Australia’s future submarines: Do we need a Plan B?

Australia’s $80 billion Future Submarine project is “extravagantly expensive, highly risky” and the country is not only set for a submarine capability gap, it also faces a “high risk” that the entire project will fail.

This is according to a report commissioned by the Submarines for Australia group (Link) that was unveiled today. The report, prepared by Insight Economics, also called for alternative plans to be put in place to mitigate this possibility, including kicking off plans to eventually acquire nuclear submarines.

Submarines for Australia, which claimed that its report was “supported by an expert reference group that includes four retired admirals”, noted in a news release that France’s Naval Group, after initially promising 90 per cent local content, has since shown an “extremely low level of commitment” to Australian industry participation in the project.

The French company won the competition to build Australia’s 12 future Attack-class submarine under the SEA 1000 project in 2016 with its offering of the Shortfin Barracuda design, an evolution of France’s nuclear-powered Barracuda-class boats.

The French beat out competition from Germany’s TKMS which offered the long-range Type 216 boat, and Japan which offered a version of its Soryu-class submarines.

The future submarine’s budget also came under attack in the new release, which noted that “the budget jumped by 60 per cent in two years and that already two project milestones have been missed.”

Submarines for Australia is suggesting what it calls “Plan B”, which would see the government “commission Saab Kockums, designers of the Navy’s existing submarines, to develop a preliminary design study (PDS) for an evolved version of the successful Collins class submarine”.

The company which would then present it along side a similar study from Naval Group in 2022-23 “together with a fixed price tender for building the first batch of three submarines in Adelaide. The selection between the two designs would then be based on capability, delivery and local content, as well as price.”

Submarines for Australia also called for the review of submarine technologies flagged in the last Defence White Paper should be brought forward to the present, questioning if the planned future submarines “will even be fit for purpose in the 2030s and beyond.”

Gary Johnston, who founded Submarines for Australia, cautioned that with “China seeking to deny access to the South China Sea by investing heavily in advanced ships, aircraft and satellites…by the 2030s our submarines’ effectiveness and survivability in a high intensity theatre will be threatened.”

He added that “if the government wants to continue deploying submarines to this theatre alongside the US Navy, the nation’s duty of care to the dedicated men and women of the ADF means we will need to begin the long and difficult process of acquiring nuclear powered submarines”.

He acknowledged that carrying out such a plan would not be easy, owing to Australia’s “very small nuclear industry”. Not mentioned was the lack of appetite in our political scene or public sentiment for such an endeavour, although Johnston pledged to endowing a Chair in nuclear engineering at an Australian university if the government accepts this proposal.

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Kym Bergmann
Kym Bergmann is the editor for Asia Pacific Defence Reporter (APDR) and Defence Review Asia (DRA). He has more than 25 years of experience in journalism and the defence industry. After graduating with honours from the Australian National University, he joined Capital 7 television, holding several positions including foreign news editor and chief political correspondent. During that time he also wrote for Business Review Weekly, undertaking analysis of various defence matters.After two years on the staff of a federal minister, he moved to the defence industry and held senior positions in several companies, including Blohm+Voss, Thales, Celsius and Saab. In 1997 he was one of two Australians selected for the Thomson CSF 'Preparation for Senior Management' MBA course. He has also worked as a consultant for a number of companies including Raytheon, Tenix and others. He has served on the boards of Thomson Sintra Pacific and Saab Pacific.


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