It’s time to review the arguments for 12 next generation submarines; the more so because eight seems to be the conventional wisdom of the day!
Any consideration on this subject should start with why Australia requires submarines. Submarines offer the Government unique options in dealing with the increasingly challenging maritime environment in our region, where the presence of overt ADF assets is likely to be seen as escalatory and these assets will be at risk if safety catches are off.
The arguments for 12 long range-submarines (part 2 here) were accepted in the 2009 and 2013 Defence White Papers. Both DWPs also concluded that our geography requires a large submarine with long range/endurance and large payload. Our strategic environment hasn’t changed for the better.
The Northwest Pacific is the strategic focus of the Asian Century. Based on this transit distance—a not unreasonable for Australian submarines—12 submarines is the minimum force size to enable Australia to sustain one deployed (in a demanding but practical cycle) and provide one operational submarine available for other tasking.
Successive governments have spent years and millions of dollars in studying the options, and they’ve concluded that an off-the-shelf option to meet our requirements doesn’t exist; Australia, in partnership with an experienced overseas submarine designer will have to design and build a suitable replacement for Collins.
The Senate Economic Reference Committee heard evidence from the Department of Defence, industry and submarine experts to reach bipartisan agreement on the points made above. To quote one of the recommendations:
‘Given the weight of the evidence about the strategic, military, national security and economic benefits, the committee recommends that the government require tenderers for the future submarine project to build, maintain, and sustain Australia’s future submarines in Australia.’
There’s no production line; we must pay to set this up, either in France, Germany, Japan or Australia. I agree with Professor Goran Roos’s analysis; there’s a strong argument to build these submarines in Australia. French and German designers have indicated that they can build 12 suitable submarines in Australia for around $20 billion. Through life sustainment will add another $40 billion over the life of the submarines, regardless of where they’re built, common sense suggests that this should also be spent in Australia as far as possible.
We should avoid the additional cost and risk of a hybrid build. A design and build in-country strategy from the lead submarine will lead to the cost-effective establishment of a locally-based supply chain and design house ready in all respects for use as soon as the first submarine is delivered. But it must be managed that way from the beginning and must include the lead submarine. The Collins and ANZAC projects were proof that this recipe works and has led to a high Australian dollar content for support.
There are significant industry issues to be considered that would arise from an Australian build. Perhaps the most significant is the fact that 12 submarines is also the minimum-sized force to enable a continuous build strategy, albeit at a longer than optimal build interval of two years and a platform life of 22 years. The building yard would probably prefer a 12–18 month drumbeat for maximum efficiency. Given the 10+2 usage upkeep cycle (ten years operational, two years full cycle docking) now being implemented for Collins, a two-year launch interval, or ‘drumbeat’ would supply replacements for the Collins at an appropriate interval.
The alternative program of ‘stop/start 8+4’ being aired in the media will result in a significant increase in platform acquisition costs arising from the disruption to a highly specialised and skilled workforce and fabrication industry required for a complex platform such as a submarine.
Australia requires a force of 12 large submarines to meet the strategic challenges now unfolding in and beyond its region. There are no off-the-shelf options; in concert with a selected international partner we will have to design and build a suitable submarine. There are convincing strategic, cost and industry arguments for building all submarines in Australia. This prospect opens up the possibility of rolling program for their construction. In the second part of this post I’ll consider some of the questions arising from a rolling build program for 12 submarines.