When the new A26 class become available later this decade, the Royal Swedish Navy (RSwN) will be operating three generations of submarines simultaneously. These classes will be the Gotland, Soerdermanland, and the technologically revolutionary A26 itself, with the first two currently being constructed by Saab Kockums. At the same time Gotlands are undergoing a major upgrade and technology refresh that will keep them current until 2040.
These simple facts alone make a complete nonsense of the argument put forward by the leadership of the RAN and various Defence bureaucrats that it is impossible for Australia to order interim submarines because that is complex and requires effort. You know, doing something for which you are being paid. This reflects the deeply entrenched do-nothing, know-nothing culture of a service that has grown complacent and is happy to deprive itself of a capability that will potentially leave Australia helpless in the 2030s.
Swedish submarines are much smaller than Australia’s and do not require particularly long range or endurance because their focus is on operations in the Baltic Sea. This is an extremely challenging environment, being mainly shallow and with waters that vary greatly in temperature and salinity, making detection and counter-detection difficult. It is also a dangerous environment with an estimated 60,000 uncleared potentially lethal sea mines left over from the First and Second World Wars – any one of which could sink an unwary submarine.
There have been other times in recent history when the RSwN has operated three classes. A similar confluence of circumstances existed in the 1990s when the Nacken, Vastergotland and Gotland classes were all simultaneously in service.
The RSwN has a full-time complement of 4,000 and each year has started to receive an addition 600 conscripts with no previous training. Currently the RAN has a complement 15,285 – and that number is set to rise steadily in the coming years. If Sweden not only manages to operate three classes – and welcomes the additional capability and training opportunities that structure brings – there is absolutely no reason why the RAN with four times as many people cannot gear up to do precisely the same thing.
Writing in The Australian newspaper, one of Australia’s most respected analysts Greg Sheridan published a powerful open letter to the government calling on it to take charge of the RAN and just get it done. Navy submarine veterans have started doing the same thing. The clock is ticking and new Defence Minister Richard Marles has repeatedly identified addressing the potential capability gap between the Collins class and a future nuclear powered submarine as his most urgent issue. Indeed, it is – and pressure is growing.
Saab-Kockums is the designer and builder of the Collins class. It has also designed and built every submarine for the RSwN for the past century. The company should never have been excluded from the competition to supply an Australian built new generation submarine – and it is a complete mystery why Defence and the government of Tony Abbott did exactly that. They should be re-engaged as soon as possible to scope the build of a much larger version of the A26 – which is basically a New Generation Collins – that could be constructed at Osbourne in Adelaide without further delay. Having toured the company’s very modern construction facilities at Karlskrona in Sweden, we can report that there is nothing there that could not be speedily replicated in Australia.
The company would not be drawn on a possible timeline for an Australian build, presumably because they did not want to offend the sensitive souls in the RAN whose feelings would be hurt by discussing something implicitly critical of their planning. However, with some knowledge of these things, with sufficient willpower, dynamic management – and, yes, money – there could be new submarines in the water later this decade or in the early 2030s.
The situation facing Australia is perilous. The Collins class start to receive their Life Of Type Extensions (LOTE) from 2026 onwards. This means that each submarine will be taken out of service, have the hull cut in two and most of the major machinery items removed and replaced. As previous upgrades – such as to the RAN’s Adelaide class FFG fleet – tell us, these things always take more time than planned because once work starts new things that need to be fixed are always discovered.
Each Collins is scheduled to be out of service for two years – meaning until 2038 Australia will only have five functioning submarines. Using the accepted 3-to-1 rule for the availability of naval platforms – some will be in maintenance, some crews will be receiving training, some might have experienced a malfunction – it is entirely possible that there will be times when the RAN will only have one or two Collins class able to go to sea.
This is clearly an unacceptable strategic risk with nuclear submarines only likely to become available in the 2040s – if then. It’s also worth keeping in mind that the FFG program was a disaster, running four years late and with the number being upgraded reduced from six to four. If the Collins LOTE experiences similar problems, then the RAN – and Australia – really will be stuck up the proverbial creek without a paddle.
As governments keep reminding us, their fundamental duty is to protect the nation from external threats. It is time for Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Defence Minister Marles to end the insanity and direct Defence to make an interim submarine their number one priority and to focus enough resources to get it done. The nuclear power task force can keep happily beavering away with their long-term studies and plans while others actually get on with the job of keeping Australia safe.
Three or more classes of submarines are operated by: the USN; France; India; Japan; Russia; China; and South Korea. Further articles will explore this topic, especially from the Swedish perspective in greater detail.
(Editor’s Note: Kym Bergmann travelled to Sweden as a guest of Saab-Kockums on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of the RSwN. He would particularly like to thank Conal Walker and Charlotte Nilsson for their professionalism and hard work.)
There was a similar capability gap around the time the Collins class was introduced. The last of the Oberons was decommissioned in 1999 but various problems prevented the Collins class from achieving full operational capability until 2004.
That it was allowed to happen again is unforgivable.
Realistically I am not sure what can be done at this stage. Had we continued with Attack Class it still may have been around the mid 30s before we saw the first boat commissioned. Basically starting all over again probably wouldn’t achieve better results.
The only way I can see new boats, built in Australia and delivered by the mid thirties would be the Collins class with minimal changes to its current design.
Yes I agree an interim submarine solution has always been a must given the nuclear challenge and timeframe. However, I would favor a domestically evolved Collins based on the LOTE upgrades rather than a new design such as A26. Proposing this way would demand evaluation of all other available solutions which could lead us back to France and the Attack class. I think we might agree this would make us look rather stupid. However, the main reason to avoid another evaluation is we don’t have the time and need to get along with construction and delivery ASAP.
Right now we are constructing OPV’s which Defence does not view as a combatant and therefore does not contribute to deterrence at all. Yet daily we hear of new dimensions to the threat. You might be right to call that insanity?
Absolutely agree. Advance Collins with advanced stirling air independent engines as developed by Kochums/Saab are exactly what Aust needs not just as interim gap fillers but permanently. And we can build them now!!! The only.purpose of nuclear powered subs is to assist uncle sam in its planned war with China. That is something Aust should definetly reject.
For once I’m in total agreement with Mr Bergman. An interim submarine must be started ASAP but I think waiting For a new design (A26) why not investigate the Sth Korean KSS III. It has less range than the Collins but the VLS cells sound intriguing. Also in its favour is the project that is looking at a Nuclear version ( similar to the French) But with USN assistance the major integration of systems should go smoother. It’s at least worth considering…
Kym, a poorly written article (clearly influenced by the interests of your hosts) . You give no acknowledgement and make no mention of ASC who were in fact the builder of the Collins Class. This is clearly a puff piece on Saab . Poor journalism
The article was about Sweden, not ASC. ASC was established by Kockums, which was a major shareholder in it.
What capabilities, not platforms, do we need from new submarines? For electronic and visual surveillance we surveillance we are in 2-3 years of getting both the Triton and Peregrine. In just the last few months we have ordered 3 classes of unmanned underwater vehicles with ranges up to 5000Km with capability for underwater and electronic surveillance and we are finally fitting the ANZAC class with passive and active towed arrays. For anti-surface vessel attack we have the LRASM being fitted to the Super Hornets and with USN contract to be fitted to the P-8s. For covert surveillance we have F-35s with future prospect for LRASM of JSM fit.
I think you are correct bringing this up. As far as I can tell, there has been no serious cost-benefit analysis into any of the submarine decisions – either the one to purchase the Attack class or the new one to aim for nuclear propulsion. If anyone can explain how Australia benefits from being able to conduct extended patrols in the South China Sea for +$100 billion, feel free to enlighten me. There are several choke points closer to home that could be monitored. Or the easiest solution of all is to build a submarine refuelling facility on Christmas island.
Yes, this whole thing about sitting and waiting in the South China Sea annoys me. Reduce the total number of nuke subs to 4-6(instead of having 8-10), have the u.s build them on the new production line over time., save 70-90 billion dollars and build a large D/E fleet for use in Australian waters and outlying choke points and then ditch the Collins.
Very wise words. Also build a refuelling station on Christmas Island and equip the diesel electric submarines with AIP. That would totally alter the regional dynamic.
Why is everyone leaving the Attack Class out? A lot of work has already been done, so why spend more resources in adapting yet another design to RAN requirements? For an interim solution, I reckon six boats will suffice, therefore cost would be lower.
I don’t think a lot of work was done on the Attack class. The French had no intention of building those subs. They were half arsing the whole show until we paid them to go away, then they played the damsel in distress. Yet they still profited . The French knew it & so did Scumbag ScoMo.
That’s also my impression. Another reader asked the question: why not simply restart the Attack program. The Attack class still had a long way to go because the methodology being followed by the RAN meant that we were basically starting with a blank sheet of paper moving from nuclear propulsion to conventional. At least the A26 is in production – and Saab-Kockums + ASC had actually conducted quite a bit of work on a New Generation Collins until, bizarrely, that was dropped as an option.
Please see one of my earlier replies. I think Attack is still quite an immature design, which is why it was going to take until about 2032 to get it in the water. A26 / New Generation Collins is a bit more advanced. Collins is an enlarged Vastergotland class – the contract was signed in 1987 and the first of class was launched in Adelaide in 1993.
An enlarged type 212CD, the size of a type 216 has so much more potential than an A26 ER imo.
Happy to have the debate about which one – as long as we get something. I saw the comment in yesterday’s The Australian from ex-Defence Minister Dutton saying that the advice from the experts is that conventional submarines will not survive in the South China Sea after the early 2030s. If that was the expert advice, why did he go ahead and approve the Collins LOTE? I would also ask the unnamed experts why numerous other countries plan to operate conventional submarines in the South China Sea indefinitely. These include: Singapore; Taiwan; Malaysia; Indonesia; Japan; South Korea – and China.
No doubt Australia needs new submarines,but do we need the submarines defence says they need.This need to have the very best is what created the disaster with the French design,thier is absolutely nothing wrong with Japanese,Korean or a son of Collins for our future needs,nuclear boats will be 20 years away before they are available in any number and at a huge expense for a country frankly not suited to operate them 6-12subs can only ever be in 6-12 locations at any one time ,half of them being thier home port. our waters are huge compared to most countries.australian defence needs to come back to reality. we cannot afford a huge fleet of billion dollars subs to have the luxury of patrolling the South China sea, it’s an unaffordable pipe dream. if Australia wants to project power out into these areas clearly a fleet of 30 b21 bombers would be far more cost efficient,adaptable platform ,timely on delivery and probably most important of all it would seem the RAAF would have no trouble at all producing crews for them.the biggest problem Australia faces with submarines is frankly Australians are not keen on spending months at a time under the ocean away from thier families in a tin can.Its time Australia’s defence force comes back to reality . Australian nuclear submarines patrolling the South chine sea is just ridiculous, hence why no submarine has ever materialised yet to meet thier needs, it’s just fanciful and unaffordable for a nation of fifty million people.australia is not a super power or even a near peer to a super power.
I agree. See some of my other comments. No one has been able to explain to me why Australia benefits from conducted extended patrols in the South China Sea. The entire range/endurance problem could be fixed by building a submarine refuelling base on Christmas Island.
Re the South China Sea patrols, I think its about projecting a covert strike capability to deter China. Subs being preferred over surface warships or to a lesser extent aircraft because of China’s powerful missile/aircraft based A2AD systems.
Thanks – yes that’s also my guess about what motivates our strategic planners, but Australia permanently parking a fleet of missile carrying submarines off China’s coast doesn’t strike me as a particularly reasonable thing to do, especially when the cost will be around $200 billion and take +25 years to achieve. All of Australia’s strategic issues could be addressed by having a refuelling base on Christmas Island and equipping conventional submarines with Air Independent Propulsion.
It sadens me to say we cant even have fuel security in our own country let alone Christmas Isd. The Collins was so efficient AIP was deemed not relevant. Besides Lithium Batteries would give greater range and not waste space with the AIP and all the downsides with it. The latest Jap sub has LI batteries and ownly has one period of indiscretion the whole patrol.
Kym your argument is absolutely spot on .
We are already deficient in our current submarines force.
Haveing the A26 with modern long range misiles weapons .
Makes perfect sense and they could be a deterrent force complimenting the Nuclear IF they even get built.the Nuclear force would be in the offensive role.
3 extra AWD Destroyers should immediately be started Navantia are keen to supply them .
Because exactly the situation that is occurring with the subs.in our type 26 Frigates delays and there is only so much you can get out of the Anzac frigates.
China is our biggest navel threat and we are acting like it’s going away.
It won’t and pretty soon we will have floatilas up and down our west and east coats with little to counter.
would we not be better off increasing the VLS capacity on the hunters if possible, building more hunters (9 current to 15+) and ditching the hobarts in 2045. Have a ship that can do the lot, instead of 2 classes.
Any increase in the VLS capacity of the Hunter class would be very welcome.
Why do we need MANNED submarines? For a fraction of the price we could purchase ORCA’s and have them fitted with minelaying and middle/torpedo capabilities. You may have to make them larger for their roles, but the basic design is already in place.
I agree – this is something that needs to be progressed asap. The $140 million deal with Anduril is interesting. I suspect that the best mix will be crewed submarines + UUVs. Here again the A26 is interesting because it has a 130cm UUV portal in the bow. Bizarrely the RAN never wanted the Attack class to have this feature, nor did they want AIP.
It’s time for Australia to go nuclear, China only respect’s nuclear, let’s get some even on old submarines, and park them around the South China Sea , start to let them wet their pants
Didn’t Japan offer Australia a submarine that would fill the gap until the nuclear powered submarines arrive.
If so, wouldn’t this strengthen the Aukus deal.
Japan is part of the Quad, not AUKUS – but I take your point. At this stage I would be looking at all options, though I still feel the fastest option is still a New Generation Collins / A26 Oceanic. As far as I can tell Mitsubishi Heavy Industries / Kawasaki are fully loaded for the next few years building their own submarines. It’s a bit like US industry being fully loaded until the late 2030s meeting USN requirements.
We burnt the Japs, the Swedes, the French and the world knows we are a very risky potential client. They are in a position to roll us over a barrel and believe me they will, we bloody deserve it.
I know I’m a little late to this conversation, but my suggestion would be for a interim off the self solution. Germany builds many submarines quickly and cost effectively for many different customers.
The Type 216 that Australia rejected for the Attack class would be the perfect solution. As it’s an interim solution there is no need for them to be built in Australia. 4 – 6 hulls could built quickly and relatively cheaply in Germany.
It’s certainly worth throwing that into the mix. Singapore is getting a good deal out of the Type 218 constructed in Germany with a Singapore Technologies combat system. My guess is that a New Generation Collins would also be relatively quick to – based on the amount of work that had been completed on the design by 2014 – but if that falls over, sure.
I don’t agree with you, the new TKMS’s 212CD is already delayed and it took them three trails to agree with Norway and Germany on the specification. So now Norway has the same problem as Australia to keep its old subs operational longer.
Thanks. I’m not familiar with the Norwegian program so if you have any references please provide those. As far as I am aware, Singapore is very happy with their Type 218 SG submarines.
I believe the STH Koreans with the help of the U.S. are working on a Nuclear version of the KSS III . If this is accurate why not pursue that option or at least investigate the feasibility.
Every single submarine building nation has built its first sub and then variants and newer types. That is how it is done, and if we had followed that proceedure, we would be probably building version 4 now. Yes complete with all the neccessary bells and whistles of relevance. Seriously folks, this what should have happened and still can be, with some intestinal fortitude.
The Collins is still a relevant base for distance, efficiency and minimum indescrection times, build a Collins 2 with an install of all the latest relevant equipment to serve us untill the nuclear capability is here.
Yes I agree completely. South Korea is an example. They started their efforts at developing submarine technology at about the same time as Collins. They went down the German route, stuck with it, and are now operating their 3rd generation highly advanced diesel electric submarine with a continuous building program. They have also exported submarines to Indonesia and potentially a number of other countries. It’s not too late to bring a New Generation Collins back into the mix. The Australian approach has been uniquely stupid and wasteful.
If the A26 and SAAB involved in the loop, it’s an excellent starting point considering the ASC work with them often.
I totally agree – but the RAN simply refuses to speak with Saab about the A26 program.