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, conventionally-powered Shortfin Barracuda, now the Attack Class, 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. France's own projected fleet of Barracuda Class serve as the basis for Australia's own Attack Class with one major difference, nuclear propulsion.
Nuclear energy has long been a contentious issue for Australia – ironic for a nation that is the third largest exporter of uranium in the world and is blessed with approximately a third of the global supply. As a result of this, nuclear energy and nuclear powered submarines have long been avoided by Australia's political leaders and strategic planners despite the immense operational and strategic benefits of such capabilities.
France's next-gen nuclear attack submarines
France has a long history of operating nuclear powered submarines, with vessels of both the Attack (SSN) and Ballistic Missile (SSBN) variants providing the European Great Power with a powerful deterrence capability – the ageing nature of France's Rubis Class fast attack submarines, combined with a range of technology developed and introduced in the Triomphant Class ballistic missile submarines, prompted the development of the next-generation Barracuda fast attack submarine.
Additionally, the rapidly evolving nature of competitor nuclear submarines, namely Russia's Borei, Akula, Yasen and evolved Kilo Class vessels also prompted the development of the Barracuda with the design phase beginning in the late-1990s and construction on the Suffren beginning at Naval Group's facility at Cherbourg in 2007.
Fast forward 12 years and French President Emanuel Macron is preparing to officially launch the Suffren at a ceremony in Cherbourg marking a major shift in the capability for the French Navy and presenting a proof of concept for future study by the Royal Australian Navy as capability and delivery time frame concerns continue to swirl around Australia's own Attack Class vessels.
Suffren, and its follow-on fleet of six ships worth an expected US$10 billion, is powered by two K15, 150 MW nuclear reactors powering two emergency electric engines and a single pump jet propulsion unit – similar to the unit that has caused contention in Australia's political and strategic community. Designed with a top speed of over 25 knots while submerged, a crew of 60 (with space for up to 12 special operators) and an endurance limited only by food, with nuclear refuelling every 10 years providing virtually unlimited range.
Additionally, the Suffren and its follow-on vessels are designed to be heavily-armed with four 533mm heavy torpedo tubes as well as accommodation for land-attack cruise missiles and mines – this combination of strike capabilities enhances the lethality and combat capabilities of the French Navy at a time when the nation is beginning to expand its influence beyond the Atlantic with renewed focus on the Indo-Pacific.
The nuclear question and Australia's operating environment
Australia's pursuit of next-generation combat submarines comes at a time of unprecedented maritime build up, which will see half of the world's combat submarines operating in the Indo-Pacific by 2030. This proliferation is combined with the increasing capability of platforms operated by emerging peer competitors like China, Russia and India – and with the capabilities being developed and fielded by emerging periphery regional great powers like Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Japan and South Korea.
While the conventionally powered Attack Class vessels are expected to enjoy a number of tactical advantages over their regional counterparts – the major draw back of the Attack is both their projected cost and the delivery time frame, with the last vessel expected to be delivered by the mid-to-late 2040s, and capability concerns as a result of the limited range and endurance of conventionally powered submarines.
Furthermore, Australia's growing responsibilities in the Indo-Pacific will require a greater operational tempo, endurance and deployability for Australia's silent service – additionally, the increasing capability disparity between conventional and nuclear-powered vessels will continue to become obvious as weapons systems and additional systems like USV and UUVs become increasingly prolific.
Recognising these challenges – nuclear propulsion remains a reliable, efficient and seemingly cost effective solution to support Australia's growing national strategic interests at a time when the Indo-Pacific is becoming increasingly contested and challenging for Australia and its major allies, including the US. Accordingly, the question for Australia's strategic and political leaders now becomes, does Australia now shift the propulsion option for the Attack Class – which is still in the design phase, to a nuclear option?
Questions to be asked
However, given the geographic area of responsibility Australia will become increasingly responsible for and dependent on, is the RAN and the recapitalisation and modernisation programs currently underway enough for Australia to maintain its qualitative and quantitative lead over regional peers?
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 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.