What interim solutions should Canberra explore ahead of the delivery of the Royal Australian Navy’s future SSN fleet?
During a visit to Osborne Naval Shipyard in South Australia earlier this month, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defence Richard Marles flagged the risks of dependence on overseas contractors for timely delivery of the Royal Australian Navy’s future fleet of nuclear-powered submarines promised under AUKUS.
The Nuclear Submarine Taskforce is currently considering the US Virginia Class and UK Astute Class submarines but both US and British industrial bases are constrained, limiting the likelihood of off-the-shelf purchases.
“…If we want this capability to happen sooner rather than later, we have to build Australian capability right here,” Minister Marles said.
“But if we are going to be solely reliant on a capability overseas, then we can expect those submarines are going to take a long time to be in our service and we need them as soon as possible.
“So, building Australian industrial capability within Australia — and I mean right here at Osborne — is fundamentally important to making sure that we acquire this capability as soon as possible, and that is going to be front and centre in terms of the way in which we are analysing this issue.”
A recently published Congressional Research Services report brought to light issues relating to the United States Navy’s Virginia Class Attack submarine procurement program, which include the force-level goal and procurement rate, industrial-base challenges, and cost and schedule risks.
The report noted a total of 36 Virginia Class submarines have been procured by the US Navy since the program commenced in 1998, at a rate of approximately two platforms per year.
However, the review references findings from a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report published last month, which flagged delays in the construction of Block V Virginia Class submarines.
“Over the past year, work on Block V submarines fell further behind schedule and construction costs continued to grow above original targets due to overall higher workforce demand and additional factors such as correspondingly less experienced workers,” the GAO observed.
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As a result, program officials reportedly expect the first three Block V submarines to be delivered behind schedule, with additional cost increases and schedule delays “likely”.
But developing a mature SSN industrial base in Australia would not guarantee faster SSN delivery to the RAN, given the time required to identify, train, and upskill stakeholders across the shipbuilding workforce.
In lieu of these challenges, Minister Marles has revealed the Albanese government would explore interim solutions to fill the capability gap.
“[If] there is a gap which arises, we’ll have a solution to plugging it. But let’s be clear, there is a big mess that’s been left to this government,” he told the media in June.
“We will clean it up.”
He said the government is “open minded” regarding a stop-gap solution, adding “all possibilities are on the table”.
So, what options are on the table?
According to Marcus Hellyer, ASPI’s senior analyst for defence economics and capability, and Andrew Nicholls, a former director in KPMG Australia’s finance strategy and performance division, Australia has three “high-level’ options for interim sub-surface capability.
These options, which they claim are not mutually exclusive, include accelerating the establishment of SSN capability.
But Hellyer and Nicholls concede the first locally built boat may not enter service before 2040.
“It’s currently taking the US eight years to build SSNs on mature production lines. It’s hard to see us doing better from a cold start,” the analysts write.
“Even if we can shave a year or two off the process, we still get into the drumbeat issue: production capacity means submarines will likely be delivered on a three-year drumbeat, getting us well into the 2040s before we have an actual capability.
“In short, this option alone won’t address the capability gap.”
Therefore, to supplement an accelerated local construction timeline, Canberra could look beyond sub-surface capability.
“The key is to focus on the effects we seek from submarines and see how we can achieve them more quickly (and possibly more affordably) with other systems,” Hellyer and Nicholls continue.
“For example, if one of the effects we seek from SSNs is a long-range strike capability that can act as a conventional deterrent against an aggressor, we could investigate other systems with that capability.”
This, they suggest, could include procuring the B-21 bomber developed for the US Air Force.
“It would deliver a massive capability boost. And, if we’re looking at effects, it can deliver a broad range of them, including anti-submarine warfare if we consider that it can be conducted by sinking boats in harbour or by air-delivered mines,” the analysts observe.
But given the $25-30 billion price tag, acquiring the stealth bombers could force Canberra to axe another major defence program.
Instead, Defence could explore a more affordable uncrewed aerial vehicle capable of long-range strike like a twin-engine, long-range version of Boeing’s Ghost Bat.
Further, Defence could consider bolstering the ADF’s long-range missile stocks before “up-gunning” existing platforms like the Arafura Class offshore patrol vessels.
“These vessels are about to enter service, have sufficient space to carry lethal capability and can be produced quickly and at scale,” Hellyer and Nicholls write.
“One option could include installing the Kongsberg naval strike missile launcher that is already being acquired for larger surface combatants.
“Anti-submarine warfare sensors are another possibility. The RAN can’t afford the luxury of operating 1,800-tonne vessels with no warfighting capability.”
Finally, the pair spruik the benefits of acquiring a conventional submarine ahead of the SSN delivery.
“The proposals have ranged from a repeat of the current Collins Class, built to the original design and standards—but presumably with the extensive upgrades installed since the original build, including those planned for the life-of-type extension—to an essentially new design, based on the Swedish A26, for example,” they write.
Hellyer and Nicholls add a conventional submarine may continue to serve critical operational roles well beyond IOC for the SSN program, drawing on capability transitions in the Royal Australian Air Force.
“Depending on which point of the SSN transition it served until—and it’s possible the last of the first eight SSNs may not enter service until after 2060—a new conventional class of submarine could be in service for 30 years and hence be an enduring part of the defence force,” they write.
“It might better be referred to as a bridging capability, much like the F/A-18F Super Hornet’s introduction to manage the risks in the capability transition from the F/A-18A/B and F-111 fleets to the F-35A.
“Yet, the Super Hornet has proven its value and looks set to remain in service for a long time to come, well beyond the bridging period and delivery of the F-35A.”
But Hellyer and Nicholls stress the procurement of a “new conventional submarine” would need to be carefully weighed with considerations of cost and the strategic role of the platform.
“Having a clear understanding of what problem we are trying to solve will help answer whether such a move makes sense and what the most suitable approach to a new conventional submarine might be,” the analysts write.