This week the Melbourne Age, SMH and the Canberra Times carried the following article written by Jon Stanford and Michael Keating on the $50 b. submarine project. This article is based on a three part article written by Jon Stanford and posted in Pearls and irritations. See link to three articles below. John Menadue
The 2016 Defence white paper proposes a substantial increase in expenditure on major assets for the Australian Defence Force. The largest item, and the most costly acquisition ever for the ADF, is the $50 billion project for 12 future submarines.
This project raises major concerns related to its cost, timelines and the possibility that Australia will be left with no effective submarine capability for a decade or more.
First, at $4.2 billion for a conventional submarine (SSK), the cost is unacceptably high. The improved Soryu class SSKs now being built in Japan cost about $720 million each. The latest nuclear attack submarines (SSNs) of the Virginia class (US) and Astute class (Britain), much larger and more capable than the FSM, currently cost about $3.85 billion and less than $2 billion each respectively.
Second, since the white paper posits a clear strategic need for the capability and the navy’s existing submarines are obsolescent, the delay in acquiring the FSM until the early 2030s seems excessively risky. A submarine purchased on a military off-the-shelf (MOTS) basis could be delivered at least 10 years earlier.
Third, the delay means that the obsolescent Collins-class submarines will need to be upgraded, with the details, including the cost, yet to be specified. One former captain of the Collins considers it is not feasible to upgrade the class to contemporary standards and that such a project would be “throwing good money after bad”. The risk of an unsuccessful outcome leading to a 10-year gap in effective submarine capability is very high.
These three substantial problems arise because of Defence’s assumption that Australia has a unique requirement for submarine capability that can be met only by a new design. This is because no current design of SSK would have the range to undertake extended offensive patrols in the South China Sea, regarded by Defence as a key role for the FSM.
Yet the risks involved in developing a unique platform for the ADF and integrating new leading-edge systems are well known from past experience. The costs of commissioning a unique design for the Collins-class submarines, as well as of sustaining them, have been substantial. Before we go down that high-risk path again, at a vastly higher cost, we need to ensure that a more efficient solution is not available.
While the navy’s requirement for submarine capability is ambitious, it is by no means unique. Its requirement, for example, is similar to that of the British and French navies. The problem is that its ambitious capability requirement for force projection in contested waters far from home points to a need for nuclear submarines (SSNs), which both the British and French navies have operated for many decades.
The white paper states that the FSM will be technologically superior to other submarines in the region. This is not accurate. Other navies in the Asia-Pacific, including those of Russia, China and India, already deploy SSNs and are in the process of acquiring more, of advanced design. China will have up to nine SSNs by 2020 and many more by the early 2030s.
Although quiet, a SSK can never rival a nuclear submarine in the vital areas of underwater speed and endurance. If an Australian SSK were detected and attacked by a hostile SSN or by surface ships, it would not be capable of the sustained speed required to offer some reasonable chance of escape.
This is hardly news to the defence community. For example, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), in proposing the operational characteristics required by the FSM, suggested its analysis “pretty much says ‘SSN’, but that’s not going to happen”. Indeed, former defence minister David Johnston belled the cat by saying: “ideally we are seeking a comparable capability to a nuclear submarine with diesel-electric motors”.
Unfortunately, such a submarine is a fantasy. If the government is determined to operate submarines in the South China Sea in support of the Americans, we should make it clear that Australia’s participation is contingent on the US allowing Australia to acquire nuclear submarines (as agreed for Canada in 1988, although never taken up).
On the other hand, if Australia cannot or will not acquire nuclear submarines, then it should abandon the ambition of projecting offensive power against a major adversary in far-off contested waters. As ASPI has pointed out, there is no evidence that the US expects the ADF to undertake this task, which, in reality is a great power role.
Abandoning this force projection mission makes the capability requirement much more straightforward. Other roles include sea denial in the approaches to Australia, together with intelligence gathering and surveillance in our region. Indeed, a smaller SSK, readily available off-the-shelf, is better suited than a large boat to these tasks. We may need six submarines, delivered in the early 2020s at a total acquisition cost of less than $6 billion. Combined with the savings from not upgrading Collins, the budget would be more than $45 billion better off than under the current $50 billion proposal.
Of course, Australian industry participation is a good thing provided it’s competitive and does not compromise defence requirements. In supporting South Australian jobs, however, it makes no sense to let the car industry go and then replace it with a more highly protected industry with significantly less spillover value. If ASC could deliver six SSKs in the early 2020s on a fixed-price contract within 5 per cent or so of a MOTS price, then by all means go for it provided the risks are managed appropriately. But otherwise, let’s bank the $45 billion or so saved by an overseas acquisition, minimise the risks and let Adelaide be content with the $30 billion project to build nine frigates, as promised in the White Paper. ASC would also be tasked with sustaining the new submarines, at a through life value much higher than the acquisition cost.
Jon Stanford and Michael Keating are directors of Insight Economics. Previously they worked together in the Prime Minister’s Department, where Dr Keating was Secretary. Longer articles on this topic first appeared on the Pearls and Irritations policy blog.