For more than a century, WA has endured broken promises to upgrade its naval facilities to put it at the forefront of the nation’s defence.
Two years after the McGowan Government made its pitch for a dry dock at the Australian Marine Complex in Henderson and a year after the Federal Government promised to spend $4.3 billion for the project during the election campaign, the airwaves are silent on when the endeavour will get the green light.
The project is facing the twin threat of a much-vaunted Defence Strategic Review and a belt-tightening May Budget.
As the cost-of-living crisis escalates experts have warned the longer the delay in approval the more risk Australia faces in combating threats in the Indo-Pacific from China and having it built before the decade is out.
Australia’s national security will be front and this week when Anthony Albanese meets with his US and British counterparts in San Diego to announce more details of the AUKUS agreement.
The details of which future fleet of nuclear submarines the nation will choose will be announced on Tuesday, with early speculation indicating the Virginia-class subs will be the top contender. These US vessels are expected to rotate through HMAS Stirling on Garden Island as soon as 2027.
Just this month the nuclear submarine USS Asheville was in Perth for joint exercises with the Australian Navy, highlighting WA’s importance to regional security for the US.
HMAS Stirling is home to more than half of Australia’s naval fleet and was built in 1978 — nearly 70 years after a naval base was first planned for WA.
The Henderson naval base — about 23km south of Perth — was planned for construction in 1913, but was abandoned during World War I and cancelled in 1920. It is now home to the Australian Marine Complex which helps maintain the navy’s ships and submarines but lacks a dry dock.
WA is pinning its hopes the dry dock project will provide the jobs and economic opportunities it was denied when then-prime minister Scott Morrison announced in 2021 the full-cycle docking of the Royal Australian Navy’s Collins Class submarines would remain in South Australia.
Full-cycle docking is the extensive and lucrative maintenance and upgrade refits on submarines after a decade of operational service.
A dry dock is drained of water to allow the inspection and repair of the body of a ship.
In Australia, the new generation warships, such as the heavily armed destroyers and Hunter-class frigates, require maintenance at a dry dock.
There is only one dry dock in the country — the Captain Cook graving dock in Sydney which requires significant maintenance in the next few years after being built during World War II — meaning there will be no facility to service the navy’s biggest ships.
The dry dock at Henderson would be the last piece in making the AMC a powerhouse of naval infrastructure, which is expected to support 2000 direct jobs when operational and 500 construction jobs during the peak of the build.
According to plans drawn up by the State Government nearly three years ago, works were expected to start on the dry berth project this year with part of it to begin operation in 2028 and be completely opened in 2030.
The vision in the Australian Marine Complex Infrastructure Strategy states the complex will be “transformed to provide the infrastructure and facilities needed to support WA’s objective to become an internationally recognised advanced manufacturing hub — highly regarded as a world-class shipbuilding, sustainment and maintenance facility”.
Premier Mark McGowan was ready to pressure the Morrison government over the dry dock, but now that Anthony Albanese is Prime Minister there is Labor Party solidarity where silence is golden.
A WA Government spokesman said the design options for the dry dock and associated precinct requirements “sits within the Department of Defence” and will be “a Commonwealth-funded project”.
It is, however, “currently undertaking works to improve traffic movement . . . in addition, a detailed plan outlining the transport requirements is currently being developed”.
“The State Government and Defence have invested the money in undertaking a series of detailed studies to further inform the infrastructure requirements for the development of the precinct,” the spokesman said.
“Initial speculation was (the project) was a five-year process, however, without details of the requirements of Defence, it is not possible to determine. Noting, it could be done as a staged development.”
After losing the full-cycle docking program, due to not being equipped to do the significant maintenance and upgrade refits on submarines, a Defence spokesman told The Sunday Times the Henderson project would not be another missed opportunity for WA.
“The Henderson maritime precinct is and will continue to be a key piece of infrastructure supporting Defence in Australia,” the spokesman said.
“The Commonwealth Government continues to work with Australian Naval Infrastructure and the WA Government in developing options for a large vessel infrastructure at Henderson.”
Mr Morrison, with the obligatory PM hard hat on, visited Henderson during last year’s election campaign, where he promised to build the dry dock if he was re-elected.
He met representatives from Austal — one of Australia’s biggest shipbuilding companies and great WA success story.
Founded in Perth in 1988, Austal builds Cape Class Patrol Boats for the RAN and patrol boats for the Australian Government to gift to Pacific Islands nations. It also builds ships for the US Navy.
Other companies based at Henderson include Civmec, which builds Arafura Class Offshore Patrol Vessels for the RAN, Australian Submarine Corporation which is involved in upgrading naval ships, and BAE Systems.
Austal says a dry dock would turbocharge its shipbuilding and maintenance capabilities at the AMC.
“As Austal is active in both of these areas, it supports any investment in this area,” the company’s spokesman said.
“There’s sufficient room and supporting infrastructure in place (to accommodate a dry dock at Henderson).”
Other shipbuilders in the area say with costs only expected to rise the longer the project is delayed, private companies have shown interest in investing in the development.
There have also been options raised with the Defence Department to fill the void when the Sydney dry dock is not operational, including shipping out a floating dock.
Curtain University Associate Professor of national security and strategic studies Alexey Muraviev said the Federal Government needed to step up and commit to the project.
“If the Federal Government is serious about its pledge to enhance our national security and defence, there shouldn’t be a discussion about where the money should be coming from,” he said.
“I would describe the dry dock as the jewel because that would really transform the overall capability of Henderson. It will take it to a different stage. It will transform Henderson into a properly matured, shipbuilding as well as maintenance complex.”
NATIONAL SECURITY AT RISK
With tensions in the Pacific high , Associate Professor Muraviev said the dry dock and visits by nuclear-powered submarines, would make WA more “visible” to China.
“This enhanced capability will definitely be picked up by countries like China and Russia,” he said.
“The nuclear submarine force would be regarded as a strategic asset and that would obviously make us quite visible on the international risk radar. It’s as simple as that.
“It’s not to say that it should stop us from committing to invest more in our national security and defence.”
WA Liberal senator Linda Reynolds, a former defence minister, said it was “clearly in Australia’s national security interest” to have a strong industrial base in the Indian Ocean rim.
Senator Reynolds said a dry dock at Henderson was “a priority project” and would see WA play an increasing role in trade and security in the Indo-Pacific region.
“I’ve been pushing for major infrastructure upgrades to Henderson for more than six years to increase shipbuilding opportunities here in WA and to provide increasing support to our allies who are increasingly operating in the Indian Ocean rim,” she said.
“It is clearly in Australia’s national security interest to have a strong defence presence in Western Australia. That must include a strong industrial base to support Garden Island and to support our national shipbuilding and maintenance endeavours.
“For our friends and allies, we are an increasingly important base in the Indian Ocean rim. The vision I had for Henderson is that it becomes a multi-user facility.”
THE WESTERN ALLIANCE
As Australia confirms which model or models of nuclear-powered submarines it will invest in to replace the ageing Collins-class fleet, this week it has been criticised for not pulling its weight when it comes to bolstering the military capabilities of the AUKUS alliance.
That’s why some argue it’s disappointing the Henderson dry dock has not been given the tick of approval yet.
“AUKUS has given the need for an alternative to Captain Cook because US and UK ships may well end up being maintained and sustained in Henderson to service the Indian Ocean in a way that they’re not being done now,” former defence minister Christopher Pyne said.
“In the same way as the Western alliance needs more than a handful of submarine-building shipyards to fulfil the capability requirement across the US, UK and Australia, especially in light of the nuclear-powered submarine program, the Western alliance also needs substantial dry docks in which those vessels can be maintained and sustained.”
Fremantle MP Josh Wilson, whose electorate covers Henderson, welcomed a dry dock but blamed the delays on announcing funding on the previous government.
“We are of course picking up a project that arrived in the dying days of the former government, without requisite details or planning for what is a complex and strategically important undertaking,” he said.
‘THREAT ENVIRONMENT IS GREATER’
ASPI senior analyst Malcolm Davis said it was disappointing the dry dock was in a holding pattern for the Defence Strategic Review and the May Budget.
“Those sorts of facilities are vital for how we ensure the operations of our naval capabilities and a dry dock is important for maintenance,” Mr Davis said.
“The threat environment is greater . . . we probably should’ve seen the warnings as early as 2016 or even a bit earlier but we did nothing about it. In 2020, we started to react with a Force Structure Plan.
“If the threat (of a China conflict) is three to five years out, then we need to have capability now, rather than in the mid-2030s (when the nuclear-submarines are set to arrive). We’re now on the back foot and we’re rushing to try and fill gaps.”
He said that Australia had been able to manage with just one dry dock until now because the country had “peace and stability”.
“But now, we’re in the pre-war situation and the situation has changed dramatically. Therefore, we need to start doing things differently,” he said.
“We’re now in a situation where we have three-to-five years to prepare for a conflict, and we’re nowhere near ready — this is not just in terms of weapons and platforms but also facilities like the dry dock.
“Government has an obligation now to address this issue and the question is, will they?”