The head of our future submarine project, Rear Admiral Greg Sammut, is described by former colleagues as “precise”, “efficient”, and “controlled”. What they’re attempting to say, as nicely as they can, is that he’s basically a machine. And this is the reason why his sudden, abrupt and terse response to a question during last month’s Submarine Institute of Australia conference came as such a shock. He’d been asked if there was any truth about rumours of serious sticking points emerging from detailed design contract negotiations with France’s Naval Group. He wasted no time on pleasantries.
“The submarine program is on time and on track”, Sammut announced sharply. Then he quickly began looking around the hall for the next question.
His reply wasn’t just crisp: it was too laconic to be believed. A sudden silence descended. Then – because he is a gentleman, after all – Sammut relented. He began going into detail.
“A design contract was signed on 30 September, 2016, to develop detailed concept work for the submarine. We (the Commonwealth and France’s Naval group) are currently in negotiations, but contracts alone do not deliver any sort of program whatsoever.”
He went on, but this is the nub of the issue. Sammut is determined to make certain this deal works for the Navy; Naval Group have their own responsibilities which, with the exception of making a fantastic boat, are almost directly opposed to the Commonwealth’s. The essential question is, who will blink first? Is it more likely to be the massive French industrial behemoth that (probably correctly) believes the government has no alternative but to come to terms and sign a contract, or a lonely naval officer determined to stand his ground?
Given that we are talking about Sammut, the match seems pretty even and things could go either way.
The submarine project is often compared, in scale and complexity, to organising a moon landing. What is at issue in these negotiations is much the same problem that is faced by designers of the submarine itself. The ideal can’t be achieved. What’s necessary is to work out what can be traded-off by the different parties in terms of money, time and certainty, to achieve the best possible overall result for the project.
To get some idea of the difficulty the parties are currently facing, look at some of the downstream issues that will affect the project. An Australian submarine needs to be large enough to ensure it can carry enough fuel and supplies to spend a long time on station, far from the continent. This means it has to be big. Additional weight means it needs to carry more fuel and that it’s slower and more detectable, militating against the vessel achieving its original objective. At some point a decision needs to be made: what needs be jettisoned to create an optimal boat?
These choices have to be made up-front, in the design phase, often years before the actual technical capacities of weapon systems are known. The question is, how much variability will there eventually be and who will pay for all this extra work? This goes some way towards explaining both why further sticking-points have emerged as the submarine’s concept has become more and more refined. All this variability requires future-proofing the contract to cope with the inevitable cost blowouts, due to either technical problems that were unforseen by Naval Group because of changed requirements from the Navy. This is why getting things right at the design stage is so critical. It also helps to explain why Sammut appeared so tense. It would be very difficult not too. And, as if this isn’t enough, it also seems that everyone’s an expert.
In this regard Sammut certainly isn’t lacking for guidance on how he should act. No program in defence history has been more dissected than that of the current submarine, the Collins class. It’s been the subject of not just the usual reports, but also parliamentary investigations and even best-selling books! Turning a dry subject like building boats into a thrilling page-turner isn’t easy, which offers some idea of just how troubled and problematic that project ended up being.
As a result, when it comes to building submarines it seems everyone’s (now) an expert. Sammut certainly doesn’t like guidance on where he might go wrong. His difficulty is that there are very few examples of how to get things right, particularly over the full life-cycle of the submarine.
Take the Collins project itself. When the boats were originally constructed, it was never anticipated that there would be any need to subsequently cut open the pressure hull. That was fine, until it became necessary to do vital work on the diesel engine. Unfortunately, the only way this could be achieved was by opening the hull – the hatches just weren’t big enough otherwise. A plethora of studies have now detailed, at great length, all the things that have been learnt from the Collins program. The problem is all the parties to the current negotiations – Sammut, the politicians, Naval Group, and interested observers – have been learning exactly the same lessons. Each is determined they won’t be the bunnies this time around.
It’s an admirable aspiration, yet it’s inevitable that significant problems will arise during the design phase, particularly as so many new technologies need to be integrated – including propulsion, advances in noise and visibility reduction, and even entirely new weapons systems. Allocating who will bear responsibility, and how the increasing costs will be shared, is a process that’s inevitably fraught with difficulty. It’s like gazing into a crystal-ball.
Take, for example, the design of the A26, the new Swedish submarine that’s currently being constructed by Saab. The main weapon platform of submarines has always been the launch tubes, it’s just that now they can fire missiles as well as torpedoes. It’s what the former US Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld might have called a “known known”, something that can be more or less planned for because we understand roughly what the length, width and weight of a projectile will be. In future, however, it’s been suggested that submarines may end up working as mother ships for a fleet of smaller, robot-controlled remote underwater vessels, operating more or less independently. It’s highly unlikely that these will conform to the shape of a torpedo, nor do we have any idea how the size of such units would affect the weight profile of the submarine.
Speaking of launch tubes, the Royal Australian Navy – which has only ever fired a single torpedo in anger during the First World War – insists that the future submarine has six torpedo tubes in a single horizontal plane. The reference Barracuda design has a two plus two top and bottom arrangement. The ramifications of a complete redesign of the front end of the submarine to suit the whims of the Australians are massive – and will add significant cost and risk to what is already a massively costly and risky undertaking. Surely since a huge amount of risk is already involved in moving from a nuclear propulsion system to a conventional one, some sanity must be applied to other areas and design changes should be minimised. If four torpedo tubes are good enough for the French Navy then they should be good enough for us as well.
The problem today is that we know there will be significant change in the way we fight underwater in the near future and this is part of the reason the contract hasn’t been bedded down yet. It’s also politically necessary to make sure that the contract is battened down. Perhaps the real question is, are we asking for the impossible?
The current plan is to build 12 vessels. Should six be built in one way and the remaining six be open to a completely different configuration? Or might it be better to simply fix contract details in place even though both parties know the ultimate build will differ, and plan to make changes along the way? The problem then is that there is no guarantee that the Navy will actually end up with a capability, and that’s the whole point of the program.
The questions multiply. The only time dollar numbers appear in contracts, unfortunately, is when the signatories are attempting to work out who will bear responsibility for any unforeseen alterations. In this case, according to one source, the process is like writing a futures contract. Both parties want a deal and both know things will inevitably change; the real question is how will the cost of this be shared. Then (to extend the numerical analogy), multiply every point of difference by the separate motivations of the participants to the negotiations. Finding a mutually acceptable resolution won’t be easy.
Naval Group want this contract; nevertheless their key interest is to ensure it remains financially viable. There will be few commercial spin-offs, because the Australian requirement for a long-distance conventional submarine is unique. That’s why there might be more pressure from headquarters in Paris to act tough during the negotiations, and be prepared to walk away if necessary. Naval Group’s internal workings are also somewhat opaque, and not simply because of its confused (part-government yet nominally private) ownership structure. A certain strategic ambiguity has opened-up between France and Australia, in part because of Canberra’s close alignment to Washington. The point is that the company could, if necessary, walk away. It certainly seems to think it can afford to play hard-ball.
Other reports suggest that Sammut isn’t caving in either. If so, it’s almost certainly be because he’s been receiving informed support from Defence Minister Christopher Pyne. The problem for government politicians though is that the big issue bearing down on him is the coming May election – assuming they last that long.
Defence is normally seen as a coalition strong point and Pyne has been working overtime to keep things this way. As Defence Industry Minister, he approved a veritable flood of long-delayed projects. It will reflect badly on the government – perhaps even catastrophically – if one of its largest and most dramatic purchase decisions falls over just before the election. People may not really know a lot about the dynamics of undersea warfare, or exactly what our submarines can and can’t do. Nevertheless, they do know they like the idea that there is such a capability (even if it is wreathed in secrecy).
This particular dynamic means it’s odds-on that an agreement should be reached before May, the expected election date, although nothing can be completely discounted.
At the same Submarine Institute conference, Labor’s Defence spokesman Richard Marles refused, interestingly enough, to provide the usual blanket endorsement of the work that is currently being carried out. It’s difficult to know how much of this is mere posturing, but he certainly seemed to promise a complete review of the entire program. This would offer intriguing new possibilities.
The conference was focused on the life-of-type extension for the Collins class vessels. What became apparent (after, in particular, a speech by the Chief of Navy) was that because of the significant delays already incurred by SEA 1000, it will be necessary to have a program that will see all of the current submarines fully upgraded. This means the Navy will have some options other than relying on the rushed development of the new class.
2035 is a long way off and the speed with which technology is developing could change the strategic equation dramatically. It’s worth remembering what put paid to the German offensive in World War II. The key to the convoy system wasn’t that it protected vessels from being sunk, so much is that it effectively suppressed the U-boats by forcing them to concentrate on self-preservation.
The other issue is the very basic question about what missions our new submarines will be expected to complete. It hardly seems plausible that they would be involved in deploying small units of SAS troops on foreign shores, nor is it likely (in an age of precision missile-strike) that we would be relying on them to prevent a naval assault. This suggests a key reason for the expenditure of so much money on the submarines is to provide a degree of uncertainty and deterrence to any potential aggressor. That will, of course, only be as significant as the missiles that the boats are carrying.
Difficult and complex negotiations are never quick – particularly when you’re dealing with huge sums ($50 billion dollars), long time-frames (over 30 years), and cutting-edge technology (for example not-yet-invented propulsion systems, new underwater weapons and missiles). It’s hardly surprising that, despite the apparent urgency and need to firm up the contracts, there are problems reaching a mutually acceptable solution. It would be silly, however, to simply minimise and wish away these difficulties, because it may be that they are simply symptomatic of a far more crucial underlying problem. It may be that what we are attempting to contract can’t actually be achieved.
It may also be that there are better ways of spending $50 million than on a vision for the future that can’t be turned into reality.