Royal Australian Navy Down Two Replenishment Oilers As Ships Go In For Repairs

June 21, 2024 5:26 PM
Crew of HMAS Stalwart line the ship’s upper decks during its commissioning ceremony at Fleet Base West, Rockingham on Nov. 13, 2021. Royal Australian Navy Photo

The Royal Australian Navy’s (RAN) two Supply-class fleet replenishment oilers are now out of service, with Australian Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Richard Marles confirming on Friday that HMAS Stalwart (A304) is now nonoperational following engine defects, joining sister ship HMAS Supply (A195) ,which has been nonoperational since March 2023.

Meanwhile, Marine Rotational Force-Darwin wrapped up drills with an RAN amphibious ship on Thursday.

In a press conference on Friday at Osborne Shipyard, Adelaide, Marles said that Supply has had issues that are well known and that his ministry was now aware of issues emerging from Stalwart. “

And my advice on this day, is that HMAS Stalwart [is] not operational. Now, obviously, that does then raise questions, given [that] both ships in the class are not able to operate at this moment,” Marles said, according to a transcript.

Marles said that he had already sought advice from RAN Chief Adm. Mark Hammond, who was also at the press conference, as to when Stalwart and Supply can be expected to be operational again and what needs to be done in the meantime to make sure the functions that were being performed by the ships still met. Marles did not elaborate further as to when the two ships would be back in service and what measures would be taken.

Both Supply and Stalwart provide fuel but also are designed to provide water, spare parts, provisions and ammunition. Each ship’s capacity is 383,050 gallons of JP5 jet fuel, 2,162,611 gallons of marine diesel fuel, 369,840 gallons of fresh water, 297 tons of ammunition and 518 tons of cargo.

Australia’s ABC News broke the news on Tuesday that Stalwart had extended a port visit to Darwin to address engine defects. The Australia Department of Defence had posted on social media channel X on May 23 that Stalwart had docked in Darwin that day, though not the reason for the ship’s docking.

Hammond stated that Stalwart had completed a period of operational assignment and border protection duties, and that the current issue arose during the transit to Darwin for a scheduled port visit. He also said RAN would carry out a technical investigation while also repairing the defect so the ship can sail safely to its home port at RAN Fleet Base West, Garden Island, and undergo a maintenance period in Perth.

The RAN chief said he was unhappy with the situation.

“As I stated at senate estimates about two weeks ago, I’m not happy with the availability of HMAS Supply, in particular. I’m tempering that with an understanding it is a first-of-class vessel, it was built during the pandemic over in Spain. And I’m comfortable that Navantia are working with us on understanding the issues and rectifying [them],” Hammond said.

Both Marles and Hammond spoke after a steel-cutting ceremony for the lead ship of the Hunter-class frigate, which is expected to be operational in 2034.

Supply has been nonoperational since March 2023 undergoing mechanical defect repairs and is expected to be out of service until 2025 because of a defective shaft that was discovered during the initial repair work. During a Senate Estimates hearing on June 6, Hammond said that the issues were caused by a complex defect but Navantia had accepted liability and that Supply would be repaired under warranty.

In the hearing, Radm. Steven Tiffen, head Maritime Sustainment, said that repairs undertaken on Supply over the last year revealed another issue with an element in the intermediate shaft, a 49-foot-long, 21-ton, 1.5-foot diameter shaft located between the gearbox and the propeller shaft. The worse-case scenario for a replacement part to arrive would be 40 weeks, he added.

Hammond said what went wrong was the shaft alignment process while Supply was being constructed in Spain, despite a certification authority verifying the process. Australia was unable to fly people to Spain to conduct their own verification because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

It is unclear how the nonoperational status of both ships will impact RAN operations as the RAN could reasonably expect to draw on replenishment from partner-nation fleet oilers from the U.S. and Japan in the Indo-Pacific, as well as docking into Singapore while operating in the South China Sea. At the same time, the RAN currently only has one ship, destroyer HMAS Sydney (DDG-42), on a regional presence deployment, though future deployments and sustained presence operations may be affected. The RAN has yet to deploy a naval task group this year for the Australian Defence Force’s (ADF’s) annual Indo-Pacific Endeavour (IPE24) presence and engagement deployment, which also usually involves one of the Supply-class ships. Plans for IPE24 may have to be revised in light of the current situation.

Sydney left its homeport at RAN Fleet Base East in its namesake city on June 10. An Australian Defence Department release on Thursday said the destroyer will participate in the Rim of the Pacific 2024 exercise that runs from June 27 to Aug. 1 in and around the Hawaiian Islands, Exercise Pacific Dragon and Operation Argos—the ADF’s contribution to international efforts to enforce United Nations Security Council sanctions against North Korea. Pacific Dragon is a biennial multinational air and missile defense exercise held in Hawaii, usually following after RIMPAC.

In Australia on Thursday, Marine Rotational Force-Darwin (MRF-D) 24.3 concluded the Wet and Dry Exercise Rehearsal (WADER) aboard RAN amphibious assault ship HMAS Adelaide (L01), which began on June 2.

A Marine Corps release said that the exercise aimed to enhance amphibious capabilities and strengthen the partnership between the U.S. and ADF and that 47 Marines and four Sailors with MRF-D 24.3 were embarked on Adelaide alongside the Australian Amphibious Force (AAF) to participate in a comprehensive training mission designed to enhance joint operational capabilities.

The release also ssaid that the early stages of WADER included MV-22B Osprey deck-landing qualifications executed by Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron (VMM) 268 (Reinforced).

“What a great opportunity it is to have our pilots conduct landings on the HMAS Adelaide, further strengthening our professional relationship with the Australian Defence Force,” said U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Col. Brandon Pope, the commanding officer of VMM-268, MRF-D 24.3, in the release. “The return to flight for the squadron has been a methodical approach to re-establish the aircrew proficiency required to execute training events such as this one safely.”

One of the key components of WADER was the integration of fires capabilities, which involved coordination between MRF-D’s littoral fires cell and the AAF’s Supporting Arms Coordination Center, according to the release. Medical training involving U.S. Navy medical subject matter expert exchanges with ADF medical personnel aboard Adelaide were also carried out. The culmination of the exercise included a significant ship-to-shore movement, which tested and demonstrated the practical aspects of amphibious ship-to-shore operations, stated the release

Dzirhan Mahadzir

Dzirhan Mahadzir

Dzirhan Mahadzir is a freelance defense journalist and analyst based in Kuala Lumpur Malaysia. Among the publications he has written for and currently writes for since 1998 includes Defence Review Asia, Jane’s Defence Weekly, Navy International, International Defence Review, Asian Defence Journal, Defence Helicopter, Asian Military Review and the Asia-Pacific Defence Reporter.

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