submarine bonus is paid only to ranks from able seaman to petty officer has meant that some lower ranks of submariners are paid more than officers.
"The navigator is getting less than the able seaman steward," Opposition defence spokesman David Johnston says. "I think this is a very significant blow to morale among officers, particularly in submarines."
The bonus payments also have triggered jealousy and recriminations across other sectors of the navy.
Chief engineer Peter Marshall recently wrote a stinging letter to his sailors, telling them to stop whingeing that not everyone was receiving cash bonuses.
"Together we must all work to lead ourselves out of the situation we currently find ourselves in," he wrote.
"Unless your pay went backwards, then I would prefer you to congratulate those who received the bonuses rather than bemoan the fact that they did not come to you. This is a leadership challenge."
Although Marshall did not mention morale, he implied that officers needed to do more to lift the flagging spirits of their fellowsailors.
"(US) general Colin Powell said: 'Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier', and I am convinced there is much truth in this statement," he says.
"If you don't value and enjoy (the) navy, then why should your subordinates?"
Luckily for the navy, there are higher powers that appear determined to ensure that it comes through this malaise and reclaims its proud tradition.
Kevin Rudd surprised and delighted navy chiefs when he forcefully argued the case for a stronger navy while addressing the RSL national conference in September.
"We need an enhanced naval capability that can protect our sea lines of communication and support our land forces as they deploy," the Prime Minister said.
And just last week, Fitzgibbon allocated about $5 million to planning for the next generation of Australian submarines, which will be the largest defence project undertaken in this country.
This political will to strengthen the navy is driven by the realisation that countries in the region -- especially China and India -- are fast expanding their navies.
For the future, most of the decisions that will shape the navy in the short term have already been made.
Three advanced new multi-role air warfare destroyers will deliver a sizeable capability boost to the surface fleet when they arrive from 2014. Meanwhile, the arrival of two 27,000-tonne amphibious ships from 2013 will together give the navy the ability to embark 2200 troops with vehicles and landing craft.
While defence planners in Canberra are trying to balance the competing wish lists of navy, army and air force, Rudd's strong endorsement of the navy's role has led to quiet confidence in the ranks that the service will be looked after.
"There is no real reason to think the Government is going to shy away from (the) focus on air and maritime approaches that we have seen in previous white papers," Davies says. "So I would expect (the) navy to be right upthere when funds allocations are being announced."
The key naval decisions for the Government will be whether to take up the option of a fourth air warfare destroyer and also how large the next-generation submarine fleet should be.
Many in the navy want to keep the new submarine fleet to a modest six, fearing a larger fleet will take away funds that could be spent on surface units.
But the political support for submarines at this point seems powerful and there is speculation that a fleet of eight or 10 could be ordered, despite the shortage of submariners.
The financial crisis has already put severe strain on the defence budget and, if it continues, the navy may find its shopping list curtailed by economic reality.
"It depends how long the financial crisis lasts," says Davies.
"The only partly comparable set of data is the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s and their military programs got back on track very quickly after that."
But the flip side of the crisis and the looming slowdown is likely to ease the crew shortage by attracting recruits who are nervous about shrinking job prospects in the private sector.
Navy recruitment websites are targeting 16 to 24-year-olds to an unprecedented degree. The navy's website boasts about the opportunities for travel, friendship, fitness and food.
"Our aim is to shift incorrect, negative misconceptions about the navy, build an emotional connection with the target audience and place navy careers top of mind among the target audience," a navy spokesman says.
The Government knows there is no point harbouring grand ambitions for the navy if there are not enough crew to sail its ships. It has become the navy's greatest challenge.