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.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
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.