The strange submarine saga: Son of Collins to son of Collins
31 Aug 2020|

The switch from creating a ‘Son of Collins’ to making a ‘son of Collins’ is a conundrum of Australia’s submarine saga.

The Defence Department abandoned the option of building a second generation of the Collins-class submarines long ago. And our partner in building the Collins, Sweden, wasn’t even considered in the contest (between France, Germany and Japan) to create the new submarine.

Yet today we are building a new version of the Collins through a life-of-type extension of the existing subs. After casting off the capital ‘S’ option we now clasp the small ‘s’ son of Collins.

The 2020 force structure plan says the cost of the son of Collins—extension plus sustainment—will be between $3.5 and $6 billion. In the way of subs, expect that $6 billion figure to grow. Insight Economics estimates the life extension for the Collins could cost $15 billion.

The sub option that didn’t fully surface is the Son of Collins, although it’s conning tower is visible as the son of Collins. Many factors fathered the decision not to do the Son.

First, politics, with its dimensions of dollars and debate, dithering and delay.

Second, the agonising process of turning the Collins from dud sub to beaut boat. The Collins sustainment was on Defence’s list of projects of concern for a record nine years.

Third, the quarrelsome marriage with Sweden. The legal battles over submarine intellectual property had divorce-court elements: a rerun of the relationship problems conducted as an argument about property and progeny.

Fourth, Defence’s fears about getting the expertise for the evolution to a next-generation boat. Subs need the right minds as well as lots of money.

On the politics of dollars and dithering, Labor’s defence policy platform when it won office in 2007 proclaimed that it’d accelerate work on Australia’s next generation of subs ‘ahead of the current timetable which schedules first pass approval for 2011’. Instead, we missed that target by five years. The Turnbull government did first pass in 2016.

Labor policy in 2007 thought ‘a developmental project involving the migration of evolved Collins class combat and ship control systems might be necessary’. By the 2009 defence white paper, Labor proclaimed the need for 12 new subs.

The stage was set for the Son of Collins. Yet zip happened. The first-pass window kept passing. The global financial crisis hit. Struggling to fix the Collins, Labor didn’t have the energy for the Son and adopted a son stop-gap.

If Labor didn’t act on a Son of Collins, the Liberals couldn’t or wouldn’t. The Libs made much noise about the Collins problems and Labor failures. When Tony Abbott won government in 2013, the Collins was more political pariah than the potential parent of the next-generation submarine. (For this chronology, see the parliamentary library’s new account of the subs story, building on its previous report from 2012.)

Beyond the politics, the conundrum centres on the thinking in Defence and the Royal Australian Navy. Why didn’t the navy want a Son of Collins? Why didn’t Defence put Sweden in the mix?

On those two questions, Marcus Hellyer (ASPI’s sage on the inner workings of the Defence mind) judges that excluding the Swedes ‘is one of Defence’s most bizarre capability decisions’. Bizarre, indeed.

Defence argued there’d been a hiatus in Sweden’s sub building and that gap posed an unacceptable risk. The claim that the game had moved far and fast was also deployed to attack the Son of Collins—developing what we had wouldn’t deliver what Defence said we needed: a brand new design.

As Hellyer writes: ‘Defence testified that a study into the possibility of evolving the Collins “demonstrated that the design effort involved would be similar to a new design”. Ultimately Defence concluded that an evolved Collins “would not provide a beneficial, nor a low cost and low risk solution for the Future Submarine”.’

Australia had the intellectual property for the Collins, but seemed to doubt its intellectual and technical ability to create a Son of Collins. Defence feared we didn’t have the critical mass of expertise to design and build a new boat.

Naval sage James Goldrick emphasises an old line offering a difficult truth: ‘The greatest restriction on naval expansion is draughtsmen not money’.

Canberra worried that it had the money but not the minds. That informs the whispered response to the criticism that Australia should be running a competition between a Son of Collins and the French-designed Attack class. Defence fears it’ll be fiendishly difficult to get the skills and smarts to achieve just one boat design.

As Goldrick told me:

The French may have realised the potential benefit to themselves of this process earlier than anybody else—apart from the fact that their boat was the best, according to the final Australian evaluation.

What is happening all over the world is an increasing problem of continuity for the evolution of design because that requires there to be continued work. Almost nobody is building enough submarines, frequently enough, to be self-sustaining as a centre of design and enterprise.

Even if you are building continuously, if you have a big break in your design effort, it’s very difficult to recover, as the British and even the Americans and Russians have experienced.

Association with the Australian continuous build/batch upgrade scheme would help the French maintain critical mass and sustain their design skills.

So, the Son of Collins didn’t surface. But the stretching Attack-class timeline means we’re now committed to the son of Collins. The saga has many bizarre twists.