Yesterday it was announced in The Australian that Peter Dutton is contemplating “fast tracked and comprehensive rebuilds of the navy’s six Collins-class boats”. It is expected that this retrofit will cost up to $1.5b per boat and won’t be completed until at least 2032.
This intervention is an indictment on both the Department of Defence and the Turnbull Government that approved the French submarine program, which Dutton is reported to quite rightly regard as “a mess”.
This was an entirely foreseeable “mess” and in fact former senior public servants John Stanford and Mike Keating forewarned this would happen 5 years ago in a series of articles posted on johnmnedue.com. (here, here, here, and here).
In short, they argued that there was little strategic rational for Australia to require a submarine fleet capable of force projection in far-off contested waters (i.e. South China Sea). This, they argued was in essence a great power role and as they noted at the time (citing ASPI) there was no evidence the US was looking for the RAN to undertake this role.
To the contrary, the US was in effect dissuading Australia from attempting this role by virtue of the fact that it opposed Australia acquiring its own superior Virginia class nuclear submarine (SSN). This is because only a SSN could provide the type of force projection capability in for-off contested waters with a regional margin of safety.
Stanford and Keating quite correctly identified the critical strategic issue at play. If Australia could not acquire or would not acquire nuclear submarines it needed to change its military strategy from long-range force projection to more defensive capabilities such as sea denial in the approaches to Australia, as well as intelligence and surveillance roles within our immediate region.
Once you accept this strategic reality the case for a military off the shelf solution (MOTS) was obvious. Australia could have acquired technologically superior conventional submarines at under $1b per boat, delivered in the early to mid-twenties and in the process avoided a necessary, expensive and arguably futile upgrade of the Collins class submarines.
Instead of facing reality, Australia opted for a bespoke design and built submarine that attempted to square the circle by delivering an impossible comparable capability to a nuclear submarine but with diesel-electric motors. This was always a technology fantasy and hence why no such boat exists.
The price of this fantasy is tens of billions of dollars wasted on a high risk project that even if the submarines work and can be maintained as designed (a big if) will be inferior to Chinese and Russian nuclear submarines by the time they are deployed, which in any event will likely be many years late, amplifying Australia’s already pronounced capability gap due to obsolescence of the Collins class submarines that no amount of retrofitting can overcome.
Had the Turnbull Government prioritised the national interest above its own, Australia would already have (or very soon have) a regionally superior conventional submarine fleet (e.g. Soryu class) that would have fully replaced the obsolescent Collins class fleet. We are paying a completely unacceptable price in both economic and national security terms for keeping Christopher Pyne and Malcolm Turnbull in parliament for a few more years who sold out Australia’s national interest with nothing more than a grandiose work for the dole programme for South Australia to win a few seats.
Almost every aspect of the French submarine program points to highly questionable and arguably inept decision-making by both the Turnbull Government and the Department of Defence.
The strategic goal of force projection in far-off waters necessitated a SSN but they opted for SSK. They misjudged the immediacy of potential conflict which has left Australia with a critical capability gap. They have embarked on a high risk, high cost project that will not deliver a regionally superior submarine fleet when completed. That alone fails a cost-benefit test. The Life of Type Extension program being contemplated by Dutton would have been unnecessary had the right strategic decision been made from the beginning. At $1.5b per boat the LOTE program is arguably more expensive and will arguably take just as long as acquiring a technologically / capability superior MOTS solution (e.g. Soryu).
Dutton needs to go back to the drawing board because as it stands Australian defence policy is all at sea and the proposed LOTE of the Collins fleet is most likely throwing good money after bad.
That was certainly the opinion of former Collins class Commender, James Harrap who as far back as 2012 wrote about the then revolutionary advances in submarine technology (e.g. batteries, electric motors, air-independent propulsion, sonars and electro-optics) rendering then the Collins class fleet obsolete. He stated:
“These changes have been significant and whilst it may be possible (though very costly) to keep Collins operational for another decade or more, most advances can’t be retrofitted and the boat will most likely be so technically obsolete by 2022 that the credibility of the capability it offers will be seriously eroded. … The boats must be sustained in the short term, but I do not believe a service life extension for Collins is even possible, much less recommended” (my emphasis).
Dutton would be wise to consult widely before rushing into the LOTE program.