It is the largest defence acquisition project in the history of the nation, however questions about capability gaps, program costs and delivery delays abound for the $50 billion defence mega project that is the Attack Class submarine program.
When then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull announced the DCNS, now Naval Group, Shortfin Barracuda as the successful design for the hotly contested SEA 1000 Future Submarine program in April 2016, it seemed as if the disastrous procurement of the Collins Class would be put aside.
As the prime minister assured both Defence and the Australian public: "The competitive evaluation process (CEP) has provided the government with the detailed information required to select DCNS as the most suitable international partner to develop a regionally-superior future submarine to meet our unique national security requirements."
The Attack Class is expected to deliver a quantum leap in the capability delivered to the Royal Australian Navy and its submarine service by leveraging technology and capabilities developed for nuclear submarines, implemented on a conventional submarine.
The end of 2018 set the pace for 2019, with the official sod turning at the Future Submarine Construction Yard in Adelaide heralding the beginning of the next stage for the $50 billion program. 2019 has kicked the tempo into high gear as both the government and industry have hit the ground running with a cluster of major program milestones, including: the signing of the Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA) between the Commonwealth and prime contractor Naval Group, the signing of the Framework Agreement between Naval Group and ASC, and the successful completion of the Submarine Design Contract.
Despite these program milestones, the complexity of the program and the growing geo-strategic realities of the Indo-Pacific raise some troubling questions, principally: is the delivery time frame and tempo enough to ensure a credible, strategic Australian submarine capability at a time when 50 per cent of the world's combat submarines will be operating in the Indo-Pacific? And if there is a capability gap, what do we do to resolve the issue?
Build to the drum beat - can Australian industry support a faster delivery time frame?
It is no secret that Australia's naval shipbuilding and submarine building capabilities are starting from a relatively low base – while the government has sought to rectify this through the $95 billion Naval Shipbuilding Plan and the Sovereign Industry Capability plans – both the Navy and government have committed to a delivery time frame of a single Attack Class every two years beginning in the "early-to-mid-2030s", almost 35 years following the launch of HMAS Collins.
As it stands, this delivery time frame will see the last of the Attack Class submarines launched in the late-2040s, commissioned in the early-2050s and ready for operational tasking sometime in the mid-to-late 2050s, provided the design finalisation, construction, systems integration and trial phases of the early build vessels go according to plan.
While rapid progress is seeing the ground reshaped at the Osborne facility responsible for delivering the $50 billion program and industry partners, including both prime contractor Naval Group and combat systems integrator Lockheed Martin, begin to mobilise their respective supporting work force and supply chains – an estimated delivery time frame of 23 years between the first and last submarine begins to sound alarms.
Recognising this, the question now becomes, can Australian industry support a faster delivery time frame? An equally important question is, can the Future Submarine Construction Yard and supporting infrastructure at Osborne support an increased build-to-delivery tempo?
If not, how does the government of the day respond? Does it cut the $50 billion program to be a one-for-one replacement of the Collins Class submarines – which due to a reduced economy of scale will undoubtedly see unit costs rise – or does the government invest in developing another Submarine Construction Yard to spread the build and support a strategically viable, sovereign submarine design and construction capability?
Capability gap, what capability gap?
Australia has in recent decades fallen victim to a number of capability gaps as a result of delivery delays and domestic 'valleys of death' – most notably the $2.9 billion contract to acquire a fleet of Boeing F/A-18F Super Hornet and EA-18G Growler aircraft to bridge the strike gap between the retirement of the F-111 and the arrival of the Royal Australian Air Force's fleet of fifth-generation F-35A Joint Strike Fighters.
Additionally, the 'valley of death', combined with a range of external factors between the delivery of the final Collins Class submarine and construction beginning on the first of the Hobart Class guided missile destroyers dramatically impacted the capability of Australia's naval shipbuilding industry resulting in a series of cost overruns, delivery delays and capability gaps in the capability of the surface fleet.
It is estimated, that by the time the first-of-class, the HMAS Attack is ready for operational service in the mid-2030s, HMAS Collins will be 35 years old, with each of the subsequent new submarines replacing a vessel of similar age – raising questions about the tactical and strategic suitability of the vessels in a rapidly evolving threat environment.
The rapidly developing qualitative and quantitative capabilities of regional submarine fleets, namely Russia and China – combined with the increasing proliferation of submarines designed and built by the aforementioned nations by emerging peer competitors serves to stretch the tactical and strategic capabilities of the Collins Class and their survivability for the remainder of their operational life.
These changes raise equally important questions – primarily, does Australia invest in mid-life capability upgrades for the Collins Class fleet to ensure their capability and survivability out to the mid-to-late 2040s? Does the nation speed up the delivery time frame of the Attack Class or does Navy require a commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) solution to fill the nation's submarine capability gap?
Questions to be asked
As an island nation, Australia is defined by its relationship and access to the ocean, with strategic sea-lines-of-communication support over 90 per cent of global trade, a result of the cost effective and reliable nature of sea transport. Indo-Pacific Asia is at the epicentre of the global maritime trade, with about US$5 trillion worth of trade flowing through the South China Sea (SCS) and the strategic waterways and choke points of south-east Asia annually.
While the Indian Ocean and its critical global sea-lines-of-communication, are responsible for more than 80 per cent of the world's seaborne trade in critical energy supplies, namely oil and natural gas, which serve as the lifeblood of any advanced economy.
Submarines are critical to the nation's ability to protect these strategically vital waterways and key naval assets, as well as providing a viable tactical and strategic deterrent and ensure the nation's enduring national and economic security – recognising this, the previously posed questions will serve as conversation starting points.