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Cheap US ships turned out to be expensive

AAP logoAAP 31/12/2016 Max Blenkin, Defence Correspondent

It seemed like a heck of good deal - buy a pair of used US Navy landing ships then refit them to meet Australian needs, all at a fraction of the cost of new vessels.

The two vessels became HMAS Manoora and HMAS Kanimbla and the experience of their acquisition would surely make Australia wary of ever buying old US ships ever again.

Cabinet papers for 1992 and 1993, released by the National Archives of Australia, reveal the government believed it had to act quickly or possibly miss out.

"In order to acquire two of the best second-hand LSTs (tank landing ship) from the USN (US Navy), an order needs to be placed as soon as practicable," said Defence Minister Robert Ray's submission to cabinet.

If Australia picked the two best vessels, pity whoever got the next best. Our's turned out to be riddled with rust and with significant mechanical problems.

Ray estimated a total acquisition cost of $70 million plus $30 million for modifications. In reality, once repairs and modifications were finally completed, the price tag exceeded $400 million.

Neither vessel was ready for East Timor in September 1999 when they would have been most useful to transport the required troops and equipment.

Instead the government resorted to chartering a high speed catamaran for two years.

Manoora finally entered service in January 2000 and was decommissioned in May 2011. Kanimbla entered service in January 2001 and was paid off in November 2011.

Both subsequently saw extensive use in Middle East and regional operations, convincing Defence they were an extremely valuable capability.

The two new Canberra-class landing ships, the largest ships ever to serve in the Royal Australian Navy, are the result.

Back in 1993, Defence needed replacements for training ship HMAS Jervis Bay and amphibious heavy lift ship HMAS Tobruk. New built ships were costed at up to $500 million each.

So cheaper replacements were appealing, especially as the US Navy had plenty to choose from as it retired much of its amphibious fleet.

Australia picked the former USS Saginaw and USS Fairfax County, both Newport-class vessels launched in 1970. They were deemed most suitable due to smaller crew requirement, diesel propulsion and potential remaining life of at least 20 years.

The price was right - just $61 million for both as it turned out. Cabinet gave the go-ahead, subject to satisfactory final inspection by Australian personnel.

Ray noted that the US Navy had some 20 Newport-class vessels available but Australian personnel had already determined that some were in unacceptable condition.

As well, other nations were interested.

In the haste to fulfil this deal, neither chosen vessel went into dry dock for a full inspection which might have revealed the work that would be needed.

Australia has since purchased another pre-owned vessel, snapping up a former UK Royal Fleet Auxiliary, now named HMAS Choules in 2011.

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