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EDITORIAL JANUARY 2011
Iam well aware that Dr Johnson, three hundred years ago, described patriotism as
the last refuge of the scoundrel.
So, I am always wary of encouraging irrational or extreme or even suicidal examples
of patriotism. However, I am sometimes astonished by the absence of patriotism in
defence purchasing decision making.
As a very strong advocate of the benefits of free trade, I am certainly not pushing for
blind adherence to a "buy local" policy. With important, expensive purchases like
defence equipment it is not a case of buying either foreign or local, it should always be
one of buying the best available. That, I must strongly emphasise, does not necessarily
mean the most expensive!
However, I have too often seen examples in defence equipment purchasing of both
blind patriotism and of equally blind cultural cringing. There can, and often is, a happy
medium. I am well aware of that but, from time-to-time, I am completely flabbergasted
by some defence purchasing decisions.
Now, I know that Australia is a comparatively small market but it is a rich one and
one that I am fairly familiar with. It is also probably not very atypical of middle to
medium sized developed economies. I certainly hear many similar complaints from other
comparable countries. Anyway, I simply use the Australian experience as an example.
Obviously, I talk frequently with Australian naval architects and ship builders. As is
well known, most of them are significant players in export markets. Rather like the Dutch,
Scandinavians, Malaysians and Chileans, they would not survive if they did not export.
These are people or companies that have become world leaders in their particular
sectors. I have in mind companies like Austal, Incat, Alucraft, AMD, Sea Transport
Solutions, and the now "retired" NQEA. There are many others.
All of these have had dealings with local and foreign defence and paramilitary
organisations such as customs and police. All have achieved substantial export sales.
Some have made local naval sales but the outcomes, I understand, have generally been
unprofitable, unpleasant, frustrating or a combination of the three. Some can barely
discuss Australian defence sales without succumbing to apoplexy.
By contrast, allowing for the fact that no government sale is ever easy, they report
cordial, profitable dealings with organisations as diverse as the Indian Navy, the US
Defense Department, the Peoples Liberation Army Navy, the Malaysian Police, Hong
Kong Marine Police, the Sultanate of Oman, Kuwait, Trinidad and Tobago and Malta,
The only truly happy recent outcomes I know of locally have been rare. One was the
charter of the Incat built and owned wave piercer 'HMAS Jervis Bay' to the Royal
Australian Navy. The other was the Armidale class OPV project which involved a very
effective intermediary, DMS (Defence Maritime Services), which was interposed between
Austal and the Royal Australian Navy. Its involvement apparently eliminated most of
the usual angst.
Perhaps Australia is unusual, if not unique, in its naval ship building and designing
arrangements as with its native marsupials. I suspect not completely so.
It does seem somewhat strange, though, that despite our misadventures with, for
example, the Collins Class submarines and various other ships, aircraft and helicopters,
not to mention computer systems, Australia continues to exhibit a strong preference for
It is not as though our local designers, builders and innovators are unproven,
unwanted or even unappreciated. Their export sales to foreign navies very effectively
counter that argument.
The fact is that they have been snubbed and insulted to such an extent by the local
Defence purchasing establishment that they barely bother anymore. Indeed, some don't
even bother at all. It is simply not worth the time, trouble and even humiliation of
The Australian government could do a lot better than throwing the occasional bone
to such local suppliers. If, they don't, they run the risk of losing them altogether.
Prophets without honour in
their own land
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