Preserving an Australian submarine capability: a wicked problem hedged
7 Nov 2022|

In my previous post, I suggested that Australia has insufficient submarine personnel to start a transition to nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs) while maintaining its existing operational capability to deploy at least two Collins-class submarines in harm’s way. I argued that the capability to deploy two submarines, be they nuclear or conventionally powered, must be preserved throughout the transition if we are to defend Australia in the difficult times now unfolding.

This capability is also critical to produce the greatly expanded number of qualified, experienced submarine personnel required for the transition. I lived through the transition from the Oberon-class submarines to the Collins and led the recovery program for the Collins, after we failed to recognise the need to maintain an operational submarine capability. Battling back from a nadir of 35% of the required personnel took more than a decade and depended on the dedication of many; in benign times, that was challenging and expensive but not hazardous. The same situation does not obtain today.

Due to lack of capacity in US and UK shipyards, the SSNs will have to be built here. An Australian build is also essential if we are to develop the technical capability in the civilian workforce necessary to sustain nuclear-powered submarines in this country. These preparations will take a long time and require a substantial national endeavour.

A transition strategy combining the build with the UK’s follow-on design for the Astute class, as appears to have been suggested recently by the UK defence secretary, could enable a hybrid build. As an example, the front half of the submarine, containing the weapons, crew accommodation and control room, could be built in Adelaide and the after end, containing propulsion, in the UK. That would enable the workload to be spread, offer economies of scale and enable US weapons and a US combat system to be incorporated for Australia’s needs, with US design assistance. Such a strategy would, however, add significantly to the complexity and risks. It won’t be quick. We should allow for sufficient time to get it right and to hedge against likely delays.

In the meantime, the ageing Collins require a challenging life-of-type extension (LOTE) involving a demanding and high-risk upgrade, within the normal two years allocated every decade for a major refit. Failures or delays in the Collins LOTE or in the transition strategy will leave Australia unable to sustain the personnel or to deploy two submarines—and, in due course, without an operational submarine capability. Recovery could take more than a decade, as we found with the Collins, a decade when our need is greatest.

A wicked problem indeed, but how do we hedge against this unhappy outcome?

Building additional conventional submarines as an urgent priority would provide a hedge against delays in either program, ensure we can maintain an operational submarine capability, increase the size of the submarine arm, re-establish an Australian submarine-building capability and greatly increase resilience in the support and supervision areas of the submarine enterprise. Importantly, it would also provide a growing pipeline of submariners to crew the SNNs when they come on stream.

In addition to the LOTE, building additional Collins, updated to the LOTE configuration, would provide submarines that meet Australia’s requirements and regulations and would be the lowest risk option. Such an approach would exploit existing supply chains, minimise logistical and training impacts and require the shortest lead time.

The effort to build additional Collins should have started much earlier, as I urged in 2018. But that doesn’t preclude the government from initiating an urgent design effort now, providing a viable option to commence building in 2024 should fears about the SSN timing prove correct.

This program should aim to commission the first new Collins boat in 2032 and one every year thereafter, achieving a force of 12 submarines in 2038, when the first LOTE Collins retires. We would need to mobilise our national resources and those of Saab Kockums, the original designer of the Collins, to assist ASC, the Collins ‘design authority’, to achieve this ambitious target. The Defence Department’s business-as-usual approach will not get us there.

The ‘Collins hedged’ approach wouldn’t delay the achievement of an operational, sovereign nuclear submarine force; indeed, it may well shorten the timeline and make it realistic. For the reasons set out in my previous post, there’s no way we can achieve this in the same timescales without increasing the number of conventional submarines in the period before Australian-flagged SSNs can join the fleet. The long-lead-time preparations, such as training experienced technical personnel and refining a design to meet our requirements, can occur in parallel with this program, so that we time the SSN building program to avoid a valley of death in the shipyard.

Critically, we will have sustained an operational submarine capability throughout and avoid a scenario where delays in the LOTE or nuclear transition make the whole process take decades longer. Evolving the Collins design as the build progresses will allow the introduction of new technology to mitigate the vulnerabilities of conventional submarines.

This will be expensive and challenging. Undertaking a transition from where we are, with a force of six ageing Collins, would be significantly more challenging. And it would leave us highly dependent on others and probably without an operational Australian submarine force through the decades of highest risk. That course may appear cheaper, but it wouldn’t be cheap. In fact, would be highly likely to fail regardless of how much we spent in the process. That is money and resources wasted, not saved.

The Collins hedging strategy enables us to demonstrate that we can double the number of submarine personnel, re-establish a submarine building capability, and build up the industry and the shore support and supervision roles with a fall-back position should any of these essential components prove unachievable or unaffordable.

I look forward to the solution provided by the nuclear-powered submarine taskforce but worry that it is answering the wrong question by looking for the shortest route to an SSN. The prerequisite for sustaining an operational submarine capability, namely, the ability to deploy two submarines in harm’s way, needs to be added to this aim. Without this critical requirement the strategy will produce an expensive illusion, not the sovereign, operational submarine capability we’ll need to see us through the difficult times ahead.

The government needs to move quickly to set up the Collins hedge option and provide a Plan B to avoid a looming capability gap.