Australia – Past submarine mistakes make a case for going nuclear

  • HMAS Dechaineux and HMAS Waller

RAN Collins-class submarines Dechaineux and Waller in an exercise off the West Australian coast. The fleet has been plagued with problems. Picture: Australian Defence Force Source: Supplied

Julia Gillard on Collins-class submarine

Julia Gillard is shown around a Collins-class submarine.

Virginia-class attack submarine

A US Virginia-class attack submarine, which could be leased.

ON Tuesday, the National Archives released the 1985 cabinet submission that led to the decision to build six Collins-class submarines in Adelaide. A key question is whether the lessons from that experience have been learned by the current government as it moves to buy a new class of replacement submarines for the navy.

In May 1985, cabinet commissioned project definition studies by Swedish and German submarine builders on how to construct a new class of six or eight large submarines in Australia. Each builder was asked to evaluate how it would install specified US or European combat systems into the new boats. They were also asked to supply detailed budgets and delivery schedules.

This approach was opposed most strongly by the departments of finance and prime minister and cabinet, as well as Treasury. Finance foresaw a serious risk of cost escalation, argued for a reassessment of cost-capability trade-offs and pressed for consideration of a four-boat option .

Treasury wanted to greatly reduce program risks and pressed for further consideration of a fully proven submarine, the Dutch Walrus class. It noted: “With few exceptions, local industry has a dismal record in the construction of high technology equipment”. Moreover, Treasury noted that “nowhere has the Minister (for Defence) detailed the facilities and human skills resulting from local construction are of genuine ongoing relevance to our marine and engineering industries”.

Kim Beazley was a very strong and convincing defence minister and his arguments won the day. But we now know that although six Collins-class submarines were eventually delivered to the RAN, they cost well over double the estimated figure, they arrived late and they suffered from serious ongoing technical and support problems. Only rarely have more than two of the six boats been operational at any given time and the costs of sustaining the force are now approaching $1 billion a year and rising.

Nearly 30 years on, while the strategic circumstances have changed, there are similarities in the issues the Hawke government faced then and the Gillard government now faces.

The first and most profound similarity is the current government appears as confused about its goals as its predecessor. Precisely what does the government want to buy? Does it want to buy a strong submarine force able to deter major conflict and defend the country against serious attack?

Alternatively, does the government really want only a token submarine force? Is it primarily interested in a make-work scheme, disguised as a cost-effective strategic program to rebuild Australia’s high-technology marine industry? The cabinet papers suggest that in 1985 the government wanted almost all of the above.

A second similarity with 1985 is there remain serious doubts about the ability of domestic industry to develop, build and put into service a new class of large submarines on time and on cost.

Recent assessments suggest Australia’s maritime industry is incapable of building a new class of submarines while simultaneously building 10 new future frigates and 19 new offshore patrol vessels, announced in the 2009 defence white paper and supporting and maintaining the massive infrastructures required by the burgeoning offshore oil and gas industry. Australia simply does not have the depth and breadth of maritime skills and facilities to undertake all these highly complex programs in parallel.

A third similarity is that neither the Defence Minister, nor anyone else, has made a convincing case that the skills and facilities developed for local submarine construction will be of ongoing relevance to Australia’s marine and engineering industries.

Another echo from 1985 is the ruling Labor cabinet is confronted by a tight fiscal outlook in the short term, though with some greater financial flexibility in the medium term. . But while our construction capability is still in question today, the current cabinet faces a markedly different set of circumstances.

First, the strategic outlook is fundamentally different. The major global powers are now all located in our region, not on the other side of the world.

Tensions and the potential for major conflict are growing on our doorstep and, in the event of many potential crises, we can expect to be targeted.

China’s dramatically expanding military capabilities are of particular concern and Beijing now looks like matching Washington’s defence spending within 20 years.

In the underwater domain, China has commissioned 45 advanced submarines since 1995 and currently has no less than five new submarine programs.

At the same time, the US is cutting its defence expenditure and in the event of a major crisis in the 2030s would struggle to deploy 20 attack submarines in the western Pacific.

In the light of this far more troubling outlook, the government is yet to show it is serious about deterring major threats and effectively defending the country in a serious crisis.

A second major difference from the situation in 1985 is that the US now has a very powerful, fully sorted and proven submarine in series production that would meet all of Australia’s deterrence and defence needs. These submarines are very fast, with almost unlimited endurance, and have markedly superior sensors that can routinely “see” other submarines and surface ships long before they can be “seen” and they can carry far more powerful weapons and other payloads.

Acquiring these boats would signal strongly to any potential opponent that Australia is not to be trifled with and assure allies and friends that we are serious about reinforcing their security.

Moreover, a squadron of these submarines could be bought or leased within Australia’s budget and they could be delivered on time and at low risk.

The 14th Virginia-class submarine is in production with some 25 extra boats planned. It is certainly open to the Australian government to negotiate the lease or purchase of 10-12 Virginias for delivery well before any domestically built boats could be commissioned.

The primary reason why the government has ruled out Virginia boats has nothing to do with their superior capacity to meet Australia’s defence needs. The problem is they are nuclear-powered. However, in contrast to the previous classes of nuclear-powered submarines, the Virginias never need refuelling and the support requirements would be manageable if negotiated within an expanded alliance co-operation initiative.

This type of attractive US option was not available in the 1980s.

Third, in the 1980s it was widely assumed that if Australia wished to provide quality through-life maintenance and support for its new submarines, it was essential to also build the boats. This proved to be wrong.

In fact, most of the skills required to design and assemble a class of submarine are not those needed for system trouble-shooting, modification, repair, maintenance, testing and set-to-work. The work processes, skill-sets and the cultures are quite different. That’s why owners of Range Rovers don’t return their cars to the factory for servicing.

But has the government taken on board the lessons of the past 25 years? During recent months, the government has confirmed that a new class of 12 diesel-electric submarines will be built in Adelaide, with the first boat not to be delivered until 2033-36. With an anticipated budget of $36 billion, this will be the largest Australian defence acquisition program ever.

Some $214 million is being spent on studies to evaluate the merits of buying an existing small European submarine, moving to a new class of modified European boat, selecting an evolved design, such as an upgraded Collins, or designing a completely new submarine in Australia from scratch.

At the same time, the government has cut defence spending to 1.56 per cent of gross domestic product, its lowest level since 1938, and so the scope for actually paying for new submarines is diminishing.

What is the public to make of this? Has the current government learnt the lessons from the past 25 years? The strategy on which the government has embarked may deliver submarines, but they will almost certainly be late, greatly over budget, experience serious technical problems, have low reliability, deliver limited deterrence and defensive power and, by the late-2030s, they will probably be obsolete.

It is hard to see this story ending well. The consequences for the country’s security are serious.

Ross Babbage is a former senior defence official and founder of the Kokoda Foundation.

Source – The Australian

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