Ross Babbage

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Ross Babbage

The Diplomat spoke with Ross Babbage, managing director of Strategy International and founder of the Kokoda Foundation in Australia, about Australia’s submarine plans.

Recently, the Australian government has announced several decisions concerning the acquisition of a new class of submarines. Have these announcements clarified with any precision the nature of Australia’s submarine requirements?

No. The government now seems far less clear about what it wants the new submarines to do than three years ago. The 2009 White Paperemphasized that the principal task of the Australian Defense Force (ADF) is to deter and defeat armed attacks on Australia by conducting independent military operations without relying on the combat or combat support forces of other countries. In that context it stated that:

“The Future Submarine will have greater range, longer endurance on patrol, and expanded capabilities compared to the current Collins class submarine. It will also be equipped with very secure real-time communications and be able to carry different mission payloads such as uninhabited underwater vehicles.”

However, the government has now commissioned studies into four categories of new submarines:

  1. A military off-the-shelf option adapted to Australian standards;
  2. A military off-the-shelf option complemented by Australian combat communications and weapons systems;
  3. A derivative of the Collins Class submarine; and
  4. A brand new design.

Some of these options would simply not produce a boat capable of meeting the requirements of the 2009 White Paper. But there’s little indication that the current Australian government is thinking clearly about these matters or according them great priority.

When the government announced the suite of studies into future conventionally-powered submarines, it also announced a schedule that involved possibly choosing a submarine design in 2017, signing a contract for their construction in Australia in 2018-2020 and potentially having the first of the new boats in service by 2033-2035. These boats would clearly be very late, probably be design orphans, likely have limited reliability, run well over budget and by 2040 they may be obsolete. Essentially, the government is proposing a modified re-run of the Collins Class program, with all of the risks that that entails.

There’s a sense that ministers in the current government believe that almost any new submarine will do. They clearly consider that delivery isn’t urgent and that any new submarine must be acquired at modest cost. Some members of the government appear more concerned by the employment opportunities in South Australian industry than in the acquisition of a highly effective defensive deterrent.

The government’s approachto the new submarine program also needs to be seen in the context of the astonishing 10.5 percent cut in the defense budgetseveral days after the submarine program announcements. Coming on top of cuts of more than 5 percent in each of the two preceding years, this is the biggest reduction to the Australian defense budget since the end of the Korean War. It takes the cumulative cuts to the defense budget in recent years to over 20 percent. Australian defense spending as a percentage of GDP is now the lowest that it has been since 1938. Because of the difficulties of cutting personnel and operational costs quickly, the government’s deep slashing of the budget mean that the third main category of spending – the equipment acquisition budget – has been decimated.

These latest actions indicate that the Labor government wishes to avoid making any firm decisions or spending significant money on the major defense systems that can deliver high strategic leverage in the increasingly challenging Asia-Pacific-Indian Ocean region. Serious progress in the Australian submarine program will need to wait until after next year’s national elections.

What lessons can be learned from the production, design and well documented problems of Australia’s last submarine build (The Collins Class)?

This is a very big subject and worthy of book-length analysis. It’s also not a simple story and it’s very difficult to summarize.

Overall, the Collins Class program demonstrated that Australia does have the industrial and other skills to design, build and then operate a very advanced diesel-electric submarine, provided that it receives extensive assistance from a range of friendly countries. When fully operational, these boats have periodically performed extremely well on exercises.

However, there were many problems with the Collins program including flaws in the contract and contract management, inadequate contingency allowances, design weaknesses, skill shortages and some major production and support difficulties. The result was that the boats arrived late, they were over-budget, they have experienced continuing reliability problems and these factors have compounded the challenges of building experienced submarine crews and a strong cohort of support personnel for the force.

Hence, while the Collins program hasn’t been the unmitigated disaster that’s so frequently described in the press, it isn’t the sort of experience that should be repeated given the rather more demanding requirements that Australia now has for its next-generation submarines.

According to most media reports, the government must decide among several paths forward. The government is exploring four options: “a military off-the-shelf option adapted to Australian standards; a military off-the-shelf option complemented by Australian combat communications and weapons systems; a derivative of the Collins Class submarine; or brand new design.” You previously commented in The Diplomat an American nuclear submarine (Virginia Class SSN) or British submarine (Astute Class SSN) would be the best option. Do you still feel that is the best path forward? Would you prefer an American or British design if so?

I remain strongly of the view that the best submarines for Australia for the coming 40 years would be 10-12 leased or bought Virginia or Astute class boats. The Virginia class boats, in particular, are well sorted and reliable, they have low risk, they have known costs, they never need to be refueled and they could be acquired with associated training programs and system upgrade pathways. However, the current Australian government refuses to consider either of these classes because they have nuclear propulsion. It appears headed towards some sort of modified version of the Collins class acquisition strategy, with all the risks that that entails.

Were the Australian government to be open to a Virginia or Astute option following next year’s election, it would be sensible to have discussions with both the U.S. and U.K. governments. However, all other things being equal, if the U.S. government were open to the idea, it would seem more sensible for Australia to opt for the Virginia Class. Australian boats of this class would be operating in very close cooperation with U.S. boats in Pacific and Indian Ocean waters. There are likely to be substantial advantages flowing to both countries from joint basing, logistic support, training and many other aspects.

It’s also worth noting that the U.S. Navy has advised Congress that it expects to be operating a global total of 39 SSNs in 2030. In a Western Pacific crisis in that timeframe it might have 30 to 31 SSNs available for operations, and it may be able to deploy some 20 to 24 into the primary operational theatre. Should the US be able to rely on 8 to 10 Australian SSN’s operating in very close cooperation with the U.S. boats, this could equate to a 30 percent to 40 percent combat supplement. This type of consideration should make the general idea attractive both to Washington and Honolulu.

America is decommissioning Cold War era Los Angeles Classattack submarinesthat are nuclear powered and still very capable. Could Australia consider leasing or purchasing such submarines at a reduced rate that would give Australia a jump in capabilities over a Diesel/AIP powered submarine? If possible, what modifications would Australia need to make to the sub to make it viable to Australian needs?

While an interesting suggestion, I don’t think that this is a good idea for Australia. If our politicians decide to take the major step of leasing or acquiring nuclear powered submarines from either the U.S. or U.K. (or conceivably from France), the Australian Navy would be keen to integrate training as far as was reasonably feasible with the host navy at an early stage. The Australian Navy would likely insist on training and certification standards that were at least as stringent as those employed by the U.S. Navy and Australian Navy. This training and skill development would most appropriately center around the class of boat that Australia intends to operate for the following 30 to 40 years. If the Australian Navy were to acquire or lease Virginia Class boats, it would make greatest sense for nearly all training to be directed towards that class.

Having said that, there might be a case for the Australian Navy and U.S. Navy to jointly operate one or two late model 688 Los Angeles Class boats for a few years in the early stages of an Australian SSN program. This type of special arrangement might be designed both to build key Australian Navy skills and qualifications and to keep valuable U.S. SSNs operating a few years longer than their currently planed date of decommissioning. This approach may be worth considering if all other key issues concerning an Australian SSN force and fleet cooperation were agreed by the respective governments.

With a delay in the Joint Strike Fighter announcedas well as cuts to high tech artillery pieces, how much will cost be a factor in the creation of Australia’s next submarine platform? Is cost driving the debate more than capabilities?

Cost will always be a key issue in any defense acquisition for Australia and, I suspect, for all Western allies. However, cost will never be the sole criterion. The next generation submarine program was accorded a special strategic importance in the 2009 White Paper because, if properly developed, it’s one of a very few capabilities that have the potential to deter even a major power in a serious crisis. In consequence, there is a strong case for this country to invest heavily to generate exceptionally strong underwater, long-range air combat and cyber capabilities. The current Australian government appears to have lost sight of this core strategic logic, but it will probably re-surface strongly within a couple of years and then I expect greater coherence and consistency in strategic direction and these key programs to be accorded stronger focus.

As you have commented before, the cost of submarine development from design, testing and deployment is a very expensive undertaking. Is there any possibility of a coalition of nations, such as maybe the United States, Britain and Australia sharing costs to develop a new submarine platform that could meet their diverse needs? What would be the challenges to such a project? Could other nations possibly be involved?

This is an intriguing possibility and may deserve some consideration. However, I am well aware of the difficulties that have been experienced by most international defense cooperation programs in recent decades.  I’m also acutely aware of the extreme sensitivity of many of the technologies in sub-surface military systems and the caution with which they are shared, even between the closest of allies.

If the U.S. or U.K. governments felt that this type of collegiate approach was worth considering I’d certainly support the idea of Australia participating in preliminary discussions. However, I’d be surprised if the U.S. found such an approach attractive. Certainly Australia isn’t well-placed to propose such an initiative, at least in its current circumstances.

My guess is that the best prospects for success in such a cooperative submarine program would be won if it was purely a bilateral program involving either the US and Australia or, possibly, the U.K. and Australia. A trilateral U.S.-U.K.-Australia program might also be feasible, but the more parties that were involved the more complexities, the greater the risks and the more doubtful the benefits.