Australia’s Future Submarine Debate: A Reality Check

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HMAS Collins at Fleet Base West, Perth on 19 June 2019 after conducting regional exercises. Photographer: LSIS Richard Cordell. Copyright: © Commonwealth of Australia.

Key Points:

  • The complex and ongoing debate surrounding Australia’s future submarine project has been punctuated by contrasting and contradicting opinions, often not well informed.
  • As the Indo-Pacific region emerges as a global epicentre in submarine proliferation, Australia requires a modern and technologically capable submarine that can successfully deter aggressors and protect its national interests. 
  • Due to its design and capabilities, Naval Group’s Shortfin Barracuda submarines is likely the most suitable platform offering long-term strategic and operational options for the Royal Australian Navy to maintain a technological edge over its rivals.
  • Given the advanced capabilities of Australian defence industry, it is incumbent on the Commonwealth and Naval Group to ensure that the umbrella agreement for Project SEA1000 is robust and sustainable for duration of the project.

The Royal Australian Navy’s Future Submarine project – SEA1000 – is a gift to anybody with a strong opinion who doesn’t understand submarines and technology development. Most of the commentary on the project has been untarnished by facts or expertise. 

Arguments & Considerations

The train of logic that got us to where we are today is fairly simple. 

First, do we need a long-range submarine with significant endurance? Yes. Our geography protects us from many threats, but it’s also pretty unforgiving when it comes to venturing from our shores. Our submariners need to travel a long way before they reach their operational areas. Range and endurance are essential. 

Second, should we build or buy nuclear powered submarines that can give us the range and submerged endurance that we need? No. I agree, nuclear power would be great, but we are currently a non-nuclear nation. We lack the nuclear industry and pool of technical expertise that’s essential to support a nuclear submarine and a cadre of nuclear-trained engineer officers. 

Unless and until the Commonwealth wins what I expect will be a pretty vigorous debate about introducing nuclear power to Australia, we shan’t have nuclear power stations, nor a nuclear-trained workforce, and we’ll be unable as a country to operate and sustain a nuclear powered submarine safely.

Ah, but what about leasing nuclear boats from the Americans, or the French, and getting them to maintain the submarines for us? Seriously? 

There are a couple of fundamental objections to this argument: First of all, are we going to lease one of our critical sovereign defence capabilities from another country, and expect that country to maintain that capability for us? The whole point about a sovereign defence capability is that it lies entirely within our control – having a submarine that needs to be maintained in another country, by that country’s industry, puts us entirely at the mercy of that country and  its contractors.

Besides, can you imagine the Americans or the French simply agreeing to lease Australia a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines? These are critical sovereign assets – the Americans wouldn’t sell us (or anybody else) the F-22 Raptor because of the technology embedded in it, so what makes you think they, or anybody else, will simply sign across a fleet of SSNs as if we were hiring a fleet of cars? 

The nuclear option is definitely not an option for the next decade and more.

Third, can we buy the submarines we need off the shelf? No. The only diesel-electric submarines you can buy off the shelf are much smaller, with less endurance than we need. Buying a submarine that’s incapable of doing the job the navy needs would be a waste of money. We have no option but to adopt a bespoke design.

Fourth, has the navy got its sums right? Do we really need such a big boat? Yes, I think so. Most submariners agree with the simple mathematics imposed by our geography: the navy needs boats that can cover a significant distance underwater before getting to their operational areas. That means big submarines with long range and endurance. 

The basic operational requirement isn’t rocket science; some of the fine detail is probably more complex than rocket science, and no reputable RAN submariner will share or discuss it with outsiders. If you reckon you know more about submarine operations than a navy that has been operating diesel electric submarines in Asia-Pacific waters since the 1970s, feel free to share your wisdom. 

Fifth, why is it taking so long? The new submarines won’t be in service until the 2030s, but we could have had them during the 2020s. The Defence White Paper 2009 announcing the 12 submarine build was followed by a six year hiatus in which almost nothing was done on the submarine project. 

That’s an unconscionable delay imposed by the government of the day. There is no quick and cheap way to design a submarine, so we shan’t get those lost years back – and that’s caused the schedule pressure that’s focussing peoples’ minds today. Cancelling the current project and buying a different submarine would either cost us much more time or deliver an inferior, off the shelf submarine – and not necessarily much quicker than Project SEA1000.

Lethality & Deterrence

Finally, submarines are obsolete, aren’t they? Well… no, actually. Most commentators expect around half of the world’s manned submarines to be operating in our region by the middle of this century – it seems everybody who operates in or near our region is buying or building manned submarines, which suggests they’re here to stay. Every major maritime power is investing in modern submarines. What’s so different about Australia that we wouldn’t, or shouldn’t, do the same? 

Yes, we should be exploring robotic and autonomous underwater systems and new sonar and combat system technologies, and new energy storage and propulsion technologies.  As a country, our industry possesses everything from mine detection and neutralisation to intelligence gathering, from passive seabed sensors to main storage battery technology. 

The point is that submarines are extremely effective: they are lethal; the very threat of submarine attack dictates changes in an adversary’s behaviour. Submarines are concealed underwater, and they move constantly, and they’ll become harder to detect and more effective in their roles with each new generation of technology. 

Navy operators all point out that they are already incredibly difficult to detect and then track, and the effort required to do so is disproportionate. A modern, competent submarine fleet is a major threat to a potential adversary, and therefore a powerful deterrent. 

Whither Project SEA1000?

So, what about Project SEA1000 then? That’s all gone wrong, hasn’t it? Actually, it’s too early to tell and the commentary thus far is mostly unhindered by expert knowledge. 

Australia’s Shortfin Barracuda submarines aren’t simply a reengined version of the nuclear Barracuda design by Naval Group. They are an entirely new design whose engineering approach is based on that adopted for the Barracuda-class so that the naval architects don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time they encounter some sort of undersea engineering design challenge. Regardless, designing a new class of submarines can’t be done quickly. 

The new submarines will be built in batches of (probably) three. Each batch represents a potential insertion point for new technology, for platform and propulsion design changes (within reason), and for new and upgraded combat systems, including sonars, electronic warfare and weapons. 

The only safe prediction is that the final batch of submarines will be quite different from the first batch. Even if they share a common platform design, it’s perfectly possible the final batch will employ weapons and sensors we haven’t even imagined as yet, along with quite different battery and energy storage technologies – we might even build them as nuclear boats. 

This has three consequences: first, it’s impossible to set a fixed price for 12 boats because we haven’t a clue what technologies and equipment will be in some of the later batches, nor how the Navy might choose to operate them. Which is why some of the commentary about the likely cost of the submarine project and the capability it will deliver, and the supposed obsolescence of our boats, and the assumptions underpinning that commentary, is meaningless. Calling for competitive tenders to build 12 submarines, for example, would have been impossible.

Second, it means that the design effort, the R&D and the construction skills development required for the first batch will need to be maintained for every subsequent batch – there’s a lot of ongoing work tied up in these boats, and that’s good for Australia, if we get it right. This certainly wasn’t the plan with the ANZAC ships, Air Warfare Destroyers (AWDs) and Collins class submarines.

Third, we need a good contractual and cultural relationship with the builder and designer: Naval Group. The cultural difficulties are real but can be overcome, but that will take time and good will and a bit of tolerance on each side – rather like having new neighbours. The contractual relationship, however, is critical: there won’t be a single, fixed-price contract to deliver 12 submarines as there was for the Collins-class boats, or the ANZAC-class frigates or the  AWDs, for the reasons set out previously.  

Contractual Imperatives

But there needs to be an overarching agreement that binds both parties: Naval Group to be a good and responsible contractor, and the Commonwealth to be a good and responsible customer. That’s the Strategic Partnering Agreement, and negotiating this is what seems to have caused a lot of the reported angst and anger between the parties. 

However, it’s important to get it right up-front because it’s the umbrella agreement under which three or four batches of submarines will be designed and built, and because it’ll be in force for at least five decades. If we screw it up now, we’ll be living with the consequences for generations. And if we’d chosen a different prime contractor, we’d still have the same contractual issues.

And guess what? It’ll be exactly the same for the RAN’s Future Frigate Project, SEA5000. Those ships will be built in three batches of three each, so it’s impossible to predict today what the final batch of three ships will look like, or cost. 

So that’s the train of logic that makes Project SEA1000 what it is. Make of it what you will, but please don’t try and wish away or simply ignore the realities that have shaped it – that’s self-indulgent and harmful to what we should be treating as a national enterprise. Project SEA1000 deserves a much, much higher calibre of debate. 

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are that of the author’s only, and do not necessarily represent the views of WA DEFENCE REVIEW.

About Greg Ferguson

Dr Gregor Ferguson is the former Editor of Australian Defence Magazine, publisher of EX2, runs the Innovation Awards program at the Avalon Air Show, Land Forces Expo and Pacific International Maritime Expo, and is a Director of Project Alpha Plus.

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