Rear Admiral Greg Sammut, head of the Royal Australian Navy’s SEA 1000 submarine building program, has revealed the construction commencement date for the multibillion-dollar program, however, questions remain about the contractual terms and conditions.
There appears to be light at the end of the tunnel for Australia's largest, most complex, strategically vital and contentious defence program, the multibillion-dollar SEA 1000 Attack Class future submarine program.
Concerns about the suitability of converting a vessel designed originally as a nuclear powered fast attack submarine (SSN) for the French Navy, as the Suffren Class have long plagued Australia's conventionally-powered, Attack Class submarines, particularly as the number of highly capable air-independent propulsion (AIP) and nuclear-powered submarines in the Indo-Pacific continue to climb.
Further complicating the highly-contentious programs is concerns over the capacity of Australian industry and delivery time frame to deliver the highly capable, "regionally superior" submarine platform promised to the Royal Australian Navy.
However, it has recently been revealed by Janes that there is a turning point in sight for the multibillion-dollar program, there is a construction start date, with additional information being shed on the terms and conditions of the contractual partnerships with Naval Group.
Speaking exclusively to Defence Connect, a Defence spokesperson has elaborated on the details surrounding the planned construction commencement date, the complex design program, build process and the tempo of delivery for Australia's future submarines.
The Defence spokesperson explained to Defence Connect, "A key consideration regarding the Future Submarine Program for Defence remains the seamless transition from design to construction, noting this will be a progressive transition, rather than a fixed transition point.
"Based on the lessons learned from the Collins and Air Warfare Destroyer programs, progressive transition from design to construction allows for incorporation of lessons learned during the construction of the first submarine into the design, before construction of the next submarine commences.
"This approach is used widely in ship and submarine construction to gain efficiency and effectiveness benefits, often referred to as the ‘learning curve benefit’, as skills and expertise mature further.
"In manufacturing terms, ship and submarine construction would be classified as low-volume, high-variance in terms of customisation, with long lead times.
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"In this type of manufacturing, it is important to strike the correct balance between maximising efficiency gained through the learning curve benefit, balancing workforce loading to maintain currency and competency, and inserting technology improvements to keep the end product aligned to the contemporary requirement.
"A phased approach to contracting across delivery of the fleet of submarines will allow Defence to achieve this balance."
Risk minimisation remains a firm desire for Defence given the scale of the investment and the public attention paid to the highly-complex, strategically sensitive program, to this end, Defence has specifically designed the 25-year build phase with risk minimisation, modularity and ease of technology insertion as a core component of the Attack Class.
"Construction commencement as currently planned allows flexibility in the construction phase, to minimise the risk associated with building a new product, with a new workforce, in a new facility.
"This will provide confidence that the delivery date can be met. The progressive transition from design to construction will enable Defence to reach a mature design before being translated into work orders to produce sections of the submarine. This reduces the likelihood of rework caused by immature design, and assists in smoothing the demand of a skilled, competent and current production workforce.
"Further, given that the Future Submarine Program will be continually building Attack Class submarines for over 25 years, a phased approach to contracting for construction will allow us to take into account the availability of new and emerging technologies for incorporation into subsequent build batches.
"The rolling incorporation of technology into the Attack Class fleet will ensure that it remains regionally superior throughout all stages of its life.
"Defence does not want to predetermine the size of each batch at this stage, as any such decision should be informed by the need to adapt designs in line with technology advancement, benefits gained in terms of the performance of the submarine, costs to implement the change, and the potential loss of not reaping the efficiency gains from the learning curve."
Also, in an interesting revelation, Defence has revealed that the first boat to commence construction will not serve as a 'prototyping' experiment and rather, will all be included into the future HMAS Attack as the lead ship. The Defence spokesperson explained:
"The first submarine will not be a prototype destined to be a display item after factory testing is complete: upon completion of ‘factory testing’ the first Attack Class Submarine (prototype) will commence a full life of service in the Royal Australian Navy as the first product off the assembly line.
Defence continues to account for the rapidly evolving geo-strategic environment emerging in the Indo-Pacific, and the growing proliferation of advanced submarine platforms, as well as growing proliferation of advanced anti-submarine platforms to ensure that the Royal Australian Navy has an adequate number of Attack Class to maintain the regional dominance the nation depends upon.
"As we learn throughout design and initial construction, we will look to evolve the pricing models employed in our contracts, reflecting the retirement of risks," the spokesperson said.
To this end, the Defence spokesperson reinforced to Defence Connect, "Defence can increase the rate of delivery of the Attack Class submarine fleet subject to government considerations about the strategic environment, and taking into account Navy’s capacity to crew submarines.
"A nominal drumbeat of one boat every two years assists with industry-level loading; however, if strategic circumstances dictate otherwise, the rate of delivery could be increased."
Naval Group's Shortfin Barracuda design, which serves as the basis for the Royal Australian Navy's new Attack Class, is a conventionally-powered variant of the nuclear-powered Barracuda fast attack submarine currently under construction for the French Navy.
The 12 vessels will be built by Naval Group at a specialist submarine shipyard at Osborne, South Australia. The Commonwealth government’s Australian Naval Infrastructure program will support the development of the future submarine shipyards.
The Commonwealth government formally signed the strategic partnering agreement with Naval Group in February 2019 ahead of confirming the final design specifications and requirements for the Attack Class submarines.
The Attack Class will enter service with the Royal Australian Navy at a time when 50 per cent of the world’s submarines will be operating in the Indo-Pacific region.