The recent arrival of Australia's first two F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, the turning of the sod for Australia's future submarine and future frigate shipyards in South Australia, the announcement of BAE's Type 26 Global Combat Ship as the successful SEA 5000 bidder, mounting concerns about the delivery time frame, cost and capability of Naval Group's SEA 1000 bid, and finally growing regional tensions and arms races are all powerful examples of the topics Defence Connect has covered throughout 2018.
The Attack Class submarines will be delivered as part of the $50 billion SEA 1000 program, which will see Naval Group deliver 12 regionally superior submarines to the Royal Australian Navy.
Naval Group's successful Shortfin Barracuda design, which serves as the basis for the new Attack Class, is a conventionally powered variant of the nuclear powered Barracuda fast attack submarine currently under construction in France for the French Navy.
The Attack Class vessels will begin replacing the ageing Collins Class vessels at a time when 50 per cent of the world's submarines will be operating in the Indo-Pacific region.
SEA 1000 is the largest defence program in Australia's history. Worth about $50 billion, the program has not been without contention following the announcement of Naval Group's Shortfin Barracuda, now to be known as the Attack Class in Australian service, following a competitive evaluation process.
Defence Connect has closely followed the evolution of the SEA 1000 program and the controversy it has courted from academics, former service personnel, politicians and industry experts.
This article provided us with the opportunity to take a closer look at each of the individual concerns and the responses from government about the future of Australia's submarine force.
We discussed capability, cost, Australian industry content and delivery concerns with South Australian senator Rex Patrick, who raised growing concerns about the contracting arrangements between the Commonwealth and Naval Group.
"Additionally, if we are having trouble with our strategic industry partner (Naval Group) in the contracting phase, it doesn't bode well for the future of the program," Senator Patrick told Defence Connect.
Defence Connect also spoke with physicist Aidan Morrison, who raised concerns about the suitability of the pump jet propulsion system as planned for the Attack Class vessels. Morrison raised particular concerns about the hydrodynamic performance and operational capabilities of the vessels.
Despite the concerns raised by Morrison, the Department of Defence remained resolute in its choice of propulsion unit.
"Similar considerations apply to decisions about other technologies for the Future Submarine, including battery and other propulsion technologies," a Defence spokesperson said.
Dr Malcolm Davis of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) relayed concerns about the shifting sands of Australia's region and the delivery time frame of the first boats.
Dr Davis expressed growing concerns about possible capability gaps in Australia's long-range strike capabilities, which are currently carried out by Australia's Collins Class vessels.
Finally, Defence Minister Christopher Pyne strongly refuted the concerns raised. Minister Pyne issued pointed commentary about the strategic partnership between the Commonwealth and Naval Group and the capability of the vessels.
"Yes, they [combat systems] are [included in the $50 billion]. So, the contract that’s currently running the submarine project is the design and mobilisation contract; that’s exactly as it’s supposed to be," Minister Pyne explained.
Minister Pyne remained resolute in defending the capability to be delivered by the Shortfin Barracuda, despite concerns about the long lead time to deliver the submarines, with all 12 expected to be in operation by the mid-2050s.
The minister went on to explain that the submarines, as with their global counterparts, will evolve throughout the construction cycle.
"The first submarine will be based on the most up-to-date technology when it goes into the water. The last submarine is obviously not going to be exactly the same as the first submarine. It will be based on the most up-to-date technology by the time it goes into the water," he said.
Defence Minister Christopher Pyne and Chief of Navy Vice Admiral Michael Noonan announced that Australia's future submarines would officially be known as the 'Attack' Class submarines, with the leadship to be known as the HMAS Attack when it officially enters service with the Royal Australian Navy in the early 2030s.
VADM Noonan said the Attack Class would provide Australia with a regionally superior submarine.
"The Attack Class will meet the Navy’s capability needs and help protect our security and prosperity for decades to come," said VADM Noonan.
This is the second time the RAN has used the name Attack, with the name previously used for the class of patrol boats that served from 1967 to 1985.
Minister Pyne also confirmed that key negotiations between the Commonwealth and Naval Group as part of the strategic partnering agreement (SPA) had been successfully completed.
"I can also announce the negotiations between the Commonwealth and Naval Group on all key provisions of the SPA have been completed. I congratulate everyone involved in achieving this significant milestone," he said.
Minister Pyne said the SPA would be formally signed in early 2019 and would govern the delivery of the Future Submarines over the decades to come.
"Work on the design of the Attack Class submarines will continue without interruption under the design and mobilisation contract, which was signed on 30 September 2016," Minister Pyne added.
Defence Connect spoke with Adam Waldie, capture leader at Thales Australia, to discuss the company's bid to provide sensor support for Australia's future Attack Class submarines.
Thales views the $80 billion SEA 1000 Future Submarine program as a long-burn, multi-generational project and will leverage their current involvement in modernising and sustaining the nation's Collins Class submarines as the basis for their bid to provide our new submarines with the eyes and ears needed to stay ahead of potential adversaries.
"The real areas that we specialise in [at] Thales, in submarines, is in providing sensors. So the sensors are what actually allows the combat system to process the environment, maintain situational awareness," said Waldie, himself a former submariner, intimately acquainted with the life and death nature of submarines' dependence on sensor technology.
Thales' bid builds on its long experience with complex optronics and sonar integration for the complex, strategic deterrents that are modern submarine forces.
With over 30 years of submarine experience in Australia, Thales is seeking to leverage its experience, continuous presence and engagement with Australia's submarines to help it stand out from the pack in providing not only a sovereign, innovative component to a broader national submarine building capability, but also ensuring the future submarines are equipped with a lethal combination of next-generation sonar and optronics equipment.
Centre Alliance senator Rex Patrick released the TKMS cost details, furnishing a letter from TKMS sent to then defence minister Marise Payne reaffirming a previously made offer of "a fixed maximum cost of no more than $20 billion for the project" with all 12 submarines to be built in Australia.
Doing so raised questions about the viability and reasons behind selecting Naval Group and the Shortfin Barracuda as the builder and base design for Australia's future submarine fleet.
The $20 billion offer from TKMS was first made to then prime minister Tony Abbott in 2014 and again reaffirmed at the end of the competitive evaluation process. The German government also offered an open book audit of TKMS’s price.
Senator Patrick, a former submariner and defence contractor, said the price difference is of concern and is calling for more clarity on the reasons Naval Group's design was selected over TKMS's.
"The $30 billion price difference is quite startling and demands a comprehensive explanation," Senator Patrick said.
Australia's shifting geo-strategic environment has forced the first major strategic shift and restructuring of the nation's military capability and basing arrangements.
Defence Connect revealed that Sydney was the front runner for basing the Navy's future Attack Class submarine fleet.
The move to locate a sizeable portion of Australia's SEA 1000 Future Submarine fleet has been outlined in freedom of information (FOI) documents provided to Defence Connect by South Australia senator Rex Patrick, himself a former submariner.
Relocating major fleet units to the east coast and particularly Sydney would require major redevelopments to the existing naval infrastructure of the city and would place the country's largest city at the epicentre of the ADF's ability to project force into the Pacific area of operations.
There are three preferred major locations identified within Sydney Harbour:
- HMAS Kuttabul (Fleet Base East), the existing naval facility at Woolloomooloo;
- HMAS Waterhen at Balls Head Bay, which is currently home to Australia's Huon Class minehunter fleet; and
- Cockatoo Island, the former naval shipyard at the confluence of Parramatta River and Sydney Harbour.
The proposed relocation is in-line with the 'Two Oceans' policy, which identifies the need to split the Navy's major resources between east and west coast operating bases to ensure that Navy and broader ADF operations can be conducted in an efficient and effective manner, while also ensuring that any possible contingency in either area of operation can be responded to with speed.