|$8bn navy flagship founders after construction bungle
AUSTRALIA'S largest defence project, the $8 billion plan to build the navy's new air warfare destroyers, has had its first serious setback.
A Melbourne shipyard has botched the construction of the central keel block of the first warship.
The multi-million-dollar bungle could delay the project by up to six months and is believed to have triggered a rift between the Williamstown shipyards, where the hull block was built, and the warship's Spanish designer.
The setback has alarmed the Defence Materiel Organisation, which sees the AWDs as its flagship project and a key test of whether Australia can sustain a viable naval shipbuilding industry.
The three new 6500-tonne destroyers, based on the Spanish F100 boats, will be the most capable warships in the nation's history when they enter service from 2014.
The Australian understands that the central keel block of the first AWD warship, HMAS Hobart, was built to inaccurate dimensions as a result of faulty welding and inadequate quality control at the Williamstown shipyards, operated by an AWD subcontractor, BAE Systems Australia.
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The AWD project manager, AWD Alliance, last night confirmed there had been "difficulties in the block fabrication" of the warship in Williamstown, which would affect production schedules.
"The difficulties cannot be attributed to a single cause but production start-up issues experienced by the shipbuilder, some difficulties in specific know-how and technical data have contributed," AWD Alliance told The Australian.
"The difficulties resulted in an unexpected distortion in a component of one of the blocks."
It said two other hull blocks were found to be at risk of distortion but the issue was identified and production processes were changed.
The distortion of the central keel block - which weighs about 200 tonnes, measures 20m by 17m and supports some of the most important heavy machinery on the warship - made it potentially incompatible with other blocks of the ship that are being built in Adelaide and in Newcastle.
One AWD source, who asked not to be named, said: "This is not a small problem - this is a major headache for us. This will have a ripple effect on the whole project because that hull block is critical, and if that block is delayed, then a raft of other things also get delayed."
BAE Systems Australia has been striving furiously for weeks to rework the faulty keel block to the correct specifications to get the project back on track.
A statement from the AWD Alliance, incorporating BAE Systems's response, said yesterday the distorted block had been "remedied by reworking" but said it was too early to say exactly what impact the problem would have on the overall AWD delivery schedule.
Sources have told The Australian that the project would be delayed by up to six months.
The AWD Alliance said it was looking at introducing extra shifts to try to make up lost ground.
BAE Systems won the $300 million contract to build 36 of the 93 hull blocks for the three new AWDs last year amid much fanfare from the Victorian government, which said it would create hundreds of new jobs.
BAE began work on the keel blocks early this year.
It is understood that BAE Systems believes the bungled central keel block was the result of what it considers to be inadequate design drawings provided by the ship's Spanish designer, Navantia.
Other AWD sources said this was unlikely because AWD hull blocks based on Navantia's drawings were also being built by ASC in Adelaide and by Forgacs near Newcastle, and work in those shipyards was progressing on schedule.
A spokesman for Navantia declined to comment yesterday.
The keel blocks are the most complex and important parts of the AWD hulls. Comprising up to 2000 pipes as well as electrical systems, they provide the foundation for the ship's gas turbine and diesel engine propulsion system. The AWD Alliance includes the government-owned Australian Submarine Project, the Defence Materiel Organisation and Raytheon Australia.
BAE's Williamstown shipyards were scheduled to begin shipping completed keel blocks to ASC in Adelaide in the first half of next year.
The AWDs will give a substantial boost to naval capability especially in anti-air warfare with its Aegis combat system allowing them to provide theatre ballistic missile defence over a wide area.