It seems fairly obvious from the response of the Royal Australian Navy to the bushfire evacuations that it needs another option for saving coastal residents and visitors - particularly after the way it had difficulty in responding to the evacuation of Mallacoota. That is not an adverse reflection on the navy but rather on the shortcomings of its equipment.
The navy should have in its fleet at least one large, high-speed wave-piercing catamaran of the kind built by Incat in Tasmania or Austal in Perth. The RAN chartered one such vessel of 1250 tonnes displacement in June 1999, and commissioned her as the HMAS Jervis Bay.
The Jervis Bay was used as a fast troop and equipment transport, becoming the first large catamaran to enter naval service. She operated from Australia in support of the INTERFET peacekeeping taskforce in East Timor until May 2001, when she was decommissioned and returned to the builder. During her service the vessel received very positive reviews and was affectionately nicknamed the "Dili Express"
(The Dili Express is now owned by Condor Ferries. Renamed HSC Condor Rapide she carries 670 passengers and 200 cars between the Channel Islands and Saint Malo).
These large catamarans are capable of carrying heavy loads, military vehicles, and up to 500 fully equipped troops. They are excellent for supporting disaster relief operations. And they can achieve high speeds (up to 48 knots) to get them quickly to where they need to be to be. Their shallow draft means they can get close to shore and enter small coastal ports. They also have a useful range of 1900 kilometres.
Where the HMAS Choules took more than a day and a half to chug its way to Mallacoota, an Incat or Austal catamaran could have been there from Sydney in a few hours. The Choules took 1000 evacuees in one lift, but a large catamaran could have taken more than that in an emergency lift and, because of its high speed and shallow draft, taken the evacuees to a closer coastal port for a much quicker turnaround.
At the same time, it could also have delivered large quantities of relief supplies to coastal communities in need.
The foreign aid potential for use of these vessels is huge, with recent natural disasters in the Philippines, various Pacific islands, and PNG all being situations where such a vessel would have been invaluable.
Both Incat and Austal have world-leading technology in this field and both supply foreign navies as well as producing commercial variants for a world market. The US Navy was so impressed by the Jervis Bay that it encouraged Austal to set up in the US.
Austal is now the sole supplier of this class of vessel to the US Navy at a cost of less than $250 million each. (We could have 18 of them for the cost of one of our already obsolete new Attack-class submarines.)
- Clive Williams is a visiting professor at the ANU's Centre for Military and Security Law.