APDR NewsletterIt is becoming increasingly clear that the Department of Defence and the RAN have absolutely no intention of working on an interim submarine acquisition to address a looming critical capability gap before nuclear vessels eventually arrive. The evidence for this is in the negative: despite new Defence Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles saying for months that this issue is his top priority, no one has reached out to Saab Kockums or the Royal Swedish Navy or anyone else about starting work – actually a case of resuming work that stopped in 2014 – on a Next Generation Collins class.

This follows on from a long history of RAN submarine inactivity. After the 2009 Defence White Paper said Australia would acquire 12 new, highly capable, conventional submarines one would have assumed that the RAN would have been abuzz with activity. What in fact followed was five years of foot dragging, for which the Labor government also shared some of the blame. The end result after hundreds of millions of dollars had been spent on time-wasting “studies” was that the Abbott government had to force the Attack class down the throat of Defence, which included an initial misguided attempt to buy submarines directly from Japan.

After that, the contract with Naval Group of France showed major warning signs of delays and cost overruns – and in this case it was once again the government of Scott Morrison that had to address the problem by imposing the solution of a nuclear-powered fleet on the RAN. This was done without any detailed consultation with Navy, or CASG – which was kept totally in the dark – and was another top-down decision.

Someone – hopefully Richard Marles – needs to explain to the Navy that it is the government that sets strategic direction, and it is the Department and the services that need to follow that, not the other way round. Understanding this institutional torpor is way beyond the scope of this article but it looks like the RAN simply does not have the willpower to manage a major undertaking in the form of an Australian-built diesel electric submarine because it will all be just too difficult.

This is an excerpt from APDR. To read the full story, click here.

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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.

20 COMMENTS

  1. To design and build a evolved collins if that’s what your implying will not get you an operational boat appreciably sooner than an SSN. A conventional boat is no more than an intelligent mine. It can neither pursue nor evade SAG’s, nor undertake evasive manoeuvres for long before exhausting its batteries. All this nonsense of AIP being a panacea is just rot. Being submerged for 3 or so weeks at patrol speed is all very well but what if your target is hundreds of miles away? Now we need to run the electric motors flat out which means in an hour or two we need to snorkel to recharge while our quarry trundles on at 20+ knots..

    • You raise some interesting points – but you don’t know how long it will take to build a Next Gen Collins because no one knows. The RAN simply refuses to ask ASC and Saab Kockums the question – for reasons that seem ridiculous. It might be 20 years, but equally it might be 10 years given that a lot of the basic design work had been completed in 2014 when the activity was abruptly – and incorrectly – stopped.

      Yes, AIP is for extended underwater slow speed running. But this is where the concept of choke points come into play and pre-deploying to areas of interest based on real time intelligence. If conventional submarines with AIP are useless, as you describe, why are they being built by (or for) Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam and Singapore – with other potential AIP users including Indonesia and Malaysia? China is a major user of conventional AIP submarines, as are Russia and India. That seems to be a huge number of countries that you believe are wasting their money.

  2. No enemy worth his salt will do you the honour of blissfully sailing through your choke point. In the case of kinetic conflict they will sanitise that choke point. A whale passing wind will attract a response. Conventional boats are for those that either cannot or will not pursue the nuclear option. A conventional boat will not survive, will not be able to intercept, cannot provide close escort to vulnerable assets eg LHD, cannot evade to get out of trouble once detected. They days of passive sonar being used as the primary sensor are fast coming to an end. The oceans are extremely noisy and getting noisier by the year. Active is where it’s at.

    • The problem with avoiding choke points is that you have to travel a great deal of extra distance to do so. We can speculate forever on submarine tactics – that’s not something for which I’m qualified – but I will say that conventional submarines can also go fairly fast for limited periods of time. I’m not sure I follow your point about active sonar other than to say for ASW operations I agree with you 100% – it’s the only way to go. But on that, the sort of nuclear submarine that Australia is looking at represents a far bigger target for an active sonar than a smaller conventional boat.

  3. Choke points are choked with commercial and fishing traffic. Why? Because it shortens the transit distance and therefore time and money. Military vessels in wartime are not concerned with that. No credible military is going to sail down your choke point. If the airspace over your choke point is contested and it will, bear in mind just contested by no means dominated by your adversary your life as a submariner is going to be very very short indeed.

  4. Nuclear powered submarines represent a significant military capability not normally available to Australia and the unique opportunity we have right now to obtain them should be pursued as a top priority. However, it doesn’t take much investigation to conclude that it will take a very long time to deliver that. I’m not going to list the requirements here, but this is why an interim sub is needed, not as a nuclear replacement but to provide the strategic space needed for the nuclear program to be safely delivered.

    Although Kym looks to have drunk the cool aid on the A26, my concern is it looks to be a completely new design and therefore there would be reasonable calls for it to be assessed against alternatives to confirm it was the best way forward. To avoid that delay, I suggest simply evolving the existing Collins design as operated by the RAN. If ASC need assistance with that, better they approach our AUKUS partners rather than the Swedes who would probably be trying to push us into a new design such as A26. The aim of the new build would be to produce new boats for service as soon as possible and so design changes would need to be carefully considered. IMO, the opportunity for new conventional designs has gone and expedient delivery of a well understood capability is now more important.

    • Thanks – yes, I agree with all of that. An interim submarine is also necessary from a shipbuilding perspective – if we are to have any hope of eventually building nuclear submarines in Australia, far better that we have a skilled workforce in place rather than attempting a cold start.

      I’m actually relatively agnostic on the A26 in that if there’s a better option available it needs to be considered. My point is that the A26 already has many of the elements of a Next Generation Collins, so evolving Collins leads you to the same basic design. Many elements of Collins – such as the controversial Hedemora diesels – went out of production 20 years ago. I fully agree on the importance of speedy decision making and commitment.

    • Thanks for your insight. I have to disagree there simply wont be the funding available not as it stands at 2% of GDP in fact at 2% you wont be able to afford SSN’s in fact you will struggle to deliver most of the platforms that are in the pipeline at 2% of GDP. It will be one or the other does anyone seriously believe that the government will outlay tens and tens and yet more tens of billions of dollars for a interim conventional submarine that conceivably may be in service for at most a decade? If they go down the interim path there will be no SSN and we will go down in history as the great bunch of muppets who dropped the gift of a generation. Sadly I think this is the outcome.

      • I appreciate what you are saying, but I feel like an interim submarine might be the least-worst alternative. I write “might be” because no one knows how much one will cost or what the delivery schedule might be because the RAN simply refuses to ask anyone for a proposal. Their tactics are clearly to run out the clock so that the only possible option is a nuclear submarine delivered from the United States.

        I’m concerned that with this strategy Australia will end up with nothing. If/when a Republican president takes over in the US they will almost certainly follow an “America First” policy and AUKUS might be ditched or at least become moribund.

      • I agree with you that cost is an issue that hasn’t really been discussed in detail – or not that I’m aware of. All of the counties currently operating nuclear submarines have economies larger than Australia’s – with the partial exception of Russia which is such an economic basket case that its economy and ours are about the same size. To be fair, both Labor and the Coalition say that they see 2% of GDP as a floor and not a ceiling, but as always if the Defence budget is substantially increased it will be at the expense of other programs.

  5. RAN statement to parliament during the last gov. Stated that there were other weapon systems that would cover any shortfall. They have no intention of buying anything other than the nukes.

  6. You are the journalist who is responsible for researching the facts for the story. It was when P Wong was questioning RAN at a Hearing. The one where the RAN was also questioned about SkyGardian cancelation. If you aren’t following statements to parliament, who are you listening too?

    There may also be a second life extension, depending on hull life, how long the subs stay very deep. As stated there are other weapon systems. There is also co-crewing US and UK subs. As well as nuke subs stationed in Australia. I would take the Gov and RAN at their word

    Republicans have voted to approve the plan. Agreements have been signed. A future US gov tearing up these agreements would signal an end to ANZUS, AUKUS and 5eyes. I don’t hold your doom and gloom scenario to be very valid.

    • Fair enough. I’ve seen credible reports that if Donald Trump is re-elected in 2024 one of his first acts will be to pull out of NATO. Given that previously he unilaterally ditched both the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate accords I can’t see why AUKUS would survive. At the very least I think it’s a contingency that Defence needs to take into account.

      I remember questioning in the Senate about Sky Guardian – I wrote about it at the time – but I don’t remember the submarine stuff. I’m happy to go back and have another look at the transcript but if you have a link handy please feel free to post it.

  7. I agree the last presidency was destabilising. Trump has to have congress approval to pull out of NATO. You may recall at the time there was Republicans saying no. The Ukraine invasion would only increase resistance to pull out.

    Here is the transcript from last April’s budget hearing. I find it easier to play the video in the background, which is still online.
    https://parlinfo.aph.gov.au/parlInfo/download/committees/estimate/25698/toc_pdf/Foreign%20Affairs,%20Defence%20and%20Trade%20Legislation%20Committee_2022_04_06_Official.pdf;fileType=application%2Fpdf#search=%22committees/estimate/25698/0000%22
    https://parlinfo.aph.gov.au/parlInfo/download/committees/estimate/25686/toc_pdf/Foreign%20Affairs,%20Defence%20and%20Trade%20Legislation%20Committee_2022_04_01_Official.pdf;fileType=application%2Fpdf#search=%22committees/estimate/25686/0000%22

    Video playlist
    https://www.aph.gov.au/News_and_Events/Watch_Parliament?ps=100

    • It’s actually difficult to read the Republican party on Ukraine. Apart from the fact that Donald Trump sat on weapon deliveries to Kiev for quite a few months – that’s what his first impeachment was all about – many other Republicans prefer to side with Russia ahead of Ukraine. Figures like Marjorie Taylor Greene – who comfortably won her primary in May – are open about wanting all military aid to Ukraine to cease. There seems to be at least a reasonable chance that if Republicans regain control of Congress in November that will be their official policy. That’s something that our planners need to consider as a possible scenarios.

      The reasons for why some Republicans prefer Russia over Ukraine is complex and often obscure, but it seems in part related to a belief that Putin is actually the world leader when it comes to the defence of white, conservative Christian values. That’s not a belief that I subscribe to, by the way.

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