With continued concerns regarding the multibillion-dollar Attack Class submarine program raising further questions about the program, could buying a foreign-built, modified “off-the-shelf” design enable Australia to build the fleet it needs to ensure national security while supporting the naval shipbuilding plan?
It is shaping up to be one hell of a labour and birthing process for Australia's multibillion-dollar SEA 1000 Attack Class submarine program as government, Defence and Naval Group move to allay the fears of Australia's strategic policy community and the public.
Despite repeated rebuffs by senior Defence uniformed personnel, bureaucrats and successive ministers of defence and defence industry, concerns released recently by the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) in the report titled Future Submarine – Transition to design, combined with political concerns, all serve as powerful fuel to question the program.
When first announced, the Attack Class was promised 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.
Further complicating matters is the constantly fluctuating price associated with the program, with figures ranging from the original $80 billion as stated by former defence industry and defence minister Christopher Pyne, to a now estimated $145 billion as revealed by Future Submarine Program manager Rear Admiral Greg Sammut during Senate estimates.
This cost explosion is further exacerbated by an apparent 'slip' in the planned commencement date for construction of the lead boat, HMAS Attack, which was widely publicised as 2022-23 and has now subsequently been pushed back to the 2024 time frame – further exposing Australia's ageing Collins Class vessels to potential adversary over match.
RADM Sammut was quick to explain this away, like a skilled operator, informing Senate estimates that the slated time frame was referencing the standing up of construction personnel, tools, infrastructure, processes and equipment to commence the construction of HMAS Attack's pressure hull in 2024.
Finally, with the first vessel expected to enter the water in the mid-to-late 2030s, concerns regarding the cost, delivery and capability of the vessels is serving to raise questions about the value proposition for a conventional submarine at a time of increasing technological advancement in comparable vessels operated by peer and near-peer competitors in the Indo-Pacific.
While each of these individual challenges will impact the recapitalisation of the Royal Australian Navy's submarine fleet, the growing program delays and estimated cost overruns will have dramatic impacts on the long-term modernisation and recapitalisation of the Royal Australian Navy in the middle of the 21st century.
So, recognising this conundrum, can cancelling the SEA 1000 program, which was revealed to cost $404 million, and the acquisition of a modified 'off-the-shelf' design like Japan's Soryu of the Saab A-26 Oceanic ER class provide Australia with the opportunity to build the fleet it needs to ensure national security and sea control in a contested environment?
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Importantly, what does this look like for the Royal Australian Navy as both the surface and submarine fleets need to leverage existing and emerging technologies and systems to establish and maintain Australia's maritime security and dominance in the Indo-Pacific?
Expanding Navy's long-range strike capabilities
Australia's shrinking long-range strike capabilities has been emphasised by many within Australia's strategic policy community, with proponents advocating for a range of solutions ranging from the introduction long-range cruise missile systems, through to a return to a fixed-wing naval aviation capability for the RAN.
Recognising the limitations of Australia's concentrated development of 'high-end' naval warfighting capabilities in platforms such as the Hobart Class guided missile destroyers and the Hunter Class guided missile frigates, Dr Malcolm Davis of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) has issued a call to arms to restructure the Navy's surface fleet.
"It’s time for the Royal Australian Navy to break out of a 20th century force design mindset and embrace the robotic revolution at sea," Dr Davis states.
"As part of the debate surrounding the Pacific 2019 and Sea Power conferences, I argued that even with the recapitalisation now underway, the Navy would remain seriously under-gunned to deal with possible scenarios emerging in our region."
With platforms currently in service like the Canberra, Hobart and future Hunter classes in the surface fleet as specific examples of employing both options, the financial capacity freed up by pursuing an off-the-shelf future submarine solution enables the expansion of these key sea control and power projection assets.
Acquiring an additional, albeit upgraded Canberra Class amphibious warfare ship, dedicated to carrying a fixed-wing naval aviation capability, like the Lockheed Martin F-35B, would bring the nation into line with regional partners like Japan and South Korea, while expanding the capacity for capability aggregation between the three nations and the US Navy.
Furthermore, while restarting the Hobart Class production line would be counterproductive, expanding the Hunter Class acquisition would serve as a potent expansion of the surface fleet capability, particularly should such an acquisition include an upgraded, up gunned variant of the Hunter Class to replace the Hobart and supplement the planned Hunter Class acquisition.
Finally, expanding the acquisition of long-range strike munitions ranging from the Naval Strike Missile, through to upgraded variants of both the Tomahawk and long-range anti-ship cruise missile (LRASM) alongside ballistic missile defence missiles for deployment across the surface fleet and naval aviation assets, alongside a specialised deterrence-focused cruise missile submarine all serve to up-gun the RAN.
Corvettes and OPVs
Expanding Australia's capacity to conduct sustained long-range maritime patrol operations to supplement the capability provided by the Arafura Class OPVs has grown in importance in recent months, particularly as the naval capabilities of peer and near-peer competitors, namely China, continues to evolve.
Dr Davis called for an expansion in the size of the Royal Australian Navy's surface fleet, with a focus on establishing what amounts to a 'high-low' surface combatant capability – combining a fleet of advanced, flexible, small and comparatively cheap surface combatants with the larger 'high-end' surface combatants.
"If Beijing increases that pressure, Australia should increase the size of its navy beyond the plan laid out in the 2016 integrated investment program. Rather than reducing the number of Hunter Class frigates to fund other platforms, we should develop a new, mid-level capability by acquiring larger numbers of advanced, but off-the-shelf, small surface combatants."
Developing such a capability, based on what Dr Davis uses as an example – the Swedish Saab Visby Class corvettes – is a sound, logical conclusion to make, with the potential for follow on benefits for Australia's naval shipbuilding industry, should companies like Henderson-based Austal be involved.
Furthermore, such a development would enable the large, high-end platforms to focus on 'high-end' warfighting responsibilities, while offensively optimised Corvette-sized vessels fill a niche, yet flexible role drawing on technological advances in unmanned aerial and undersea systems to expand Australia's distributed lethality capacity in the Indo-Pacific.
Establishing this flexible 'high-low' capability enables the nation's larger fleet units to conduct power projection and long-range deterrence operations throughout the Indo-Pacific, while leaving the nation's critical maritime approaches and sea-lines-of-communication suitably defended.
Leveraging hunter-killer, cruise missile subs and unmanned systems
Drawing on advances in unmanned underwater systems like the Boeing Orca system, combined with a fleet of complementary, highly capable hunter-killer and cruise missile submarines designed to modified off-the-shelf solutions, further serves as a capability aggregator for the RAN.
The increasing proliferation of conventionally powered submarines incorporating vertical launch modules for accommodating advanced cruise missile systems, provides an important capability for Australian consideration, particularly when paired with unmanned underwater and aerial systems providing ISR capabilities enhancing the nation's deterrence capabilities.
Developing mutually complementary submarine fleets of approximately nine dedicated hunter killer submarines for critical maritime interdiction, task force escort and anti-submarine operations, combined with a fleet of approximately nine dedicated cruise missile submarines, enables the development of a complementary and highly capable submarine fleet.
When using the costs for the sixth Soryu Class submarine of approximately US$540 million ($803.5 million), a fleet of 18 such submarines could cost Australia approximately between US$10 billion ($14.8 billion) and US$15 billion ($22.3 billion), while delivering the pound-for-pound most lethal conventional submarine force in the world.
Finally, establishing and maintaining a dedicated fleet of hunter-killer submarines designed to a common standard as the fleet of cruise missile submarines serves to lower costs, crewing requirements and long-term sustainment and operational costs despite acquiring a larger fleet of submarines than outlined in the 2016 Defence White Paper.
Responding to China's increasing assertiveness
Dr Davis expands on the challenge posed by these issues in the face of mounting Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea, the Indian Ocean and in Australia's backyard, the south-west Pacific.
"But we face a very different emerging reality. The rapidly growing PLA Navy is overtaking the US Navy in ship numbers, and is steadily eroding the US’s qualitative lead while expanding China’s ability to project power into our maritime approaches. China has reportedly negotiated access to Cambodia’s Ream naval base, and its de-facto control of the South China Sea expands its ability to operate further south, notably with aircraft carriers in its South Sea Fleet," he said.
"A recent stand-off between China and Indonesia over the Natuna Islands is a worrying sign that China won’t limit its maritime claims. China’s expanding presence in the south-west Pacific is ringing alarm bells in Canberra because it raises the prospect of a future military staging post within striking distance of Australia’s east coast."
Building on this, Dr Davis calls for an enhanced Australian military presence at strategically vital offshore territories like the Cocos (Keeling) Islands in the Indian Ocean and the yet-to-be developed Manus Island facility, which would give Australia rapid access to the Pacific Ocean in the event of myriad contingencies.
Increasing the acquisition of Australia's surface fleet, particularly spreading the construction of next-generation surface capabilities across industry centres of excellence in Adelaide, Williamtown and Henderson would serve to provide long-term naval shipbuilding workforce capabilities inline with the Australian government's $95 billion Naval Shipbuilding Plan.
Additionally, perfecting Australia's surface warship design, development, construction and sustainment capabilities serves as a powerful fundamental input to national security capability at a time when the nation is facing an increasingly contested Indo-Pacific.
Given the geographic area of responsibility Australia will become increasingly responsible for and dependent on, will the RAN and the recapitalisation and modernisation programs currently underway be 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.
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.