Did the British Navy Sell the Australian Navy a £65 Million Rustbucket?

HMAS -Choules ex RFA Largs BayWhen most of the world envisions the British Navy with impeccably dressed officers, calling orders in the shadow of the gallant ensign are supplemented with the hardened might of Lord Nelson’s dauntless fleet.  Today, some in Australia are picturing the feckless gaze of used car salesmen.

Last week the HMAS Choules, a used landing ship dock the Australian Navy recently purchased from Great Britain, suffered an electrical failure during a routine exercise and hobbled back to port on 50 percent power. The Choules was purchased last year by Australia shortly after Defense Minister Stephen Smith publicly blasted the senior service for not having vessels available for relief work during the 2011 cyclone season.

The plague of unscrupulous owners purchasing rustbuckets and sending them to sea on limited financial ration, is a problem that has long plagued the commercial sector. Third world navies on shoestring budgets are also known offenders. But Australia purchased the vessel from Britian, with a first rate navy with a proud history and the technical expertise to support even the most antiquated ship. So what went wrong?

Naval experts in the region say the issue boils down to budget constraints.  According to Australian Senator Johnston, “the problem is that whilst we have obvious maintenance and engineering issues with surface ships, we’ve taken money out of the budget so we’ve really thrown petrol onto the flames of what is a very serious problem for an island nation such as ours,” he said.

It’s not just the military that is concerned about the ship. The vessel was purchased as a replacement for the heavy landing ship HMAS Tobruk, a vessel with a long history of humanitarian aid including the recent assistance provided to the tsunami struck islands of the South Pacific in 2009.
RFA Largs Bay
RFA Largs Bay providing humanitarian aid prior to being sold to Australia.

“Last year Tobruk delivered more than 500 tonnes of aid to Samoa and Tonga following the tsunami in the region,” said the Tobruk’s commanding officer in an interview shortly before that ship’s was pulled from active duty for heavy repairs. “Unfortunately, our region suffers natural disasters and as a consequence our navy needs to be prepared to respond,” he said. With the country’s three Kanimbla class Amphibious Landing Platform decommissioned or undergoing repairs and the Tobruk and the Choules stuck in shipyard no ships are currently available to assist in either military or emergency response capacities.

According to a government release the HMAS Choules departed Sydney on 13 June 2012 on a voyage to support an exercise in the Shoalwater Bay Training Area. The next day one of six transformers failed reducing the ship’s propulsion power by 50 per cent. The ship’s Commanding Officer ordered the ship back to port the next day.

The Navy has been advised by the ship’s previous operator, the Royal Fleet Auxiliary, that the defect is very unusual. The Fleet Commander, Rear Admiral Tim Barrett, said: “A technical investigation has begun to identify the possible cause of the defect”.

While Australians call London for explanations, one naval expert admits, “this is not a major incident. The fact is only one transformer is known to have failed and the ship returned to port under her own power.”  The HMAS Choules is also a relatively new ship. She was a British Bay-Class Landing Ship Dock commissioned with the Royal Fleet Auxiliary service on 28 November 2006.  The Bay-Class has a proven capability with Largs Bay having proved herself during years of military support and the successful giving of humanitarian relief as part of the international response to the Haiti earthquake in 2010.

The Australian Navy purchased the vessel  last year for a price of A$100 million (£65 million) and took delivery of her on 24 February 2012.