Australia Needs Strategic Rethink on Submarines

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Australia Needs Strategic Rethink on Submarines

The new White Paper got it wrong. Australia’s best undersea option remains the U.S. Virginia Class nuclear submarine.

Is Australia’s new submarine program being driven by careful assessments of the country’s future defense strategy or more by short-term electoral considerations? This is a key question leading up to Australia’s national elections on September 14.

The Labor Party government revealed back in May 2012 that it had ruled out the option of a nuclear-powered submarine and commissioned detailed assessments of four conventionally-powered options:

–       An existing off-the-shelf foreign design.

–       A modified off-the-shelf foreign  design

–       An evolved Collins-class design

–       Development of a completely new submarine design in Australia.

Then, when Prime Minister Gillard released the 2013 Australian Defense White Paper on May 3, she announced she’d narrowed the options to the last two. The prime minister also confirmed her commitment to purchase 12 new submarines, which she said would be assembled in South Australia.  In addition, she revealed that the government had commissioned the development of a land-based facility to enable the full-scale testing of submarine propulsion, system integration and support services.

In order to provide sufficient time for this process of design, testing, construction and commissioning, the Minister for Defense, Stephen Smith revealed that the six existing Collins-Class submarines would be extended until at least 2038. No plans were released for the maintenance and upgrading of the Collins Class boats, nor estimates of the costs of operating these boats for 45 and possibly even 50 years.

In light of these developments, what are the main issues now confronting Australia’s new submarine program?

First, it should be noted that there is a strong prospect that the Australian government will change following the national elections in September and that the decisions announced in this month’s White Paper may not be sustained. The opposition parties have announced that if they return to government they will review all defense policies and publish a new White Paper within 18 months.

Second, whoever is in government during the next three years will be choosing the nature of the new submarine program at a time when the regional strategic environment is changing markedly. The most important shift is the substantial growth in China’s military capability and its assertiveness in a number of regional disputes. The Chinese defense budget has risen an average 14 percent annually during the last fifteen years, the PLA-Navy has launched some 50 new submarines since 1995 and Chinese cyber, intelligence and maritime operations have been widespread and deeply intrusive. Most of Australia’s allies and friends in Asia are worried and working to strengthen their defenses. United States and allied dominance of the Western Pacific can no longer be assured in the medium term. Moreover, in contrast to the Cold War, the focus of superpower competition is not on the other side of the world, but in Australia’s backyard.

These developments have fundamental implications for Australian defense strategy and for what prudence dictates the Australian Defense Forces should operate in the 2030-2060 timeframe. All Australian governments will prefer to focus on encouraging positive political and security partnerships with China, North Korea, India, Indonesia and other regional powers. However, given the continuing shift in the strategic balance, defense planners cannot overlook the possibility that in some future contingencies Australia might be subjected to serious coercion and even attack.

In these circumstances, Australian defense planners need to think deeply about the strategy they would employ if the country were directly challenged. Some commentators argue that Australia should focus on small, relatively inexpensive submarines that in a crisis could attempt to mount a barrier defense in Australia’s immediate approaches. The main problems with this strategy are that such a barrier defense would always be porous and it would not force a coercive major power to halt its attacks.

If the Australian Government wishes to have a strong capacity to deter and dissuade a major power, it needs to invest in more than barrier defenses. It needs the capacity to reach out at great distance and threaten targets that the opposing side’s decision-makers value most. Australia, as a non-nuclear weapon state, has only a few options for applying strong strategic leverage (and deterrence) over a long range. Powerful submarines, strong cyber capabilities, advanced air and special force strike capabilities and combined operations with the United States are the primary options.

This logic confers a special strategic importance to Australia’s submarine choice. The new submarines are not just another military capability. While transport aircraft, armored vehicles and supply ships all have important roles to play in the Australian Defense Force, they cannot generate the strategic leverage and the deterrence power of advanced long-range submarines. The types of submarines and associated underwater systems the next Australian cabinet selects will give the country a strong deterrent and leverage in future serious crises, or they will preclude it from having the necessary capacity to use underwater forces to defend Australia with anything but a porous barrier defense.

In the context of this strategic logic there are, unfortunately, no simple, easy or low cost options for a new class of submarines. The off-the-shelf European boats may appear to be relatively cheap but they fall far short of Australia’s operational needs. They are too small, their payload is too limited and their range and time on station is too short. They cannot easily be refitted with the advanced US-supplied combat data and other systems that are already fitted to the Collins boats. Hence they would not be easy to integrate into Australian or allied operations.

The evolved Collins option would provide a much larger submarine, with greater range, endurance and weapon loads. The evolved Collins would also provide a substantial boost to Australian industry. This option would come at a much higher cost and carry availability risk as the first of these boats would probably not be available until 2035.

The option of a completely new design submarine would permit the development and production of an even larger submarine – almost certainly the largest conventionally-powered submarine in the world. This option would place the greatest pressure on Australian industry. These boats would be optimized for long-range, long endurance operations but they would entail acceptance of even higher costs and higher levels of risk. New design boats would also take longer to design, develop and build with the first vessel probably not being commissioned until about 2038.

As with the evolved Collins option, these boats would also be “orphan” submarines in the sense that they would not be operated by any other navy and Australia would need to carry the very substantial design authority and other overhead costs for the full life of the class.

Some commentators have assumed that there is no penalty for Australia in proceeding slowly and cautiously with this program. The problem with this relaxed approach is that the Collins boats are wasting assets that are losing their technological advantage and growing much more costly to maintain. The Collins Class already imposes prohibitive costs on the budget to maintain and these are likely to continue growing. This raises the serious possibility that Australia may not be able to operate a credible submarine force through most of the 2020s and 2030s. Attempting to extend the life of the Collins boats is like trying to maintain a 1993 vintage racing car and expecting it to routinely win races until it is phased out of service in 2038 or 2045. This stretches credulity.

What Australia really needs is a class of large submarines that have been fully proven in another navy, are currently in series production and can perform all of the tasks that the Australian Government requires with low risk and high reliability. This submarine force needs to be available at a comparable cost to the evolved Collins and new design options and capable of operating seamlessly with United States forces. The first of Australia’s new submarines should also be available for commissioning within a decade.

Remarkably, there is a class of submarines that meets all of these requirements well; the United States Virginia Class. The only problem is that like the United States, Britain, Russia, France, China, India and Brazil, Australia would need to accommodate itself to operating submarines with nuclear propulsion.

Ross Babbage is Founder of the Kokoda Foundation and Managing Director of Strategy International (ACT) Pty Ltd.