Following a fiery showdown at Senate estimates, concerns have continued to grow about the delivery time frame of Australia’s $50 billion SEA 1000 Attack Class submarine program – so what are the possible options available to Australia?
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 recent leaking of information about a $404 million contract break fee.
Further adding to the contentious issue surrounding the delivery time frame and costs associated with designing and fielding the next-generation submarines is the heated exchanges between Defence Minister Linda Reynolds and Centre Alliance senator Rex Patrick during the latest round of Senate estimates in Canberra earlier this week.
“This is a project running late, Minister, and if you don’t recognise that, you shouldn’t be in the chair,” Senator Patrick said, broadsiding the Defence Minister – which was followed by a similarly toned tweet from the Centre Alliance senator: “The project is clearly at least seven months late.”
Despite this, both the Defence Minister and the acting General Manager of Submarines, Rear Admiral Greg Sammut reassured the Senate estimates hearing that the delivery date for the $50 billion program had not changed.
However, what this latest round of heated exchanges does do is renew concerns about the capability of the submarines, the delivery time frame and cost associated with the unit cost.
Recognising these rapidly evolving variables, how does Australia ensure that the submarines delivered to the Royal Australian Navy remain at the forefront of capability and fulfil, what then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull described following the competitive evalutation process:
“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.”
Baring each of these variables in mind, what is Australia to do?
Plug and play construction, allied collaboration and the future
Contemporary submarine construction, like contemporary naval and civilian shipbuilding, is done predominantly in a modular, “block build” fashion enabling an easier integration for technology development and enhancements throughout the build phase – what this means is a stark difference between the broader capabilities and technology in vessels over the life of the build phase.
The long lead time prior to the commencement of the construction process provides a number of additional opportunities particularly for Australia’s Attack Class submarines – in particular, avoiding the costly redesign and conversion phase – purchase the standard Barracuda Class design and make the necessary modifications to incorporate the US-designed weapons systems and combat systems without reinventing the wheel.
Doing so builds on the technological and industrial lessons learned by Naval Group throughout the same process getting Suffren to the launch stage – it wouldn’t serve to hinder the build process for Australian industry and would serve to reduce risk for Australia.
Additionally, it would provide the opportunity for Australian industry to bring the phase forward by using Australian workers to build the full submarines while drawing on French nuclear propulsion expertise to serve as “technology insert” experts to install the nuclear reactors for the Australian submarines.
The long lead time for this development would also provide an opportunity for Australia to embed both civilian and military nuclear experts and submariners in the nuclear industries and nuclear-powered submarine fleets of key allies, including France, the US and UK, to develop the expertise and skills required to safely, efficiently and effectively operate nuclear powered submarines.
Looking further abroad, using defence as a proving ground for developing a domestic nuclear power industry provides flow-on economic and national security benefits, drawing in the expertise and experience of trusted international partners while minimising the risks for Australia’s national security and the taxpayers responsible for funding defence acquisition.
Acquiring at least a small number of nuclear-powered vessels to provide long-range, high-endurance task group escort duties built in France would provide the nation with the opportunity to get the conventional submarine design right, minimising the capability gap for the Royal Australian Navy and opening the avenue for future nuclear propulsion opportunities for Australian naval vessels.
Doing so recognises the complexity in converting a nuclear design base (the Barracuda) to a conventionally powered submarine (Attack Class) without significantly hindering the operational capability – additionally, this enables time for Australia to sign long-term arrangements with the United States, United Kingdom and France to develop nuclear basing, maintenance and support infrastructure locally.
Leveraging the advantages of conventional submarines
Recognising the growing concerns about the Attack Class vessels, combined with the age, capability limitations and the heavy crew requirements of the Collins Class vessels, consideration about introducing a fleet of smaller yet complementary conventional submarines optimised for sea control, maritime interdiction, shallow water operations and anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare operations serves as an attractive option.
There are a number of proven, highly capable alternatives that can serve in the niche role – including the Naval Group-designed Scorpene Class in service with Malaysia, India and Brazil, the Type 212/214 and Type 218SG submarines designed and built by SEA 1000 bidder ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems (TKMS) or the evolved Gotland Class variant – each of which are optimised for shallow water operations, sea control, maritime interdiction and anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare operations.
Additionally, these designs all combine comparatively small crew requirements, with advanced air independent propulsion technology, advanced heavy weight anti-ship and anti-submarine weapons systems combined in a compact package with long-range and high endurance enabling the vessels to support long-range tactical and strategic sea control and/or deterrence operations.
Accordingly, a fleet of joint locally built, forward deployed vessels would serve not only to bridge the capability gap between the Collins and arrival of the Attack Class submarines, but also provide Australia with a credible, bespoke and scaleable force structure to respond to the rapidly evolving geo-strategic challenges of the Indo-Pacific.
It is important to elaborate that the Attack Class are a critical component of Australia’s future naval and broader defence capabilities. However, the planned dozen vessels is a number based on an arbitrary decision regarding force structure and posture identified in the 2013 Defence White Paper and subsequently the 2016 Defence White Paper, and requires significant discussion about suitability.
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 supporting 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.
Traditionally, Australia has focused on a platform-for-platform acquisition program – focused on replacing, modernising or upgrading key capabilities on a like-for-like basis without a guiding policy, doctrine or strategy, limiting the overall effectiveness, survivability and capability of the RAN.