Government plans announced last month to invest over $89bn in ships and submarines for the Navy over the next 20 years are welcome news. However, we need a consistent, long-term strategy for defence shipbuilding to ensure the country reaps lasting benefits. By Chris Burns.

The recent Federal Government announcements that Australia’s Future Frigates and Offshore Patrol Vessels will be consolidated on a continuous basis in South Australia represent a positive change. The Australian shipbuilding industry and its national supply chain now have a level of confidence they had not been afforded in almost a decade.

There is a major opportunity for Government to stimulate the economy through a long-term, continuous, indigenous national ship and submarine-building strategy that best utilises Australia’s supply chain capabilities. By doing so, industry and taxpayers will reap the benefits of the tens of billions of dollars invested in the acquisition of naval and non-naval maritime assets over the coming decades.

As an isolated island nation, it is critical to preserve Australia’s sovereignty and security by maintaining a national shipbuilding and sustainment capability. History shows Australia cannot afford to be reliant on other nations to assure its maritime security.

Australia’s Oberon fleet class of submarines was disabled due to an inability to secure spare parts from the overseas supplier in a time of conflict overseas. This significantly compromised Australia’s national security and it was this example that gave the government of the day the motivation it needed to commit to building Australia’s next submarines locally – the Collins class.

To ensure Australia does not repeat the hard-learned lessons of the past, it needs to commit to a long-term continuous national shipbuilding and sustainment strategy. This strategy must be developed on a holistic basis, in close collaboration with all stakeholders including the Opposition, crossbenchers, states, industry and unions.

Peer shipbuilding nations all have long-term strategic shipbuilding plans – Australia has never had such a plan. As a nation Australia cannot overcome the peaks and troughs that lead to the shipbuilding ‘Valleys of Death’ unless it can stop considering projects in isolation. Australia’s requirements must be managed in the context of an integrated national plan.

When presented with a long-term plan and commitment from government, industry can invest in technology and innovation upfront to ensure it complies with and exceeds the requirements of performance-based contracts it would likely be presented with.

In recent decades, Australian industry has invested in and developed a significant ship and submarine-building industry, with capabilities to build, rebuild and maintain the country’s fleet. Despite significant political interference, the sector delivered ten Anzac frigates and six Huon minehunters, on time and on budget.

To continue to deliver success, industry needs to continuously invest in innovation and skills for the future, but to do so it needs a supportive landscape that can only be achieved through clear policy decisions from government. It is unfathomable that a Federal Government would consider compromising a highly capable indigenous shipbuilding industry that promotes national security and sovereignty, to benefit another nation’s economy.

In the meantime, industry needs to continue to make its strong case to promote Australia’s economy and capabilities, after all this about much more than submarines. It’s about the skills of the future.

Chris Burns is the Chief Executive of the Defence Teaming Centre and national spokesperson for the Australian Made Defence campaign.