Captain Obvious on the Future Submarine CEP
20 Apr 2016|

When I read material in the mainstream press about the Future Submarine, I can feel my eyeballs twitching a lot these days.

All the contenders (the government of Japan with support from Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, TKMS of Germany and DCNS of France) have provided the same information, albeit in different ways, to the SEA 1000 competitive evaluation program office.

All three are required to have the following build options canvassed in their proposals: completely overseas build, a hybrid build between their respective home shipyards and Australia or a completely Australian build. So when I read reports of spokespeople for the three contenders saying that they’re happy to build all their boats in Australia, that eyeball twitch comes back.

Of course they’re happy. I’d be ecstatic if a government wanted to spend $50 billion with my company too. The Commonwealth is spending billions of taxpayer dollars for them to be happy about whatever and wherever they’re told to build. You want it made in Adelaide, painted teal and made with unobtanium; Yes, Minister.

And they’re all paper boats. Each option will be an evolution of a boat that each of the contenders already builds. Neither the Soryu, the Barracuda nor the Type 214 in their current forms are what the Royal Australian Navy wants or needs, thus the Australianised designs being put forward.

Any submarine engineer worth talking to will explain it’s not as easy as simply doubling the circumference of the hull, taking out one bit and sticking another bit in or replacing lead acid batteries with lithium ion batteries. If submarines were that easy, every sea-faring nation would have them. They aren’t, so they don’t.

Defence Secretary Dennis Richardson has made it abundantly clear in his usual blunt style that he hasn’t met representatives of any of the contenders, as then he would have to meet with them all. I can understand his reticence to become part of a marketing and engagement plan when he will have access to tender quality information from the program office instead.

The information vacuum created by a lack of detailed information from government and Defence is feeding upon itself. There were high hopes that the 2016 Defence White Paper, Defence Industry Policy Statement, and Integrated Investment Plan would fill the void. If anything, they have created more questions than answers. Where’s the national shipbuilding plan? Where’s the detailed website to support the IIP? What defence capabilities do you want to keep sovereign control over in a meaningful way?

The flurry of announcements this week on the surface fleet is very welcome but doesn’t answer the submarine question. Good planning takes time, as does assembling the detailed information needed on which to base decisions, but a lack of decision is almost as bad as no decision.

The Future Submarine program office has been working in some way shape or form since the end of 2008, according to Defence. Yes, governments of both sides kept them conveniently waiting for guidance for many of those years, but groundwork was still being undertaken.

Those in the media and commentariat and even those in Defence industry are chasing rumours, shadows and whatever glimmer of actual information we can get our hands on.

Everyone has opinions about the best submarine solution for Australia and why. But at the end of the day, the program office is the only one with access to the full spectrum of information from all three bidders. Arguments over whether it has the right people to make the right decision are immaterial at this point. They have made a recommendation to government based on their own technical expertise, requirements from the user and value for money as set out in the Financial Management Act.

It will then be a matter for government to consider that recommendation through a financial, strategic and yes, political lens. To not consider the political implication of this program is beyond naïve, whatever recommendation Defence makes. Governments of both sides will have to live with the consequences of this decision for decades to come.

In the meantime, I have no doubt that my eyeballs will continue to twitch as opinions are aired as fact, marketing approaches are refined, and endless gossip is traded. I look forward to an actual decision from someone in a position of power who is willing to show some leadership on the submarine issue at the strategic and economic levels.