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Smith under attack from ship critics

Date

David Ellery

Defence Minister Stephen Smith's decision to order his department to spend $130 million on a ship for the Border Protection and Customs Service is unprecedented, a former senior bureaucrat says.

Critics within Mr Smith's department say the ship, the Skandi Bergen, is of no use to the navy and that the purchase is a public relations stunt.

It is due to undergo sea trials in May and will arrive in Australia around the middle of the year.

''Navy did not buy this ship to fill any void until the Land Helicopter Docks come on-line,'' a source said. ''The government bought this ship because Customs needs it - but Customs does not have any money. The defence minister directed Defence to buy it with Defence money.''

Attempts by the minister to pass the Skandi Bergen off as an amphibious vessel were just plain wrong.

''It is not, I repeat, not, an amphibious ship,'' the source said. ''It has no amphibious capability whatsoever.''

Professor Ross Babbage, the former head of strategic analysis in the Office of National Assessments, said Mr Smith's intervention was remarkable.

''It strikes me as truly without precedent,'' he said yesterday. ''I cannot recall a previous occasion where the minister has ordered his department to buy a major piece of Defence equipment which the department itself hasn't previously identified as a requirement for defence capability.''

The intervention represented ''a serious breakdown in the discipline of force structure development''.

Unlike last year's purchase of HMAS Choules - which at only $100 million represents a lot more bang for the buck than the much smaller Skandi Bergen - funds do not come from a budgetary underspend. ''The decision was not related to any budget underspend. Defence is not currently anticipating an underspend in 2011-12,'' a Defence spokesman said.

The decision to buy the Skandi Bergen, a sister ship to the Border Protection and Customs Service's Ocean Protector, was driven by Mr Smith's fear HMAS Tobruk and HMAS Choules would not be sufficient to respond to a natural disaster such as a cyclone or tsunami in the region.

''Navy [now] only has two amphibious ships and the minister wanted a third ship for humanitarian assistance and disaster response,'' the source said. ''This reeks of the government trying to give the impression it is doing something about defence - it is an attempt to mislead the electorate. It is worse than doing nothing as it is a diversion of focus and resources,'' another Defence insider said.

The Skandi Bergen purchase followed the announcement, on December 13, by Mr Smith and Minister for Defence Materiel Jason Clare of ''the next step in the government's plan to improve the Royal Australian Navy's amphibious capacity - the purchase of a ship to add to the Royal Australian Navy's current amphibious ships, HMAS Choules and HMAS Tobruk''.

To qualify as an amphibious vessel a ship needs to have a ''roll on, roll off capability''. The Skandi Bergen does not meet this requirement.

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