If a car hire firm had to buy cars the way the navy has to buy ships, it could go broke, Navy chief Vice Admiral Ray Griggs reckons.
For an overall fleet of 52 vessels, the navy operates 14 different classes from 13 different ship designers with engines from 13 different makers.
Ship radars come from 11 different firms and there are 14 different control systems.
“If you ran a small hire car fleet with this sort of overhead you would be tearing your hair out, if you weren’t broke. Yet commonality too often takes a back seat to upfront acquisition costs,” he told the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
Vice Admiral Griggs, who leaves the navy top job next month, says Australian naval shipbuilding is at a crossroads.
With the air warfare destroyer program running late and local shipbuilders performing below international standards, the government has warned it could look offshore for the navy’s next frigates.
The stop-start nature of shipbuilding projects means having to relearn lessons and paying the price in delays and cost increases.
Vice Admiral Griggs thinks they should either buy everything offshore or maintain a continuous build program to gain the full economic benefits.
The diversity of navy ships and systems adds to training requirements, cost, complexity of support and the size of the spares inventory.
Recently a ship had to sail without fully operational communications because the three contractors in Australia who could work on the system were not around.
Two were overseas on holidays and one had gone bush and was out of mobile range.
Greater fleet commonality would reduce the likelihood of this occurring.
“We need to get better at understanding the balance of benefits. Is it better to accept a higher acquisition cost in the interest of commonality,” he said.