Some of the greatest defence industry successes have come as a result of long-term planning and, yes, keeping production pipelines hot. To this end, the Royal Navy is already setting the groundwork to replace the Astute Class fast attack submarines with what has become known as the SSN(R) program – should Australia join in a collaborative effort?
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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.
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.
Australia is not alone with its pursuit of ever more lethal, stealthy and capable strategic force multipliers like submarines, the British Royal Navy's fleet of Astute Class fast attack submarines, despite a laboured birthing process, have emerged as some of the most lethal and highly-capable submarines ever to put to sea.
Comparable even to the US Navy's venerable and constantly evolving Virginia Class fast attack boats, the Astute Class is designed to escort aircraft carrier and amphibious warfare task groups, interdict enemy convoys, both civilian and military and keep the ocean clear for the Royal Navy's fleet of Vanguard and future-Dreadnought Class ballistic missile submarines to maintain a credible at-sea deterrent.
Towards the future – SSN(R)
However, the constant evolution of adversary nuclear attack boats, in both Russia and increasingly China as the Indo-Pacific becomes an area of a planed increased British presence, has prompted the British Ministry of Defence and the Royal Navy to commence the early-stages of a replacement submarine, to supplement the later-build Astute's and eventually replace the entire fleet.
This new vessel designated the SSN(R) is the brainchild of the Maritime Underwater Future Capability (MUFC) office of the Royal Navy, with estimates the RN's primary submarine yard, Barrow-in-Furness will not be ready to commence construction on a new class of submarine until at least the late 2030s.
However, this won't be the only challenge, as independent think tank, Save the Royal Navy and respected analyst HI Sutton envisage a vessel that will be 25 per cent larger than the Astute Class, weighing in at around 9,200 tonnes and optimised for deep water, anti-submarine, maritime interdiction and convoy/battle group escort duties.
This design emphasis will differentiate the SSN(R) class from both the preceding Virginia and Astute classes, which are designed to operate in both deep ocean and confined, littoral waters with equal efficacy.
Private analyst, HI Sutton states this decision, echoing a similar US move to eventually replace the respective class of attack submarines is driven by a number of existing and planned weapons system developments, namely:
"The Russian Navy submarine force is seen as more of a threat than in the past 25 years, both in terms of capability and actions. As more Pr.885M SEVERODVINSK-M Class SSGNs join the fleet in the mid-2020s the quality of the threats faced on a day-to-day basis in the North Atlantic will massively increase.
"New Russian weapon systems, notably the Poseidon Intercontinental Nuclear-Powered Nuclear-Armed Autonomous Torpedo and various unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) will be deep-diving threats. New weapons will need to be developed to counter these.
"Many of the missions which currently bring SSNs inshore are likely to diminish by 2040. ISR (intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance) will be conducted from ever greater ranges, often by other vehicles (UAVs, UUVs, USVs, cyber…). Special Forces capabilities are ultimately unlikely to win out."
An opportunity to get in at the ground floor
With Navy undergoing the largest peacetime transformation of capability and platform in its history, the Royal Australian Navy is well positioned within the broader development of the “joint force” Australian Defence Force and its transition towards a fifth-generation force.
At the forefront of this is Plan Pelorus 2022, Chief of Navy’s vision for developing “a thinking, a fighting, an Australian Navy” supported by uniquely Australian and world-leading capabilities to ensure that Navy is capable of meeting the operational and strategic requirements established by government.
A key component of Plan Pelorus 2022 is the renewed focus on Australia’s immediate region – the Indo-Pacific.
The planning statement articulates: “We live in an increasingly complex geopolitical environment, within a dynamic Indo-Pacific region. The maritime domain is central to the security and prosperity of our nation. As resources become increasingly scarce, and the competition greater, all elements of national power must work together to achieve the desired outcomes for our nation, and those of our friends. Fuelled by technological advances and availability of information, the future is increasingly unpredictable.
“Navy has a crucial role to play to support our government, and we must continue to evolve and prepare for a myriad of operational possibilities. This is the basis of our 2022 Headmark. Clarity and alignment in our understanding of our Headmark will effectively guide our day-to-day actions.”
Furthermore, Australia's closer collaborations with defence primes from around the world, particularly BAE Systems, Lürssen and Naval Group all provide opportunities for furthering the relationships into the future, they also provide a framework for future collaboration for a future, future submarine program, serving to spread research and development costs, while delivering a highly capable and interoperable submarine platform.
Such an example is Australia's collaboration with BAE Systems on the Type 26 Global Combat Ship, and Hunter Class frigate in Australian service, which could serve as the bedrock for a future Hobart Class replacement, as the common hull is expected to serve as a Type 45 guided missile destroyer replacement platform.
The Royal Navy’s long-troubled and costly Type 45 Daring Class vessels are slated for replacement beginning in the mid-to-late 2030s, with the Royal Navy currently kicking off research and development for the next-generation of guided-missile destroyer that will be responsible for providing the RN with an advanced, future-proofed area-air defence and surface combatant capability in support of the Queen Elizabeth Class carrier strike groups and operating independently in contested environments.
Reportedly known as Project Castlemaine, the Royal Navy’s Type 4X program aims to build on the success of the Type 26 Global Combat Ship with the selection by the vessel by the Canadian and Australian navies, respectively, to maximise the spread costs associated with research and development and acquisition by guaranteeing a larger production run and shared component and acquisition lines.
This approach also provides an opportunity for increased and sustained levels of interoperability for key Five Eyes allies all operating the same or similar platforms – the similar delivery timeline and capability requirements currently fulfilled by both the Daring and Hobart Classes serves to build on the precedent established by the Type 26 and paves the way for larger production runs to meet the growing operational and strategic requirements of both nations.
Type 26 also serves to show that US combat systems, favoured by the Royal Australian Navy, can be integrated within the confines of a large, British-designed surface combatant and could serve to pave the way for a Hunter Class-based Australian replacement for the Hobart, supporting the government’s long-term naval shipbuilding program, supporting the development of Australia’s defence industrial base.
This model serves to provide a firm basis upon which Australia and the UK could further collaborate on the SSN(R) program, delivering a globally superior fast-attack submarine that fulfils the tactical and strategic objectives of both the Royal Navy and Royal Australian Navy well into the later-half of the 20th century.
In light of this potential, should Australia set the foundations for future collaboration?
Maintaining the regional order and enhancing Australia’s national interests
However, the question now becomes, 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?
It is clear that Australia’s region is going to be increasingly congested as both great and emerging powers continue to invest heavily in their own submarine capabilities.
The growing proliferation of steadily more capable platforms across the nation’s northern approaches presents significant challenges for the nation’s existing Collins Class submarines in the short-to-medium term and the future submarine force of the future.
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.
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.