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Thursday, 27 November 1986
Page: 2912

Senator MASON(5.58) —I want to raise a specific matter. I understand that the Department of Defence has had a study made into the possible conversion of the Australian Venturer into a containerised aviation support ship. I trust that the Department is studying that report closely. I would like some idea of what consequence that has had so far and what the Government's thinking is in that area. I wish to raise some points in that area. I feel a certain responsibility to do so in that I think it was the Australian Democrats who first objected in this place to the provision of a short-deck aircraft carrier. Of course, if one does not have a short-deck aircraft carrier, it is obviously reasonable to have some other form of air defence for convoys of merchant ships. One British ship, I think, has already been converted from a merchant container vessel to a containerised military vessel.

The former MV Astronomer is now the Reliant, a containerised helicopter support platform. The Government should indicate in its reply what study will be made of that. While in Britain earlier this year I spoke with officials of British Aerospace about the shipboard containerised air defence system, which is a method of converting merchant ships into containerised helicopter or Sea Harrier support platforms. In other words, it is not necessary to have a separate military vessel to carry out this sort of work. Sea Harriers are contained in one container and their control systems in another. Apart from any other consideration, if a merchant container ship converted in this way is severely mauled in a battle at sea it can be cannibalised and the containerised system, if it is reasonable intact, can be put into another ship.

This system is of some importance to our defence planning at this stage since it provides the ability rapidly to expand a naval fleet in times of crisis. That is relevant to the type of situation we are likely to face. Such a system provides a seaborne platform with several primary roles for the operation of both aircraft-I am speaking now of Sea Harriers, but there are other possibilities-and helicopters without the massive cost of an aircraft carrier. It provides self-contained protection for merchant ships in convoy. A vital point is that it is relatively inexpensive and it provides for minimum off-shore expenditure by having the modular component manufactured and fitted in Australia. So this system gives the possibility of a very significant Australian component. I understand from British Aerospace that containerised systems may be prepared ready for fast installation on unprotected merchant ships to provide defence against air, surface or submarine threat. If that indeed is so, the system is well worth investigation by our defence forces. The minimum deck area necessary for conversion to air operation is 115 metres by 20 metres. So most large standard container vessels are perfectly satisfactory for that purpose.

I am given to understand by British Aerospace that by providing a simple modular runway and ski jump on a suitable merchant ship it can be transformed into a low-cost aircraft carrier. The typical conversion suggested to me by British Aerospace would be on a hull of the order of 30,000 tonnes, which would provide a flight deck approximately 120 metres long and 14 metres wide. This would be sufficient to operate and support-I suggest to the Minister that this is vital-a deployment of six Sea Harriers, each of which would be able to undertake a full combat air patrol of one and a half hours duration at a distance of 175 kilometres from the parent ship. Such a force would have very considerable clout.

It is also possible to use naval weapons systems in modular form. A combination of modular systems could provide all the characteristics of a light aircraft carrier. The outer layer of defence would be provided by Sea Harriers operating from the modular flight deck and ski jump laid on top of the ship's deck hatches or by helicopters, which need even less deck space. Close area defence could be provided by an anti-missile system and passive defence by a chaff decoy system. Of course, these are standard components in most warships. There could also be command, control and communications systems and air surveillance sensors. I am informed by British Aerospace that all are adaptable for modular fit and even the antenna pylon can be provided in modular form. Such experiments are being carried out in Britain. I understand also that the United States Marine Corps is looking seriously at this whole area as a means of providing cheap, flexible and easily expendable ships of that type.

Container ships can also be converted to amphibious assault craft with, typically, accommodation for 300 troops, logistics to support them, helicopter pads and command and communication facilities. Self-protection could also be provided by modular anti-missile and chaff decoy systems. I raise this matter in some detail because I think it is important to us at this stage. The conversion of the Reliant in Britain was permanent; it was a container ship converted permanently to be a platform for airborne facilities. However, the temporary fit is what we should look at in Australia. This could provide a very flexible defence force with ships which could be used in ordinary trade once the initial installations were made to them and in time of war or crisis they could be converted within 24 or 48 hours by the installation of containerised modular facilities.