The Government has recently announced a rolling build strategy for building future frigates and corvettes; given my recent post on this subject I think this is a sensible step, even though there are overseas production lines for purchasing suitable frigates.
There are significantly stronger arguments for a rolling program for future submarines given that overseas production lines don’t exist and the penalty for a stop/start build strategy is much higher.
Submarines come in threes; from three submarines one will be operational and available for deployment, one will be undergoing training/work up for deployment and one will be in deep maintenance. We should therefore build them in batches of three, allowing significant design improvements between batches, i.e. at 6-year intervals.
Ordering eight submarines, to provide 2.7 deployable submarines defies this simple logic. Building in two batches of four would also have the disadvantage of lengthening the period for technology insertions to 8 years. If we build eight and subsequently order a further four we can expect to pay more per platform than if we had originally ordered 12! 12 submarines in a rolling program raise some interesting questions.
Can we afford a force of 12 submarines? Given that the acquisition cost of 12 boats, say $20 billion, is spread over a 28 year design and build program, expenditure would be less than $1 billion annually (there will be an initial additional cost to establish the production facilities). The Government talk of a $50 billion program includes sustainment costs, possibly bulked up for political reasons since no other acquisition programs have been costed in this way.
Of greater relevance from a strategic perspective is the question: can we NOT afford a force of 12 submarines? Does this mean fewer frigates/corvettes? Regardless of the number of submarines, 12 or eight, the two programs will run concurrently, so annual funding will have to be found for both. Rolling programs for frigates/corvettes and submarines would reduce unit costs in both programs thus reducing the annual impact of this situation.
Can we crew them? We will need to double the RAN’s current manpower target of 5 submarine crews; an additional 300 people in seagoing crews. Submarine crewing is hopefully already on Navy’s critical path for SEA 1000; it will be no easy task and must be factored into the planning for the transition. On the positive side we can expect savings arising from the reduction in the size of frigate crews. Across a force of eight frigates this reduced requirement could offset the additional numbers required for the submarine crews.
Can we build them at the same time as the frigates/corvettes? We’ve done it before; Collins, Anzac and MHCs programmes were achieved concurrently. We start from a significantly better base of personnel in ASC and the hundreds of industries supporting Collins today. As with Collins, industries across Australia should be involved in module building, with ASC in Adelaide the integration facility. As part of a rolling construction program a sensible and practical division of labor would be to move all submarine sustainment, including Collins and FSM Full Cycle dockings to WA, leaving the ASC SA site as the construction yard.
12 submarines giving us four deployable boats is the minimum number for the strategic impact required given our geography and the developing strategic environment. Eight submarines providing 2.7 deployable vessels will not have the necessary impact. 12 submarines in a rolling construction program spread over a 28-30 year acquisition program will be cheaper than the annual expenditure required for an 8+4 build and provide a stable load on industry. Moving all submarine sustainment work to WA, leaving ASC SA as the construction integration site would assist in spreading the industry load and provide strategic redundancy in submarine docking capacity.
A Navy program to raise the necessary crews should be underway now. Given the overwhelming cost, strategic and industry arguments to build the submarines in Australia, SEA 1000 should be initiated as a rolling build program of 12 submarines to harvest the maximum savings possible.