Following the revelation of a $404 million cancellation fee and opposition promises of a review for the $50 billion SEA 1000 Attack Class submarine program, it appears that Australia’s future submarine capability is once again entering uncharted waters – raising questions about the program future and available options.
It is the largest defence acquisition project in the history of the nation, but the $50 billion project to replace the ageing Collins Class submarines with 12 regionally-superior submarines is in deep water as growing concerns about cost, capability and delivery time frame are further exacerbated with the leaking of information about a $404 million contract break fee.
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 successful Naval Group-designed Shortfin Barracuda, to be designated 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 but implemented on a conventional submarine platform, modified to address Australia's unique operating requirements.
With growing public and parliamentary concerns about the cost of the mega-project, combined with a commitment by opposition defence spokesperson Richard Marles to conduct an extensive review into SEA 1000, and exacerbated by the recent leak of contract information following the successful signing of the Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA) the signing of the Framework Agreement between Naval Group and ASC, and the successful completion of the Submarine Design Contract, questions have been raised about the viability and options that remain open should the program fail.
It is important to reinforce that we are not advocating for the cancellation or any modification to the SEA 1000 program, however, we recognise the importance of presenting the alternative options should the program fail to proceed despite the contractual, design and industrial progress made in the past 12 months.
Return of the Soryu
The early front runner for the SEA 1000 program, Japan's Soryu Class submarines represent one of the leading examples of a modern, highly-capable and future-proofed conventional attack submarine. Soryu serves as Japan's first air-independent propulsion (AIP) capable submarine class – with the latest vessel, the Oryu, incorporating lithium-ion battery packs to enhance the AIP capabilities of the platform.
Designed as the successor to the Oyashio Class submarines, the Soryu provide a capability leap on the older vessels. The vessels have a submerged weight of approximately 4,200 tonnes, an estimated top submerged speed of 20 knots and estimated AIP endurance of 11,297 kilometres, and can be armed with 30 Type 89 533mm torpedoes, which are similar to the Mk 48 heavyweight torpedoes used by the US and Australian navies, Harpoon anti-ship missiles and mines.
Japan's offering was also supported by the US Navy, recognising the tactical and strategic benefits of two major regional allies operating similar highly-capable platforms.
Das Boot – an Aussie U-boat?
Germany's ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems' (TKMS) history of designing and building highly-capable, advanced conventionally powered submarines positioned the German offering the Type-216 submarine as a front runner in the original SEA 1000 program – designed specifically to meet the "larger conventional submarine" needs of countries like Australia, India and Canada.
Like its Japanese counterpart, the Type-216 is equipped with a lithium-ion supported AIP system enabling near-nuclear submarine levels of performance, persistence and endurance. The Type-216 incorporates a range of next-generation capabilities including the ability to launch cruise missiles, deploy special forces with an underwater delivery vehicle and unmanned underwater vehicles (UUV).
The Type-216 has an estimated submerged displacement of 4,000 tonnes, an estimated range of 19,260 kilometres and AIP endurance of a month, with a mission endurance up to eight days and is armed with six 533mm torpedo tubes (capable of accommodating heavy-weight torpedoes, anti-ship missiles or mines). The design also incorporates a specialised vertical-launch lock system capable of supporting cruise missiles, special forces and UUV capabilities.
Son of Collins – Saab's next-generation submarine
Despite a challenging relationship between Saab, Navy and Defence – Saab embarked on a design development process for the A26 vessels, which are broken down into two variants, the specialised Pelagic and Oceanic variants.
- Pelagic: Adapted for long-range missions in narrow or littoral environments. Highly manoeuvrable with high speed and a large weapon load, Pelagic submarines have a lower acquisition price and operating cost, and can also be offered with the Stirling AIP technology for superior submerged endurance.
- Oceanic ER: Submarines in the Oceanic Extended Range (ER) segment are the largest in the series, designed for much longer missions, greater crew size and increased weapon payload capability. Oceanic ER submarines enable long-distance operations, suitable for any navy using forward deployment of their submarines on extended missions.
The increased range, endurance and long-range strike capabilities provided by technologies developed for the larger, long-range Oceanic ER variant of the A26 is aimed at delivering a suite for key technology insertions for possible introduction in the Collins Class as part of a mid-life upgrade, including:
- The introduction of vertical launching systems to deliver precision land strikes through land-attack cruise missile systems;
- Special operations multi-purpose lock systems; and
- Improved combat system performance supporting enhanced intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities through the digitisation of key optronics and mast systems.
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.
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.