Does Australia need ‘interim’ submarines to tide it over until nuclear boats arrive? A defence expert explains
Last year experts raised their eyebrows when the Morrison government announced Australia would abandon its contract for French-built Attack class submarines, in favour of eight nuclear-powered submarines delivered under the AUKUS partnership.
Retired Royal Australian Navy Chief Petty Officer Greg Jones was one key individual who questioned whether the choice is appropriate for Australia’s defence needs (at least in the short to medium term).
One particularly controversial point is the time it will take for the nuclear submarines to become operational. Most estimates indicate they won’t enter service until the 2040s.
The Australian Industry Defence Network is now calling for an “interim submarine” class to be purchased to plug the gap. But what would this even look like?
Why are there calls for an interim submarine?
In its contract with France, Australia intended to purchase up to 12 Attack class boats at a cost of up to A$90 billion.
The Morrison government justified its decision to pull out of the deal by arguing the conventional diesel-electric submarines would be obsolete by the time they became operational in the early to mid-2030s. This is despite Defence insisting for years they were appropriate.
The former government said Australia would need more survivable and longer-range nuclear-powered boats to overcome the “narrowing” of the “technological edge enjoyed by Australia and our partners”.
While not overtly mentioned, this was a thinly veiled statement that it intended to counter the potential threat of an increasingly confident and capable China.
In some respects, the cancellation of the Attack class was justified. The development of the project had been rocky for some time. There were allegations of cost blowouts and time-frame issues, leading to questions about whether the submarines would indeed become obsolete not long after entering service.
Given submarines provide a significant contribution to Australia’s military deterrent, a potential capability gap is receiving a lot of attention. But there are several arguments regarding how the gap should be addressed (or whether it can be).
Why the Australia-France submarine deal collapse was predictable
What might an interim class look like?
There are persuasive arguments both for, and against, the adoption of an interim capability until the future nuclear-powered boats enter service. Advocates argue Australia’s current Collins class won’t be enough to face more modern technology entering service in the Indo-Pacific region.
Former Royal Australian Navy submariners have written to Defence Minister Richard Marles, arguing Australia faces an important decision: to operate the Collins class for longer than intended (and likely longer than it will remain capable), or purchase an interim capability.
In contrast, senior figures in Defence, including Navy Chief Vice-Admiral Mike Noonan, have rejected the idea an interim capability is required. One argument is that it wouldn’t be viable to operate a third class of submarine, given the small size of the Australian Navy.
Another difficult question is what the interim capability would be. Some argue for a modernised and refurbished Collins class, or a new “son of Collins” class.
According to Lars Tossman, head of business at Swedish company Saab Kockums (the designer of the Collins class), the current A-26 submarine design could be adapted for Australia’s interim needs as a more modern “son of Collins” class submarine.
However, both prospects appear to be at risk due to Australia’s naval ship builder, ASC Corporation. ASC has so far refused to work closely with Saab Kockums for a Collins class refurbishment. The program could potentially extend the operational lifespan of Australia’s existing Collins class by up to a decade.
Even if the current Collins class boats are modernised, Australia’s ability to operate and deploy them is questionable. Some assessments indicate that out of the six boats available, only a handful are available for deployment at any one time.
Difficulty sticking to plans
Another issue is the Defence department’s recent track record in relation to procurement, with several prominent purchases suffering significant issues.
For instance, the Hunter class frigate currently in development has been revealed to be underpowered and arguably too lightly armed for Australia’s needs. The Boxer class combat reconnaissance vehicle has cost almost $2 billion, yet only 25 training vehicles have been delivered. And of course the cancellation of the Attack class submarines cost more than $4 billion (including the cost of the program before cancellation) – with nothing to show for it.
These examples call into question Defence’s decision-making capabilities. These issues are particularly concerning given that the scope of the AUKUS nuclear submarine project vastly exceeds any previous procurement.
Another significant procurement could lead to more delays and cost blowouts, even if only for an interim measure. This could detract focus and funding from other important projects.
Looking to the US for help
Another option, recently hinted at by opposition leader and former defence minister Peter Dutton, is the United States may be willing to sell two Virginia class submarines (the increasingly preferred nuclear-powered submarine option) “off the shelf” at some point in the next eight years – and supply personnel to serve on the vessels and train Australian crews.
In effect, this handful of nuclear-powered boats would accelerate the AUKUS procurement. The plan would go some way towards addressing the capability gap, but is reliant on the US providing the submarines and crew. Yet the US is struggling to meet its own demand for the Virginia class.
The cost of procuring the Virginia class has been estimated to be between A$117 billion and $171 billion. Given the expenses involved in procuring nuclear-powered submarines, it would ultimately be a better option than trying to develop or purchase yet another submarine class in the interim, particularly one that would only be a temporary measure.
But even this option raises questions. Experts argue if the US were willing to provide two nuclear boats off the shelf, Australia lacks the naval support to operate them. Peter Briggs, former head of the Navy’s submarine capability program, said this capability would take 10-15 years to develop.
Unfortunately, there’s no simple solution. And it seems Marles will face a difficult decision no matter which way he turns.
The AUKUS pact, born in secrecy, will have huge implications for Australia and the region