Time for decisions on navy’s new submarine fleet
When new personnel board one of the Royal Australian Navy’s Collins-class submarines, the crew has a novel way of outlining the high stakes of operating beneath the sea. As a senior naval officer once explained to me at Australia’s West Coast submarine base, a piece of string will be stretched taut between two points on the submarine’s hull and anchored with Blu Tack. As the boat dives the tremendous pressure on the hull makes the string droop. Hapless first-time passengers can but stare at the ceiling and hope that the vessel’s construction and servicing will keep them safe.
In submarine operations, reliability is everything, routine is anything but, and danger can arrive quickly. In 2011 one of Australia’s submarines was near Rottnest Island in Western Australia after recently having come out of a dry-dock maintenance period. An electrical fault, combined with the failure of a recently replaced power unit, caused the submarine to lose all propulsion and sink towards the ocean floor. Within 60 seconds the submarine had plunged from periscope depth to nearly 200 metres. Control was regained through an emergency surfacing procedure, but not before some crew had reconciled that they would not survive the descent. No one is taking a keener interest in the current zigzagging political debate on Australia’s future submarines than those sailors who might put to sea in them a decade or more hence.
Running a submarine fleet is an incredibly complex and dangerous business and few navies do it well. Imagine designing a passenger jet able to withstand the tremendous pressures of deep water. Throw in the need to operate near-silently, process constant streams of data, and speed off when detected, and all while withstanding the corrosive effects of saltwater for nearly half a decade. That’s before you consider that Australia’s submarine must be capable of doing all that while being attacked by an adversary.
Most countries operate fleets of small submarines in nearby coastal waters. Only a few, such as Australia, operate more advanced submarines that can patrol far from home for weeks on end. Most of those sophisticated submarine fleets are propelled by onboard nuclear reactors. Australia currently operates six diesel-propelled submarines that are among the most capable non-nuclear boats in the world. But they are ageing and must start to be replaced by 2030. Back in the 1980s it took five years to decide who would build the Collins-class submarines and 12 more to build them. Now the Department of Defence is fast running out of time to make a decision on a replacement submarine.
The future submarine decision is the biggest capital expenditure that this Commonwealth government will make – priced somewhere between $20 billion and $40 billion. Getting it right is crucial to underpin an effective Australian Defence Force in 2030.
The strategic imperatives for purchasing an advanced submarine fleet are clear. As a maritime trading nation, Australia is heavily reliant on maintaining security of the high seas, and free and open shipping lanes. A submarine fleet is the best way to complicate the ambitions of any country that might want to coerce Australia by threatening our maritime trade. That’s not likely in today’s strategic environment, but the future submarine will be operating past 2050. Defence planners would be negligent if they assumed our region then would be so benign as to not require a capable defence force. Nearly every naval power in Asia is increasing its submarine force over the next two decades, suggesting our neighbours aren’t willing to bet on a benign Indo-Pacific in the future either.
In the near term, submarines allow Australia a covert reconnaissance and intelligence advantage. They were instrumental in preparations for the East Timor intervention in 1999 and could be used in response to threats ranging from terrorist attacks on oil platforms in north-west Australia through to failed states in the south-west Pacific.
But which submarine does Australia need to build? The Rudd and Gillard governments had no answer to this question, though it was then prime minister Kevin Rudd who personally shaped the 2009 defence white paper’s recommendation that Australia double the size of its submarine fleet. The Abbott government committed to ending this indecision at the 2013 election, but overpromised by committing to deliver a future submarine decision within 18 months and to centre the work on South Australia’s shipyards. That task has proved harder than expected, frustrated in part by the very poor performance of the same South Australian shipyard in building three large air warfare destroyers for the navy.
The position Australia finds itself in on submarines is vexing. We need a large submarine that is fully interoperable with the United States Navy’s fleet, but cannot buy US submarines because they are nuclear. Most submarine countries operate their own national champion submarine builders. Australia has tried hard to build a hub of shipbuilding expertise at the ASC’s (formerly the Australian Submarine Corporation’s) Port Adelaide facilities, through international partnerships and a steady stream of maintenance work on the Collins-class submarines. While there is shipbuilding excellence and highly skilled personnel to be found at ASC, neither is on a scale sufficient to underpin an entirely local submarine program. Tellingly, for the decades and taxpayer billions invested in defence shipbuilding in South Australia, ASC has only ever been productive enough to export a handful of minor patrol boats to the Royal Thai Navy and Hong Kong police.
For strategic reasons, chiefly hedging against the possibility of major conflict, Australia will need to retain some domestic capacity to maintain submarines. And maintaining a submarine is almost as complex as building one. When ASC conducts a full maintenance cycle for the Collins-class submarine it takes two years and essentially involves cutting the submarine in half and replacing a majority of components throughout the boat. So this is not so much a debate about whether the Commonwealth will continue to support a domestic submarine industry, but to what degree.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott wants to pursue an innovative solution that would see the Japanese Sōryū-class submarine design adapted for Australian conditions. This is attractive because of the close interoperability between the Japanese and US navies, the sophistication of Japanese submarine propulsion technology, and the shared views on international security harboured by Abbott and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe.
But it is also risky, not least because deepened Japanese–Australian defence co-operation will almost certainly annoy China, but also because Japan has never before exported such high-end defence technology and some in the Japanese government and defence industry are hesitant to do so now. Japan proceeded cautiously on its recent constitutional reinterpretation, reforming constraints on the Japanese Self-Defence Forces. Even with the full support of Abe and Abbott, there will be structural roadblocks on the Japanese side as to how quickly any submarine deal could proceed. Despite a flurry of visits by Japanese officials to Port Adelaide, including a delegation of Japanese union officials to their Australian counterparts, the Japanese option might not come soon enough for the Royal Australian Navy.
If a deal is achieved, Australia’s strategic fortunes will be tied to those of Japan for decades hence. There is some logic in that: after all, Japan is a successful democracy and important trading partner for Australia. But Japan could also be but one miscalculation away from a hot territorial dispute with China, over the contested Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, for example. For that reason, some within Australia’s strategic community have strong views that a European submarine would present a better alternative.
A range of European submarines come with fewer geopolitical strings attached. Concepts are on offer from Sweden, Germany, France and Spain. But each would require substantial design modification in order to be suitable for the wide range of sea conditions and climates that Australian submariners operate in. And each of these options would need close and constant work to ensure it is compatible with the US-designed combat operating system that the future submarine will need. The Australian government will need to pay substantial money, perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars, to a select few of these companies to work up their designs to the point where a competitive evaluation can be made. The French submarine, for example, has never been constructed before and would be bespoke for Australian needs. All involve serious risk of construction delay and cost overrun.
The right submarine solution will involve at least one tradeoff between cost, strategy, domestic jobs and independence of foreign policy. It could involve tradeoffs in all those areas. But despite the years of technical deliberation on the subject by defence and industry experts, the decision as to which submarine Australia should buy must rest at the political level with the national security committee of cabinet. That’s because only political leaders can decide when and where Australians might be willing to use military force in the future.
The past few weeks have made it clear that parliament needs to do more homework on Australia’s future submarine. But the clock is ticking and if we are to avoid sending future submariners to sea in substandard boats, decisions must be made now. For all the dangers inherent in choosing the best way forward on submarines, the worst decision from this government would be no decision at all.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 21, 2015 as "Below-water matters ". Subscribe here.