Specialist Boat Building and Supply Chain Resilience

Briefing Note Summary

Cairns has a long and proud history of shipbuilding, with Defence and Coast Guard vessels, cruise ships, and passenger ferries being constructed in the region since 1954.

The Cairns Marine Precinct has proven capability in ship maintenance and sustainment, as well as pre-existing supply chain arrangements and infrastructure, and transferrable skills and knowledge that would ensure a ship and specialist vessel building industry could be quickly established.

Cairns is ideally located to play an important strategic role in any future foreign policy objectives in northern Australia and the Pacific. However, the industry needs further investment in supply chain resilience if it is called upon to play a strategic role in northern Australia.

A commitment from the State and Federal Governments is sought to secure the long-term, continuous building of small specialist Defence vessels, commercial vessels, and enabling infrastructure in Cairns.

Specialist shipbuilding and supply chain enabling infrastructure will further enhance sustainment capabilities in the region and will enhance the overall capacity, capability, and resilience of the industry.

The Issue

Strategic defence and foreign policy

The Cairns Marine Precinct supports Australia’s strategic defence and foreign policy initiatives, as well as border and fisheries, tourism, and maritime trade operations including essential services to northern Australia’s regional and remote communities. The precinct is home to a large and diverse marine sector with 1603 commercial vessels across tourism, fishing and shipping, and cruising yacht sectors in addition to several Royal Australian Navy and Australian Border Force vessels. After COVID-19 exposed the fragility of Cairns’ tourism-based economy, project cargo and the continued growth of the marine precinct became critical for economic diversification in the region. The reestablishment of a small specialist vessel and boat building industry to service Defence and industry needs would provide stable growth and jobs for the Tropical North Queensland (TNQ) region and build on the pre-existing capability in the precinct and region.

The Federal Government’s 2020 Defence Strategic Update1 outlined the changing environment for Australia and the strategic realignment of the Indo-Pacific in global geopolitics, primarily due to strategic competition between the United States and China. This has led to Defence prioritising sovereign industrial capability2 and a nation-wide approach to investment. The objectives of the Defence Industrial Capability Plan3 are to broaden, deepen, and grow the industrial base of Defence to enhance Australia’s national security. Cairns is ideally located to assist with these objectives, with existing marine and international airports that would allow it to play a strategic role in the Federal Government’s Step-Up to the Pacific program and other foreign policy objectives.

Cairns also has proven capability in ship maintenance and sustainment, along with a long and proud history in shipbuilding. The pre-existing supply chain arrangements and infrastructure, as well as transferrable skills and knowledge in the precinct, would ensure a specialist boat building industry could be established quickly, whilst contributing to a Defence strategy of regionalisation.

As well as Defence vessels, there are a number of commercial vessels that could also be manufactured in Cairns, including tourism and cargo vessels. The Defence and commercial sectors together could provide workload for a continuous pipeline that would enable a greater underlying level of business, leading to an increase in private investment in the region.

The commitment of long-term Defence contracts will underpin private sector work and lead to growth and resilience. Investment in a specialist boat building industry and investment in supply chain resilient enabling infrastructure in Cairns will ensure highly skilled jobs and a more diversified and resilient economy for the region. Most importantly, Australian sovereign capability will be improved.


Re-establishing regional boat building

From Defence vessels to commercial barges, ferries, and catamarans, Cairns has a long and proud history of boat building. Since 1954, commercial and Defence vessels have been built in the CMP. NQEA, a world-renowned shipbuilder based in Cairns, constructed 11 landing craft, 14 Fremantle Class Patrol boats, hydrographic survey vessels, Coast Guard patrol boats, passenger cruise ships, and passenger ferries between 1965-2008. A significant portion of these skills still exist in the marine precinct today, with several businesses still constructing fishing and tourism vessels.

Small-scale Defence shipbuilding has also recommenced in Cairns with Tropical Reef Shipyards and fabrication firm BME NQ being awarded the $4m contract to build 7 new Army watercraft in March 20214.

The Australian Defence Force (ADF) plans to invest up to $800m to design and build new Australian-built amphibious vehicles and landing craft for Army from 2026. The Land 8710 Army Littoral Manoeuvre Phase 1 Project involves replacing LCM-8 and LARC-V small boats originally built in Cairns.

The current “default” shipbuilding location for the Land 8710 is Henderson, Western Australia. Advance Cairns would like to see these vessels built in Cairns. It is understood the tender document allows for alternative build locations. Advance Cairns would like the Federal Government to nominate Cairns as a high priority alternative to the current default WA location, so that tenderers can have some certainty that their alternative proposal will be seriously considered. Cairns has the history and capability to build these types of vessels.

The Phase 1 vessels will likely be based in Townsville, and it makes sense that these vessels be designed, constructed, and sustained close to their operational base and HMAS Cairns for interoperability. Having these vessels constructed thousands of kilometres away from their home base in N.E. Australia increases the length of the supply chain, increases risk, and has the effect of placing “all eggs in one basket”. Enhancing shipbuilding capacity in Cairns diversifies Australia’s shipbuilding capability and improves resilience.

From a commercial shipping perspective, Sea Swift is a large Cairns-based national sea freight company servicing Australia’s northern borders, supplying 54 communities with essential services over thousands of kilometres of coastline. With 26 ships, Sea Swift’s civilian fleet is the size of a small navy and has specialist capability in servicing a broad range of markets, many in remote areas. In the event of a maritime security threat, Sea Swift has sovereign and specialist capabilities in remote logistics that could support or supplement Defence capabilities.

Sea Swift provides an opportunity for catalytic Government investment in supply chain resilience and the modernisation of the CMP. Sea Swift is already investing in these priorities, but government investment could bring forward this change. A partnership between the government and Sea Swift to invest in supply chain resilience infrastructure in the order of $8m in landside infrastructure over the next 2 years would further enable supply chain resilience for essential services to northern Australian communities. Sea Swift is currently using local shipyards to refit a number of vessels (2021 > $3.5m) in Cairns and is evaluating the commercial feasibility of the majority of vessel refits and the construction of new purpose-built landing craft vessels in Cairns in the future. Such a program would add to the continuous pipeline of work to enable a sustainable long-term industry. Sea Swift could also provide Australia with enhanced sovereign capability through targeted upgrades, particularly around integration, plug-in capability, surveillance, logistics, and hydrographic uses, should the need arise.

Combining the above two maritime initiatives significantly improves resilience, resulting in a more sustainable marine industry. Furthermore, Cairns’ other large existing marine sectors such as fishing and tourism will also underpin demand and a viable business case.

Next Steps

The reestablishment of Cairns as a regional centre for specialist vessel building is a logical step for Defence and industry due to the existing infrastructure, skills, and supply chain arrangements already in the region. The current investment being undertaken in the Cairns Marine Precinct would assist and support ship building and align with the ADF’s strategy of strengthening Australian manufacturing capability.

To further develop the Cairns Marine Precinct and reestablish the small specialist vessel shipbuilding industry in Cairns, a long-term commitment from State and Federal Governments would be required. This could be through Defence contracts and investment in private sector partnerships. Reshoring shipbuilding in the region could create hundreds of jobs over the next 10 years and ensure the reestablishment of a commercial shipbuilding industry in Cairns. There is already a commitment in sustainment and maintenance in the Cairns Marine Precinct, and specialised boat and ship building that includes enhancing existing and new vessels would be a logical next step to ensure a continuous program of work. It would also assist to develop a viable and resilient industry that will attract significant private sector investment.

Our Recommendation

  • That Cairns be recognised by the Federal Government as a high priority alternative for building specialist Defence vessels (including the Land 8710 contract) to the current “default” shipbuilding locations as identified by Defence.

  • That the State and Federal Governments commit to Sea Swift by investing in $8m (split 50:50) in landside supply chain resilience infrastructure ensuring sovereign capability.

  • That the State and Federal Governments commit to a partnership approach by working with Sea Swift to ensure their program of work, including vessel refits and new builds, is commercially viable and constructed in Cairns.