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Dumb and dumber: Australia's failed naval procurement and maintenance

By Stuart Ballantyne - posted Thursday, 11 August 2022

On my first trip to sea as a 16-year-old cadet, I was on the main deck observing the ship gracefully slide into Cairncross drydock in Brisbane and peered down at the workmen handling the lines, and closing the dock gate. 3 hours later, I was looking up at the same workmen as my ship settled on the blocks of this cavernous dock. The 265 metre Cairncross drydock is an impressive feat of engineering by the US who built it during the 2nd world war as a strategically located drydock for the war effort. Concurrently it was built with the only other large dry dock in Australia, the Captain Cook Graving Dock at Garden Island in Sydney.  The strategic importance of these docks is acknowledged by both the Defence Department and the United States.  Over the years, essential repairs have been carried out in these 2 drydocks on commercial ships and warships that would otherwise have required a 4000-mile tow to Singapore, assuming a potential enemy will allow you.

In the 1970’s the British defence department drew up another 265m dock, which they built at Devonshire docks, Barrow in Furness in the early 80’s with a full cover to construct  nuclear submarines which it continues to do.

Despite my columns in maritime journals in 2016 trying to wake up State and Federal leadership as to the high importance of Cairncross drydock which was being closed down for the inevitable sale to the urban creep of waterfront high rise developers, I failed. 


This dock, capable of handling ships up to 263m long and 33.5m in beam makes it capable of handling the Naval vessels from the Canberra Class LHDs, the Bay Class LSD and the Auxiliary Oilers. It can handle merchant ships up to Panamax bulkers and cruise vessels up to 230m

If covered by a large shed with 400 tonne gantry cranes, Cairncross could be an ideal fabrication place for building large warships, even a submarine! The submarine budget is a significant initiative to make use of what we already have.

Ignoring Marine industry suggestions such as mine, continues to illustrate the Government’s critical infrastructure committee is in need of new blood. As a centre of marine engineering excellence with a steady source of engineering jobs and training, Cairncross could have been superb. Alas the high-rise permits are getting close.

Is anybody there? Hello?

As we have seen, there has been too much politics at play as our leaders wandered from being Nippofiles and having a key Australia-Japan strategic relationship, to being Francophiles, to being UK/US fans They were not just focussed on the key issue of naval capability.

Then there is the industry side of things. ASC (formerly the Australian Submarine Corp) was a mess and was typical of most bureaucracies but have reportedly lifted their game of late.


As for the required capability itself, opinions are polarised. Some argue that our subs need to be able to supplement the USN in any war in order to promote our influence on them and to deter China if they turn sour.

Nuclear subs are the only Australian capability the Chinese would give a rat’s about. Once a nuclear sub gets to sea everyone else’s calculus changes.  The Argentinian Navy was a competent force, but once one British nuclear sub showed up, they scuttled back to port pronto.  Others argue that if the two elephants are fighting, we are too small to make any difference, except as a handy big island refuge for the Americans.

The Japanese Soryu submarine technology would be a thing of beauty, but still significantly inferior to any nuclear boat. Even the best diesel boat exhausts its batteries quickly when going fast, then it is at high risk of detection while recharging them. Air Independent Propulsion hasn’t eliminated this basic problem.

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A version of this article was published by The Spectator.

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About the Author

Stuart Ballantyne is just a sailor who runs Seat Transport Solutions who are naval architects, consultants, surveyors and project managers.

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