There have been recent revelations that the Commonwealth is pursuing a $3.5 billion Collins ‘life-of-type-extension’ (LOTE) program to avoid a strategic submarine capability gap, but what should this look like?
It is the gift that keeps on giving, Australia's multibillion-dollar SEA 1000 program continues to stir debate among Australia's strategic policy, defence and industry communities and even the public as the government and Defence seek to avoid the early program troubles of the Collins Class.
Growing concerns about cost, capability and especially the proposed delivery time frame have been further exacerbated following the release of a damning ANAO report, Future Submarine – Transition to design, building on the fallout from a fiery exchange at Senate estimates in late-2019.
During which time, Future Submarine Program manager Rear Admiral Greg Sammut explained to the Senate estimates hearing that the 'out-turned' cost of Australia's future fleet of submarines was estimated to be around $80 billion – a figure frequently cited but subsequently rubbished by former defence minister Christopher Pyne and other Defence officials.
Further compounding the costs associated with the acquisition is the continuing concerns about the capability of the proposed vessels, with many expressing, often vocally, concerns about the obsolescence of lead-acid batteries and the conventional power plant expected to power the vessels out to the 2080s.
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.
However, 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.
Recognising these challenges, Ben Packham has revealed that the Commonwealth was preparing for a modernisation and LOTE program for Australia's fleet of Collins Class submarines, which are estimated to be valued at approximately $538 million per vessel and is designed to "replace the boats’ motors and diesel generators, and upgrade key systems".
A LOTE or 'son-of-Collins'?
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Additionally, this revelation comes on the back of recent analysis provided by Defence economist and senior analyst with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) Marcus Hellyer, who raised two important questions that fly in the face of the original plan to avoid a 'son-of-Collins' solution for the SEA 1000 program.
"The first [question] is why the Defence Department didn’t pursue a ‘son of Collins’, that is, an evolution of the successful Collins design, with the questioner’s underlying assumption being that evolving an existing design should be cheaper and faster than starting an entirely new design," he said.
"The second [question] is why the Swedish shipbuilder Saab, which had acquired Kockums – the company that designed the Collins – wasn’t invited to participate in the competitive evaluation process (CEP), given that it (other than the Japanese) was the only entity with demonstrated experience in designing and building large conventional submarines."
But the important question is, why is any of this relevant at the moment? Well, because it would seem that Defence's LOTE for the Collins Class will result in what is tantamount to a ‘son-of-Collins’ solution in order to avoid an unacceptable capability gap for the nation's submarine force.
Expanding on this, Hellyer articulates the importance of the LOTE program for the Collins Class, where he states: "To recap, the Collins submarines were meant to be progressively withdrawn from service every two years from 2026.
"Since it’s been clear for some time that the future submarine wouldn’t enter operational service until the 2030s, again on a two-yearly cycle, some of the Collins fleet would need to undergo a LOTE to avoid a capability gap. In essence, the LOTE is the mitigation strategy to address the schedule risk in the future submarine program."
Expanding on what Defence envisages for the upgraded and modernised Collins Class, Hellyer states: "Defence has also started to reveal the scope of the LOTE – see here (page 31) and here (pages 17–22). In addition to all the usual maintenance and obsolescence management of a full-cycle docking, Defence wants to replace the Collins’ main motor, diesel generators, and electrical conversion and distribution system with new hardware made by the suppliers for the future submarine.
"Interestingly, Defence has also said that these are three of the five most important systems on the future submarine. It is also looking at mast and sensor updates (for example, replacing periscopes with modern digital optronics masts) as well as combat system updates.
"In short, the LOTE concept is starting to look a lot like a son of Collins – which Defence told the Senate in 2015 wasn’t worth the cost and risk involved. This poses serious questions about Defence’s risk-mitigation strategy for the submarine transition," Hellyer articulates.
Indeed, this raises an important question: why throughout the competitive evaluation process (CEP) Saab, the owner of Kockums, the original designer of the Collins capability wasn't invited to participate to replace the Collins Class?
Hellyer states this was largely on the basis that "despite previously designing and building submarines both large and small, [Saab] hadn’t completed a full design and build program since 1996-97".
Questions to be asked
As the Collins will continue to play in the nation's strategic calculations and planning, and in light of Australia's long-standing lack of long-range strike platform, what capabilities should the Collins LOTE include?
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.
However, given the geographic area of responsibility Australia will become increasingly responsible for and dependent on, is the RAN and the recapitalisation and conventionally-focused modernisation program for Australia's submarine fleet enough for Australia to maintain its qualitative and quantitative lead over regional peers?
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.