It’s often said that in terms of range, what Australia is looking for in replacing the Collins-class is a nuclear submarine, but with conventional propulsion. If this assessment were taken too literally it would favor the French bid from DCNS because that company is the only one of the three contenders that builds both types of submarines. Indeed, in their approach to the SEA 1000 Competitive Evaluation Process (CEP) the French have chosen to base their proposal on a slightly smaller version of a nuclear powered ‘Barracuda’ SSN than on a much larger version of their diesel-electric ‘Scorpene’ design.
How RAN has again managed to get itself in the position of asking for a product that doesn’t exist is another story entirely—but if we are again going to go down such a risky path then the most important task is to contract with a company that can not only design such a submarine but effectively manage a contract of this huge size and complexity in Australia. DCNS stacks up well in both domains.
Looking first at the design, a nuclear-powered ‘Barracuda’ has a surfaced displacement of 4,750 tonnes that increases to 5,300 tonnes when submerged; has a length of 99.4 metres; and a crew of 60. While DCNS is rather guarded about many aspects of its design for SEA 1000, it has confirmed that the Australian conventionally powered version—known as the ‘Shortfin Barracuda Block1A’—is 4,500 tonnes on the surface and 97 metres in length, also with a crew of 60. We can infer that the submerged displacement of the ‘Shortfin’—so named after a sub-species that lives in waters around the Great Barrier Reef—will be a hefty 5,000 tonnes.
However, life isn’t so simple as to replace a nuclear power plant with diesel electric propulsion. Submarines are exceptionally complicated beasts to design because they have to function in demanding and unforgiving environments; matters of weight and balance need to be precisely calculated; everything needs to fit exactly within a strictly confined space; and on top of that must be added requirements of a low noise signature, shock resistance, electrical efficiency, sufficient weapon load, habitability—and so on.
A conventional submarine needs to have a number of large diesel fuel tanks distributed throughout the submarine and many hundreds of tonnes of lead acid batteries that sit along the keel and are crucial to overall balance and stability. Nuclear submarines have a substantial reactor aft with a lot of protective shielding and an assembly of pumps and pipes to keep the whole thing working.
So the question then becomes one of design credibility and project management experience. DCNS has successfully designed and constructed submarines ranging from 1,500 tonne diesel-electric boats for export customers all the way through to French ballistic nuclear submarines in excess of 14,000 tonnes in the shape of the ‘Triomphant’ class. The company itself is owned 64% by the French Government, 35% by defence electronics giant Thales and the 1% balance in employee shares. DCNS has enormous technical and intellectual resources to draw down on, so designing the ‘Shortfin’ is clearly within its capabilities—a sine qua non of its selection for the CEP.
DCNS can trace its origins back to the seventeenth century and currently has 13,600 employees—though the majority of those work on naval surface ships for both the domestic and export markets. To look only at recent history, the company has sold conventional submarines to Chile, Malaysia, India and Brazil. The latter deal is particularly interesting because Brazil wants to use the local construction of four ‘Scorpenes’ as a bridge to building nuclear powered submarines—and France is assisting that process with a civil as well as military technology transfer package. This model is something that Australia might wish to consider if at some cosmically distant time we wanted to develop a nuclear industry.
Turning to how DCNS will approach building submarines for SEA 1000, the company is in favor of a hybrid approach to the program. This will involve building all of the first submarine in France and training Australians on its construction; building some of the second submarine in the parent yard—and all of the remaining six of the series in Australia. Analysis done by the company apparently shows that there are just as many Australian jobs involved in the hybrid model as there would be building all of them in Adelaide. It’s worth pointing out even though the Collins-class was sold as an ‘all Australian’ build, the reality was that the complex fore and aft sections of the first of class were actually manufactured in Sweden as part of a technology transfer effort.
DCNS is holding many performance and design details of what it’s offering until after the CEP bids have been lodged for competitive reasons. However, the company has nominated two areas of submarine technology where it believes it has something unique to offer. The first is the extensive use of ‘soft patches’ in the hull—which aren’t soft at all—but are integral panels that can be opened as required to gain access to machinery and equipment spaces without the need to cut the hull, but which don’t compromise the submarine’s watertight integrity.
Another even more sensitive area is the propulsion system. Conventional submarines use propellers, usually of the seven-bladed skew-back variety. However, for their nuclear submarines France has moved to a pump-jet system, about which DCNS Australia Sean Costello says:
‘The pump jet propulsion offered by DCNS will replace the current obsolete propeller technology. In adopting this technology, Australia will join an elite club, which includes only the United Kingdom, the United States of America and France.’
Other than the US, France is the only western country to produce almost the full range of military hardware from within its own national resources—everything from aircraft carriers, to satellites, main battle tanks, fighter aircraft, ballistic missiles, radars and command and control systems. Its excellence in submarine systems is demonstrated in part by the amount of French equipment that is on the Collins-class: the Thales ‘Scylla’ sonar suite; a world leading Sagem inertial navigation system and Jeumont Schneider electric motors. Collins was designed to be a ‘best of breed’ solution for RAN—and this quantity of French involvement is testimony to that nation’s engineering standards and high quality output.
A final point about France: it has a greater permanent military presence in our part of the world than any other allied nation, with the exception of the US. With ongoing interests in places such as Noumea and Tahiti—legally considered as part of metropolitan France—as well as Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean, policy-makers in Paris are more interested in our part of the world than most Australians realize. If DCNS is successful in SEA 1000, it could act as an important catalyst for bringing two countries with similar interests and cultures much closer together.