Australia’s future submarine program has attracted fewer headlines since the Government decided on the French Shortfin Barracuda design last year. But it was heavily criticised in a recent Insight Economics report, and on the receiving end of some speculative depth charges in a strange, testy exchange between One Nation leader Pauline Hanson and Rear Admiral Greg Sammut during Senate estimates last week.
Australia’s submarine industry is no stranger to poor publicity, attracting sustained and justified criticism throughout the painful ups and downs of the Collins class development. Submarine success stories, like the fixes to Collins’ teething problems, are harder to identify, largely because the submarine arm is publicity averse, given its stealthy line of its work. Yet the Future Submarine Program is now strategically and politically so important it has no prospect of receding into the depths of defence capability. It is simply too big to fail, both in dollar and deterrence terms. The case for a $50 billion submarine program must therefore be made, and continually scrutinised.
Admiral Sammut, who heads the Future Submarine Program, was unsurprisingly at pains to assure his audience that everything is proceeding to schedule since a treaty-level framework agreement was signed in May. A sizeable Australian cohort is already in Cherbourg, France, to participate in the preliminary design work. Sammut confirmed that the 12 new Shortfin Barracuda submarines on order from Naval Group (a specially created offshoot from France’s DCNS) will employ pump-jet propulsion, which he said is equally suited to conventionally powered submarines as it is to nuclear-powered boats.
Sammut reiterated that there are no plans to convert to nuclear power during the lifetime of the submarine program. This has been a lingering suspicion about the decision to go with a DCNS design, since France was the only one of three competitors to manufacture nuclear-powered submarines. Interestingly, Sammut added that no decision has been made on future submarine basing, holding out the possibility that some could be located on the east coast.
Much of the public controversy around the submarine program stems from its astronomical, if largely notional, $50 billion price tag. According to Sammut, this represents a ballpark estimate that extends beyond the construction phase, presumably including through-life costs, though he attached a careful caveat that 'firm cost estimates at this stage of the design process are not credible'.
I asked Sammut if the Commonwealth has flexibility to accelerate submarine delivery, including shifting a portion of the production to France, should there be a deterioration in Australia’s strategic environment. Sammut essentially gave a two-part answer: first, there are no contingency plans to advance the delivery schedule under the existing arrangements or to move it offshore; second, the service-life extension of Australia’s six Collins submarines will continue to provide an effective capability until the new boats start to arrive.
Irrespective of improvements to the Collins’ operational life span, I’m not convinced Australia can afford to wait until 2032 for the first of its 'regionally superior' submarines to enter the water. That’s 15 years from now if the planned schedule is maintained. By then, the youngest Collins hull will be almost 30 years old. Assuming retiring Collins submarines are replaced one-for-one, Australia will remain a six-submarine force for most of the 2030s.
With about half of the world’s submarines set to be concentrated within Australia’s potential area of operations by 2030, that isn’t likely to be enough. Australia’s strategic circumstances have already deteriorated since the 2016 Defence White Paper and the trend is unlikely to improve. Serious thought therefore needs to be given to accelerating the future submarine program, and towards boosting the numbers of submarines beyond the dozen currently envisaged.
According to Naval Group’s CEO, Brent Clark, it is possible to shave six months off the production schedule, from 24 months to 18 per hull, and to initiate production in parallel. Theoretically, that could bring forward the timeframe for delivering the future submarines by several years if the Government is willing to commit extra resources.
Are there other ways to increase the numbers? In September, Former Australian Public Service chief Michael Keating and Professor Hugh White argued that Australia should buy six submarines off-the-shelf to boost capability before the Collins replacement arrives in numbers. They said this would be cheaper than extending Collins into the 2030s. At the Goldrick Seminar, Sammut rejected this option on the grounds that no existing design meets Australia’s strategic requirement for a 'regionally superior' design.
Another possibility would be to supplement the Collins service-life extension by re-opening production of the Collins-class in Australia, with the goal of building up to three new boats before production of the Shortfin Barracuda ramps up. The attraction of this option, beyond delivering a capacity boost from a proven and familiar design, is the potential for flow-on benefits, since a skilled workforce could be concentrated at an earlier stage, then transition on to constructing the Future Submarine.
ASPI’s Andrew Davies also spoke, giving his assessment on the submarine’s future as a war-fighting platform. While Davies is generally sceptical about the long-term future of crewed platforms, in his view submarines remain the most survivable high-end naval platform at Australia’s disposal. In fact, as anti-access and denial technologies mature and become more prevalent across Australia’s region, submarines may become more important in the medium term and 'will have greater longevity than almost any other military platform' including the yet-to-be built future frigates. The oceans are not about to become transparent 'suddenly, or even soon'.
According to Davies, the nature of submarine operations is likely to change radically. Thus the last of Australia’s Future Submarines may be substantially different in capability and function from the first boat delivered. Large submarines will remain necessary for the type of long-distance operations Australia’s force will need to perform. But in future they will be likely to function as standoff platforms for launching underwater drones, which 'will be the platform of choice for operations in areas of significant risk, such as in littoral waters or choke points, where the adversary can focus its resources.'
James Goldrick argued against presenting submarines as a stand-alone capability solution to Australia’s strategic problems. Submarines have a high, if not unique, degree of autonomy, which gives them a 'strategic' quality in conventional deterrence terms. But they still function within a combined-arms and networked command and control environment. Submarines should not be seen as an alternative to surface ships, which are likely to have an enduring role despite their greater vulnerability to missile attack in particular.