Major wars in future will be fought remotely, with drones, long range missiles and satellites. Surface ships will be quickly destroyed while manned aircraft and ground forces will either be wiped out or not particularly useful.
Submarines that can remain undetected beneath the surface of the ocean, on the other hand, will be largely untouchable. Armed with a variety of weapons, they offer genuine deterrence backed by the capacity, if required, to inflict massive deadly force on an enemy.
Replacing Australia’s Collins Class submarines is therefore a matter of major concern, given that the country’s future may depend on them.
The Navy’s program to replace the Collins Class submarines is known as SEA 1000. It involves modification of a French Barracuda Class submarine from nuclear to diesel-electric propulsion, plus other changes specific to Australia.
The 12 new submarines, to be known as Shortfin Barracudas, are intended to begin entering service in the early 2030s with construction extending to 2050. The program is estimated to cost $50 billion and will be the largest and most complex defence acquisition project in Australian history.
For a country with limited financial resources and industrial capacity, the decision to develop an original design is high risk. This was highlighted in a timely Insight Economics report, released in September 2017, which said: “The capability requirements for the (future submarine) set out in the 2009 Defence White Paper… were highly ambitious… and any attempt to satisfy them with a (diesel-electric submarine) of a new and untested design, apart from being excessively expensive, would inevitably risk compromising the Submarine Force’s ability to discharge its most essential operational tasks.”
“Going forward with just one design has resulted in Defence gifting to Naval Group almost complete market power over capability, price and delivery. Should the design turn out to be inadequate or unworkable, the implications for Australia’s future submarine capability would be dire.”
Then there’s the decision to build them in Australia. The Abbott government’s 2016 Defence White Paper only committed to building them in Australia if it could be done without compromising capability, cost or project schedule. That changed because of South Australian politics, and the new submarines could now be more appropriately described as the Xenophon class.
Even if all goes well, the cost of building warships in Australia will be 30 to 40 per cent more than if they were built overseas. However, the plan to build them in Adelaide at the Australian Submarine Corporation, the same group currently building the Air Warfare Destroyer, years late and a billion dollars over budget, adds to a sense of foreboding.
This follows the prize fiasco of the Collins Class submarine project. Their construction by the Australian Submarine Corporation ran years behind schedule, many millions over budget, and finally delivered a platform that the Navy has struggled to even keep operational.
And then there is the question of whether the new submarines will arrive before the Collins Class subs are retired, scheduled for 2026 to 2033. Even if delivery occurs on schedule, the first will not enter service until 2033. At best there will be one new submarine in service and a nine year gap between the retirement of the Collins Class and the introduction into service of the first six of the twelve new submarines.
Given this, the government has apparently committed an additional $15 billion to keep the 30 year old Collins submarines bobbing in the water. It’s like refurbishing a World War 2 German U-Boat for the mid-1990s.
The elements are all there for the submarine replacement program to become the procurement scandal of the century. Our Shortfin Barracudas will probably be the most expensive submarines ever built anywhere in the world.
For a lot less money, we could achieve a far more potent submarine capability. For example, off-the-shelf Japanese Soryu submarines cost only US$540 million. Modified to meet additional Navy requirements, they were quoted as costing A$750 million. If we simply bought twelve of those, the total cost to the taxpayer would be less than A$10 billion.
Equally, the existing nuclear Barracudas only cost $2 billion each, so we could get twelve of those for $24 billion.
For such an important defence capability, the government’s failure to guarantee Australia is protected by submarines is nothing less than gross negligence.
David Leyonhjelm is a senator for the Liberal Democrats