ASPI executive director Peter Jennings has called for Australia to redouble its efforts and commitment to the existing Attack Class program, saying the “best plan B, is sticking with plan A”, but with continued concerns about cost, slipping delivery time tables, an emerging capability gap and contracting challenges, wouldn’t it be prudent to prepare for the worst?
Here we go again. It seems as though the labour and birthing process of Australia's multibillion-dollar SEA 1000 Attack Class submarine program and rumours continue to engulf the program, meanwhile government, Defence, Naval Group and now Australia's strategic policy community seek to stimulate debate and avoid capability gaps, cost overruns and a repeat of Collins.
This comes following the release of a report by Submarines for Australia, conducted by Insight Economics, on the troubled program and the challenges facing cost, delivery and the potential for capability gaps.
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.
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In response, Peter Jennings, executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), has sought to brush aside suggestions of a 'plan B' for the SEA 1000 program and ensure that the nation's efforts remain firmly fixed on the program, despite the rapidly deteriorating issues with the program.
The US isn't going to give us the keys to their Ferrari without a decent mechanic and garage
Right off the bat, Jennings hits a six, declaring that the nuclear option, despite being a key part of Australia's submarine future, without significant support and local investment and a positive hearing from the US, they're not simply going to hand over the keys to the US Navy's newest Virginia Class or even their older, Cold War-era Los Angeles Class attack submarines.
"In 2016, and still today, we do not have a realistic option to go for nuclear propulsion. Not without a decade-long investment to build the nuclear engineering, infrastructure, safety and operating experience the Navy would need.
"In 2016, and still today in my view, the US Navy is not going to sell, lease or give us Los Angeles Class attack submarines. The Americans would rightly want to see massive Australian investment in building the skills to operate such boats. Right now they don’t think we could do it, and they won’t hand over the crown jewels, even after 100 years of mateship," Jennings articulates.
However, a key point Jennings either overlooks or neglects to acknowledge is that given the early stages of design, workforce and infrastructure development in the Attack Class program and the long-lead time prior to prototyping and steel cutting, now is the time to swap to the French nuclear option.
With roughly a decade before that all comes into fruition, and given the expertise of universities such as the Australian National University, University of New South Wales or University of Wollongong, the international expertise of the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) and working collaboratively with industry and key allies like the US, UK and France, could develop the necessary skills and infrastructure.
So, on that front, it will require some commitment, some targeted policy and Australia taking the initiative, so whats next?
Let's not get a second class sub to 'fill the gap'
Moving along, Jennings spells out his concerns for Australia's submarine program in light of the rapidly evolving geo-political and strategic challenges within the Indo-Pacific region.
In doing so, Jennings states: "In 2016, and still today, there is simply no point in us looking at the smaller conventional submarines operated by other navies — because of our need for range. Our geography isn’t going to change. We do not have the option of protecting Wollongong from an attacking force from Newcastle.
"The defence of Australia starts in maritime south-east Asia, and if we are going to defend our interests against the aggressive sea power building in the region, we will need to project our military force as far forward as we can.
"And finally, in 2016 and still today, there is little point in us investing in a lower capability submarine that would not be able to operate in high-threat environments."
In light of this, we can all agree, we don't want a second class off-the-shelf option to fill any potential or real capability gap between the upgrade of the Collins and delivery of a large enough number of the Attack Class submarine, but what does Jennings consider a "lower capability submarine"?
You would be hard pressed to find any naval officer or strategic policy expert who would consider either the Japanese Soryu Class or the newly developed advanced variants of the German-designed Type 212, 214 and Type 216/218 as a "lower capability submarine", so to what is Jennings referring?
Surely he's not implying we would ever consider approaching Russia or China for such a strategically significant piece of military hardware? Even when platforms like Russia's newer generation of air independent propulsion (AIP) powered Kilo Class submarines have emerged as a key threat to NATO in the Atlantic and Mediterranean.
The Japanese and German options are far from the "Chihuahua" Jennings describes, this is particularly true with the advances and introduction of lithium-ion battery technology as technology insertion/demonstration for the planned 29SS submarines, which also incorporate pump-jet propulsion, advanced sensors and 'high-capacity' snorkels.
As far as the "range" issue, it is partly of our own creation with the redeployment of Australia's submarine force to HMAS Stirling at Fleet Base West, without accounting for greater submarine support and basing infrastructure allocated for Darwin, which would place at least a small number of the fleet close to potential hunting grounds.
So, why wouldn't we consider a viable, cost-effective alternative to provide Australia with a credible submarine force? It is also important to state that no matter the personal capital invested, there is no shame or harm in admitting we aren't capable of building the maritime equivalent of the space shuttle.
We have the bargaining power and a cost-benefit analysis
As the customer, we have the bargaining power, we can shop around and play the potential bidders off against one another, something we seem to have forgotten and something every teenager learns upon buying their first car.
We also have to be more accepting of the limitations of both Australian industry and its workforce – there is no shame in accepting that modern submarines are out of our capability to deliver in a cost-effective and time critical manner.
This opens a range of opportunities for us to also work collaboratively with key strategic partners to develop next-generation technology and successfully "aggregate capability" among US allies, like Japan.
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 or 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?
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?
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."
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.
This enables Australia to reallocate large amounts of financial resources over the life of the program to better equip the Navy at a time when the number of hulls in the water will become increasingly critical – with flow on benefits for Australian industry as a result of an increased quantity of ships over a longer period of time.
For example, 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).
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 – delivering the pound-for-pound most lethal conventional submarine force in the world for cheaper, with the same or similar crew requirements.
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," he said.
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.
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.