In our Mind the gap paper earlier this year, Mark Thomson and I made the comment that a successful program to extend the life of the Collins class submarines would give the future submarine program a fighting chance of avoiding a capability gap in the second half of the 2020s.
At last week’s Submarine Institute of Australia 2012 conference, we heard for the first time in public from Defence officials who have been involved in the Submarine Life Evaluation Program (SLEP) which has been looking at the feasibility and mechanics of keeping the Collins class going. The news was generally good—there are no identified ‘show stoppers’ in such a program. And there seems to be a realistic opportunity to do a much-needed technology refresh of the submarine systems, and to fix the propulsion system issues that have plagued the fleet. Moreover, it’s thought that the additional duty cycle for the boats might be ten years rather than the eight of the first two.
If that happens, the availability of submarines might look something like the graph below (with the same somewhat idealised assumptions about the maintenance throughput of the Collins boats as in our earlier paper). A ten year extension of the Collins fleet life would give a reasonable amount of breathing space for the replacement program to deliver the first couple of new boats and trial them. That won’t be easy—we’ll have to manage the substantial industrial and fleet management overheads of having two different Collins configurations at the same time as developing and building the next generation boat. But provided that can be done, and barring a failure of the follow-on build to deliver a functional product, the capability gap we warned of would effectively disappear.
That’s all good news, but it has to be qualified for a couple of reasons. First, it’s not clear that the engineering solutions required have been worked through in sufficient detail to be confident of schedules. In fact, given that other talks at the conference stressed the continued importance of a land-based test facility for mechanical and electrical integration work on propulsion systems, I suspect that the solutions are more conceptual than blueprint ready.
Second, we have no idea of the likely cost. The only indication we got at the meeting was that it would fit within the current DCP but would struggle if the DCP funding envelope didn’t materialise as promised. And there lies the rub. The current DCP funding outlook is likely to prove to be a work of fiction. Here’s the chart from ASPI’s 2012–13 budget brief.
As Mark Thomson pointed out in his discussion of this figure, there’s a full 133% increase required to move from the 2013–14 figure of a little over $3 billion to the ‘beyond the forward estimates’ (i.e. unreal) 2016–17 figure of almost $8 billion. For a variety of reasons, ranging from the political (money is promised for other portfolios) to the practical (Defence would have to ramp up its ability to administer a program far larger than anything it has done before), the peaks of the later part of this decade are almost certain to shrink. If the Collins SLEP is depending on that money, we might yet have problems.
Even there there’s room to be cautiously optimistic. There’s already a fair bit of money approved for Collins maintenance and upgrades, which should allow some of the more pressing system obsolescence problems to be addressed before embarking on major work for the SLEP. In fact, that’s the basis for the relatively upbeat assumptions Mark and I made about the Collins availability in the years to come. It’s not always appreciated that some (although not all) of the problems with Collins availability were due to neglect and under resourcing for much of the past decade. For example, in the 2006–07 financial year the submarines were receiving only 60% of the resources allocated to Navy’s surface combatants, after allowing for the difference in crew size and tonnage. This isn’t credible given the complexity of the design. In no small part, the submarines didn’t work properly because they weren’t being maintained properly.
And that’s the final reason for some cautious optimism. The Coles review identified many dysfunctional relationships that were contributing to this malaise. With some new management appointments at both ASC and within Defence—including the ‘tsar of all submarines’ we once recommended (PDF) in the form of the new General Manager Submarines (PDF, pages 8-9)—there are signs that more attention is being paid to getting things right. But, as ever, time will tell.
Andrew Davies is senior analyst for defence capability at ASPI and executive editor of The Strategist.