Australia’s future submarine: a Class with no equals
16 Jan 2017|

If the RAN holds firm to the Barracuda Shortfin Block 1A concept offered by DCNS it will acquire an orphan no informed Navy would contemplate commissioning into service. It will own a submarine that will be expensive to build, maintain and operate. It will be a Class that has no equals—sadly for all the wrong reasons.

The award of the Future Submarine Program to France in itself shouldn’t be the issue. DCNS has a proven track record of naval vessel design and construction. It would employ qualified personnel across a wide spectrum of naval engineering. And the Turnbull government is steadfast in its assurance that the decision in favour of the Barracuda Shortfin Block 1A was made after the most intense technical evaluation by national and international submarine experts. The government accepts DCNS’s claim that it’ll be ‘the most lethal conventional submarine ever contemplated’, which will provide Australia with the most advanced conventionally powered submarine in the world.

Notwithstanding Australia’s considerable capabilities in naval construction I remain doubtful that a long-range diesel-electric submarine with a 5100-tonne submerged displacement can be designed and built successfully locally. Nor am I convinced that such a class will be more lethal than smaller long-range submarine classes. ‘As the size and power of a submarine increase’, argues the government’s DST Group correctly, ‘the gains made in range, speed and endurance diminish’. The maxim: ‘as small as possible and as big as is necessary’ holds firm for all naval submarine designs, but particularly for diesel-electric boats. DCNS confirms this by introducing their new blue-water submarine concept—SMX®3.0—at Euronaval 2016.

At 3000-tonnes displacement the ‘Z-Generation’ submarine class will be nearly 50% smaller than the Barracuda Shortfin Block 1A. It’ll have a propeller drive train and hydrogen-oxide fuel-cell AIP. The SMX®3.0 indiscretion ratio will, in all likelihood, be superior to the Shortfin Block 1A because this submarine will have less drag, greater underwater speed, endurance and a lower signature. Importantly, the replacement of lead-acid with lithium-ion batteries will eliminate the dangerous process of hydrogen venting.

The inexcusable blunder by our defence planners is the determination to procure a 5100-tonnes submarine that doesn’t have air-independent-propulsion (AIP), and is based on lead-acid battery technology.  It’ll feature an innovative pump-jet system that requires prototype testing for flow, vibration, cavitation and magnetic signature, efficiency and reliability. Then the challenge will be to guarantee safe operational performance under all circumstances.

Australia has learned much about operating modern diesel-electric submarines and in particular its design strengths and weaknesses and how the next generation should be improved. In the early stages of the SEA1000 program the government tasked ASC to investigate different options ranging from procurement of an off-the-shelf submarine to an Australian ab initio and an evolved Collins design. Over five years a team of some 60 national and international experts explored different submarine design options. Their efforts were terminated once the government redirected attention to a Japanese solution and subsequently to a Competitive Evaluation Process to select a strategic partner to design, build and sustain the future submarine fleet. That work shouldn’t be wasted if the current program runs into major problems, while the SMX®3.0 should also be kept under active consideration.

Assuming that Australia stays with the current plan there should be no doubt that the US Navy can assist in the future Australian submarine program. However, we should question whether any members on the recently announced Naval Shipbuilding Advisory Board have much experience in the design of diesel-electric submarines. Categorically they have no experience in the construction of warships in Australia. Many former and current managers and engineers at ASC, BAE Systems Australia, Thales Australia, and, of course, former RAN submarine COs and Engineering Officers have the requisite experience. They could provide government with equal or better counsel on the industrial requirements for our future submarines and frigates than could this congregation of eminent persons.

Not least of the deficiencies in the government’s advisory panel is the lack of depth in labour relations and productivity—one of the major risks for the project. To set up a 5000-strong workforce at a single naval shipyard in Australia will be a monumental task. To manage such a site from a labour-relations standpoint over a 30-year plus timeline has, to my knowledge, only been done successfully in this country in wartime.

Williamstown Naval Dockyard, the last government shipyard before the Howard government nationalised the ASC, was managed by Navy personnel and so-called overseas experts, including managers from the US. When EGLO Engineering—a specialist Australian company with experience in the hydrocarbon and mining sectors—formed AMEC to acquire the dysfunctional Williamstown Dock Yard in 1987 it had the option to retain some 2000 government employees. AMEC declined the option and some 200 of EGLO’s most capable and reliable trades people were transferred to Williamstown to form the nucleus workforce for the completion of the FFG-7 frigates, Melbourne and Newcastle, and to start on the 10-ship ANZAC build-program for the Royal Australian and Royal New Zealand navies.

AMEC, renamed Amecon in 1989—and later known as Transfield Shipbuilding—employed some 1,500 people at Williamstown, about the same number ASC employed to build the 6 Collins-class submarines in Adelaide.

To assemble and manage a large‎ construction workforce takes a lot of experience anywhere, but especially in Australia. Management needs to understand and work with both the Australian trade unions and a complex and dysfunctional labour relations framework. The workforce needs to be kept as small and as efficient as possible, and labour productivity management must be extended to the procurement of third-party components and systems. Such capacities or track records aren’t generally found in government enterprises.

Advice on diesel-electric submarine design and construction should be sourced in Australia and Europe. Industrial advice, however, is clearly the domain of experienced Australian labour-relations strategists that have managed similar complexity and comparable risk.

We can only hope that the supreme confidence with which the Turnbull government has chosen this submarine class will be borne out when it comes to the Australian build.