Planning defence projects for a new submarine era

Despite negative perceptions about the Collins-class submarine project, the six boats now in service with the Royal Australian Navy are regarded as among the world’s best diesel-electric submarines.

While the project faced major delays and cost overruns, it ultimately became a significant sovereign defence industry capability and provides an excellent basis for the challenging AUKUS nuclear-powered submarine (SSN) program.

Timing is everything. From the Collins project’s inception in 1983, it took 20 years to commission the sixth and last boat, HMAS Rankin, seven years later than planned. Three decades on, the AUKUS SSN program presents a substantially larger and more complex delivery challenge and carries a risk of program delays causing considerable capability gaps for the Australian Defence Force.

The replacement of the Oberon-class submarines (in service since the late 1960s) wasn’t urgent in terms of immediate regional threats. Between 1993 and 2003, Australia’s geopolitical priorities involved strengthening its alliance with the US in supporting various military operations such as the Gulf War and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. In parallel, Australia was also focused on local regional instability and played an active role in peacekeeping missions to Solomon Islands and Bougainville and the East Timorese independence process.

Today, as outlined in the 2023 defence strategic review, Australia faces a new global order. While our alliance with Washington remains central to our security and strategy, the US is no longer the Indo-Pacific’s unipolar leader. The likelihood of conflict and threats in our region has never been higher.

The declining warning time emphasised in the review and the pressing need for Defence to deliver large capability and infrastructure projects quickly leave little room for delays in delivering the SSNs.

Defence capability and infrastructure projects have frequently encountered significant delays. The Australian National Audit Office’s 2021–22 major projects report found that there had been a total of 1,363 months (equivalent to 113 years) of slippage across 34 projects. Naval projects accounted for five out of the seven projects with the most serious delays.

Defence has faced a significant loss of crucial planning time in replacing the Collins, spanning at least 15 years from the initial identification of the need for a future submarine in the 2009 defence white paper. This period includes the cancellation of the Attack-class submarine project with France and its replacement with the plan for AUKUS SSNs in September 2021, which added a major delay.

The AUKUS SSN program surpasses the complexity of the Collins project, which involved one European partner and infrastructure works at HMAS Stirling and the Osborne shipyard. AUKUS is a trilateral partnership underpinned by complex intellectual property and technological transfers, regulatory compliance and political considerations. The SSN program requires extensive infrastructure works across Australia (and overseas).

Nearly a year after the AUKUS SSN announcement, there’s still uncertainty about how Defence is preparing for and prioritising multiple supporting infrastructure projects. This poses a risk that industry might not have the capacity to deliver within the required timeframes.

On the surface, the proposed infrastructure works at HMAS Stirling and the Henderson and Osborne shipyards seem easy given that they are existing facilities used to sustain the Collins boats.

Upgrades to wharfs, warehousing and sustainment facilities at HMAS Stirling are crucial to ensure that it can accommodate the Submarine Rotational Force–West, docking Collins, US Virginia class, and UK Astute-class boats. While the works are due for completion in 2027, interim arrangements may be needed to accommodate the Virginias, which are 38 metres longer and 2.8 metres wider than the Collins.

Significant investment in the Osborne shipyard is planned to manage the Collins life-of-type extension from 2026 to 2038 and the production of new submarines from the late 2030s to 2055. These facilities won’t be required until the late 2020s.

As has been noted recently, establishing a new east coast nuclear submarine base will require significant planning and time. Naval bases are large, complex precincts. HMAS Stirling took more than a decade to develop, while Darwin’s HMAS Melville took six years. The shortlisted options are commercial ports, which will mean additional time to engage with stakeholders, develop agreements and undertake land transfers and land-acquisition processes. Should the project be referred for Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act approval (which is highly likely given the potential sites’ current uses), that could add more than 12 months to the planning process. If the east coast base is to be operational before Australia’s first Virginia arrives in 2032, site selection will need be finalised in accordance with Defence’s proposed timeframe of late 2023.

Like the east coast base, establishing supporting nuclear training, storage and waste-disposal facilities, even on Defence land, demands extensive planning for design development and approvals. This includes environmental approval, regulatory approval through the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency, public consultation and additional approval if the site is located on or near Indigenous land. If a preferred site is rejected, restarting the process will eat up more time.

The SSN sustainment facilities introduce additional planning complexity. It’s not clear if the torpedo maintenance facilities at HMAS Stirling are able to maintain the navy’s Mk48 ADCAP torpedoes, or if their maintenance will be brought back to Australia from Pearl Harbor. As speculated in The Australian, it’s unclear if Tomahawk missiles will be procured and, if they are, where they’ll be stored and maintained. No doubt that will be addressed with the guided weapons and explosive ordnance program.

The defence strategic review acknowledges the need to prioritise AUKUS infrastructure in line with SSN delivery and commissioning schedules while considering constraints in the construction industry and the need to align with pre-existing works. Addressing the challenge of industry’s capacity to deliver is crucial for Defence, necessitating forward notification and adherence to procurement timeframes.

In the next decade, the defence construction sector will experience a surge in demand driven by AUKUS infrastructure needs and other significant defence projects, including the $3.8 billion commitment to upgrade facilities in northern Australia.

To support industry’s capacity to meet these demands, it’s crucial for Defence to share and adhere to its infrastructure timeframes, empowering industry to prepare and deliver on time. Defence should also be prepared to manage unexpected risks—as demonstrated in the past four years with the impact of the global pandemic on the construction industry through labour shortages, international supply chain disruptions and, in some cases, liquidations.

Last week at the ADM Defence + Industry Conference, Defence Minister Richard Marles advised that procurement ideals would be known when the government’s defence industry development strategy was ready to share with industry next year. To quote management expert Peter F. Drucker, ‘Unless [a] commitment is made, there are only promises and hopes, but no plan.’