Sydney Harbour to remain at core of east coast defences with navy to expand at Garden Island

Sydney Harbour to remain at core of east coast defences with navy to expand at Garden Island

Sydney Harbour will retain the naval presence its had since the First Fleet and “the days of the sail” with Defence formally scotching a public push for them to surrender Garden Island and shift elsewhere along the east coast.

NSW is also poised to have a submarines berth for the first time in more than 20 years to strategically boost defences of the most populous side of the nation, with Garden Island at its centre.

After countless reviews since the 1960s through to today, Defence has formally ruled “there’s no feasible economic east coast location for the total replacement of the capabilities that are provided at Garden Island”.


Sub Lieutenant Jaycob Humphreys looks out from the quarterdeck of HMAS Canberra as it departs Fleet Base East, in Sydney for a four-month deployment including Talisman Sabre 2021. Picture: Defence

Investment in the base has concluded it “will remain viable as the sustainment and home port for our east coast major fleet units” well into the future.

The only remaining consideration being the continued push back from residents of Potts Point, Woolloomooloo and Kings Cross whose complaints have already forced the Royal Australian Navy to alter its operations.

HMAS Hobart leads HMA Ships Stuart and Parramatta out of Sydney Harbour for their Maritime East Asia Deployment. Picture: Defence

There had been government lobbying from some quarters for Garden Island to be part-surrendered to the leisure cruise-ship industry to boost tourism and economy but that notion did not fit with the bigger picture to have a submarine base on the east coast with resources already in Sydney Harbour at its core.

The Federal Government has yet to make an announcement about submarines, which are currently all based in Western Australia, but sources confirmed internal Defence analyses showed a need for a two-ocean basing of a future submarine fleet with a presence on the east coast, at its own base anticipated to be in NSW.

Seaman Maritime Logistics Steward Zachary Stokes kisses his fiance Chloie Osborne goodbye on the wharf at Fleet Base East, Sydney. Picture: Defence

That review also found personnel hiring and retention for the armed forces would benefit if part of the sub fleet were based in Sydney.

Defence has been reviewing the push since 2017 when internal polling found Navy was haemorrhaging staff in part due to familial separation with the majority of sub crews hired from the east but based in the west.

The submariner ranks have to swell from current 852 personnel to more than 2000 to accommodate the new fleet of French-designed Barracuda sometime in the next decade and maintain a sea-shore capability.

Australian Army soldiers from the Australian Defence Force contingent rehearse at Randwick Barracks. Picture: Defence

There are already plans for infrastructure developments at Garden Island and the RAN in NSW, including 900 new accommodation units potentially to be constructed at Randwick Barracks.

Navy Future Infrastructure chief Rear Admiral Philip Spedding described Garden Island as an enduring base “since the days of the sail” that remained viable.

“It does, of course, suffer from urban encroachment, so we have to change some of our practices, and we have done so, to be able to accommodate the demands and needs of the resident population nearby, but it is still a viable site for the Navy going forward,” he told a defence committee reviewing infrastructure.

HMAS Brisbane departs Fleet Base East in Sydney, New South Wales for Exercise Talisman Sabre 2021. Picture: Defence

He described Garden Island and the Sydney basin defence precinct including HMAS Penguin, HMAS Watson, HMAS Waterhen and Randwick Barracks, Chowder Bay fuel storage and Sydney Fleet HQ as an interlocked system.

“If you think about moving individual elements out of Sydney, you dislocate the system and introduce inefficiencies and additional costs,” he said. “At the moment, our intention is to remain based on the east coast in Sydney, but, as I said, we balance it up between the west coast and the east coast. If the government, on recommendation, were to accept an east coast submarine base, then you might look at what other capabilities it would be sensible to co-locate in that location, but that advice has not yet been provided to government.”

Garden Island, Fleet Base East, Sydney.

A defence spokeswoman said yesterday Garden Island upgrades, including a 372m long wharf, were designed to minimise disruption to local residents and Navy had restricted activities which generated noise to “less sensitive times”.

“Additionally, recent upgrades to infrastructure at the base will help reduce noise, pollution and ensure ship maintenance is further away from residential areas,” the spokeswoman said.

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