Royal Australian Navy sailors have been going to sea with potentially defective lifejackets for at least six years, while high command pleaded with Defence bureaucrats to buy replacements.
But the task of replacing the vital lifesaving equipment – at a cost of $10 million – has been stymied by intra-departmental turf wars and buck-passing within the sprawling Defence bureaucracy in Canberra.
The case highlights some of the problems that dogged the Defence Materiel Organisation for years and ultimately led the federal government to abolish the agency, reabsorbing it into the broader Defence Department.
Defence survivability experts have rated the risk of going to sea with potentially dodgy lifejackets as "tolerable", but that is pinned on the fact Australian sailors have not had to abandon ship since 1974.
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But a navy report from 2009 rang alarm bells over the ageing Pattern 50N Lifejacket, with more than 60 per cent of the vests on some vessels found to be defective
The lifejackets, which were designed in the 1950s, were especially dangerous when used with thermal protection suits designed to protect stricken sailors from the shock of cold water, according to the fleet-wide audit.
The lifejackets were too small for larger sailors and, in many cases, did not keep the wearer's face out of the water while the protection suit quickly filled with water, leading to death by drowning or hypothermia if rescuers did not arrive quickly enough.
Many navy ships restocked their lifejackets after the shocking 2009 audit, which found 156 of the 252 jackets in the Anzac Class frigate HMAS Stuart were defective, and a decision was made the following year that the Pattern 50N had to be replaced with a modern model.
But they are still in use on the navy's ships, despite not meeting the requirements of the International Convention for the Protection of Lives at Sea.
The Defence Material Organisation (DMO) was directed to find new lifejackets and thermal suits, with the agency's Naval Inventory Procurement Office being given the job.
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But after a year of no progress, The Canberra Times understands the job was passed to another DMO unit, the Minor Projects team, after the inventory procurement outfit admitting it lacked the expertise to choose the right new equipment to buy.
By mid-2014, with still no sign of getting its modern lifejackets, the navy command stepped in to oversee the project and there were hopes the equipment could finally be bought in 2015.
But in November 2014, amid a "restructure" of the DMO, the project was handed back to the procurement office, the group that walked away from the job back in 2012.
It is understood the navy now wants to take over the entire procurement project, but a stand-off has developed, with the DMO refusing to relinquish control.
A Defence Department spokesman said the replacement project was in the hands of yet another DMO outfit, the Maritime Acquisition Branch.
The spokesman said a "Request For Proposal" went out on the government's AusTender website in March, six years after the navy's audit identified the dangers of the Pattern 50N lifejacket.
"These items are only utilised in the unlikely event of having to abandon a ship. For routine evolutions, other styles of lifejackets are employed.
"The current systems are operable, but are approaching obsolescence and the opportunity is being taken to upgrade to modern equipment."