The Australian Government is courting disaster with its approach to this country’s largest-ever defense program, the purchase of new submarines. The government seems determined to spend over $30 billion designing and building in Australia 12 new submarines that will almost certainly have serious flaws, will be delivered late, will be unnecessarily expensive and will be inadequate for our defense needs.
How could the government get itself into such a bad position? Some key decision-makers have failed to appreciate that Australia now faces a much more demanding security future. As the Pentagon’s recently released annual report on China’s military development makes clear, Beijing’s surveillance, missile, air and naval developments are transforming the strategic balance in the Western Pacific. Indeed, by 2025 China’s military power will be predominant in parts of our region.
There’s also a need to take account of China’s much more aggressive recent military operations, especially in disputed areas of the South and East China Seas. Australian security planners should do everything in their power to negotiate peaceful resolutions of these issues. They would, however, be naive to neglect strong investment in defense capabilities that can deter coercion against us in the 2025-2050 timeframe.
Advanced submarines offer special strategic leverage in the more demanding security environment that’s in store. The best submarines are highly survivable in intense military operations and have the potential to force the leadership of even a major power to pause and think carefully before attacking Australia or our key interests. They are one of only two or three military capabilities that carry this game-changing leverage. So, while Australia will always need some surface warships, armored vehicles and transport aircraft, the truth is that advanced submarines offer unique strategic advantages for us in the troubled times ahead.
All this means we need to get the new submarine program right and do so quickly. Australia has three main submarine options. The government currently favors designing and building our own unique, rather large, diesel-electric submarines, essentially a Collins Mk 2. Second, we could purchase much smaller diesel-electric submarines that are currently in production in Europe. Third, we could purchase or lease from “hot” production lines advanced nuclear-propelled submarines from the United States or Britain.
Designing and building a Collins Mk2 would probably eventually deliver a class of the largest diesel-electric submarines in the world. However, given that the government has yet to launch even preliminary design work, the first of these boats couldn’t be delivered until at least 2028 and more likely 2035-2040. Because they would be a completely new design, they would inevitably experience technical problems, would probably possess some unreliable systems and we should expect them to have relatively low availability. As these Australian-designed boats would be “orphans,” they would also be expensive to maintain and update.
Another problem with the Collins Mk2 option is that buying these boats would be very expensive. Although some parts of local industry would wish us to believe otherwise, by the time that these boats are built, drive-away costs for each boat are likely to have escalated to between $2.5 billion and $3 billion. Moreover, managing a design, development and acquisition project of this complexity may be beyond the capability of the Defence Materiel Organisation. Far worse is the prospect that by 2035, these diesel-electric boats would be vulnerable to detection – and probably early destruction – in intense combat environments.
Australia’s second submarine option is to purchase one of the much smaller class of European diesel-electric submarines. The Spanish S-80 or the German Type 214 boats could be expected to be somewhat more reliable than Australian-designed and built boats. In their most basic form, they would also be less expensive at some $500-$600 million per boat sail away. However, by the time that these boats were modified to carry some of the modern U.S.-sourced sensor, fire-control, weapons and stealth systems, their sail-away price would climb to $1.3 billion to $1.5 billion.
Because of their modest power generating capacity, small diesel-electric boats are relatively slow, have limited endurance and lack the ability to power sophisticated long-range sensors. They would be outclassed in the Western Pacific towards the middle of this century, and they wouldn’t give Australia the powerful deterrent it needs.
The third option is an off-the-shelf purchase or lease of either American Virginia Class or British Astute Class nuclear-powered attack submarines. These boats are at the cutting edge of submarine technology, offer operational dominance in the Western Pacific till at least 2050 and would deliver powerful deterrence against any serious coercion of Australia in this timeframe.
The Virginia and Astute classes are fast and possess almost unlimited endurance. They carry sensors with extraordinary performance such that they can routinely “see” potential opponents well before they themselves can be detected, often at trans-oceanic distances. They have also been designed from scratch to be very flexible and perform a broader range of functions of relevance to Australia.
Both of these submarine classes are in series production. The contract for the 14th Virginia was recently signed for a price of $1.2 billion, but by the time that they are fully fitted out, the sail-away price is $2.5 billion. These boats have now been thoroughly sorted, are demonstrating exceptional operational performance and high reliability and would bring with them class-wide training and upgrade programs.
The most obvious obstacle to an Australian purchase of Virginias or Astutes is that these boats are nuclear-powered. However, their propulsion systems have an exemplary track record, their reactors never need to be refueled and if the boats were leased – say for 30 years – they could be handed back to the suppliers for disposal.
Given these circumstances, one would think that the choice of new submarines for Australia was clear-cut. By far the most capable, lowest risk, most reliable and probably in the long run the most affordable submarines are the Virginias (and possibly the Astutes). The acquisition of 12 of these boats would herald a new level of operational partnership with the United States and substantially strengthen Australia’s contribution to allied operations in the Western Pacific. Canberra’s diplomatic clout in Washington and across the Asia-Pacific would be greatly enhanced. But, most importantly, Australia would have bought an effective insurance policy against the danger of serious coercion or attack during the coming 40 years.
Ross Babbage is a former senior Australian defense official, managing director of Strategy International and founder of the Kokoda Foundation, a not-for-profit national security think tank.