Australia’s Submarine Folly

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Australia’s Submarine Folly

Australia’s Defense White Paper 2013 seems to kill the idea of acquiring nuclear subs. That could be a mistake.

Over the last several years there has been an ongoing debate over the replacement of Australia's conventional powered Collins-class submarines. Some defense analysts have argued that a nuclear submarine purchase or leased from the United States, the UK, or France would make the most sense as opposed to the limitations a conventional diesel submarine.

It seems, at least for now, the debate has been settled, with homegrown diesel subs winning the day.

On Friday, Australia released its Defense White Paper 2013. The document lays out the future agenda and goals for Australia's military. The document seems to have crushed the idea of nuclear propelled Australian submarines:

"Due to the strategic value and importance of Australia’s submarine capability, the Government remains committed to replacing the existing Collins Class fleet with an expanded fleet of 12 conventional submarines that will meet Australia’s future strategic requirements. The future submarines will be assembled in South Australia. The Government has ruled out consideration of a nuclear powered submarine capability to replace the Collins Class fleet."

The report also seemingly commits to an indigenously built vessel:

"The Government has directed further work on a new Submarine Propulsion Energy Support and Integration Facility in Australia. This land-based facility will substantially reduce risk in the Future Submarine Program by providing the capability to research, integrate, assemble and test the propulsion, energy and drive train systems in all stages of the Future Submarine’s design, build and through-life sustainment."

"The Government has also taken the important decision to suspend further investigation of the two Future Submarine options based on military-off-the-shelf designs in favor of focusing resources on progressing an ‘evolved Collins’ and new design options that are likely to best meet Australia’s future strategic and capability requirements."

There are some compelling arguments for sure when it comes to the direction of Australia's future submarine force. Homegrown conventional diesel submarines obviously would power Australia's defense industry for decades to come, creating or retaining jobs while developing greater domestic submarine building capabilities and technical knowhow. Modern diesel electric submarines, powered by air-independent propulsion, are near silent and tough to track by any modern navy. Armed with modern anti-ship missiles, they are certainly a force to be reckoned with on the high-seas.

Despite the benefits to Australia's defense industry and military capabilities of a domestic conventional submarine, one must look back to Canberra's last submarine project, the Collins-class — certainly not a smooth experience. In an interview The Diplomat conducted last year with Australian defense expert Ross Babbage, he explained some of the challenges of the last domestically built submarine:

"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."

Considering the cost and needs of Australia's military for the next several decades, leasing an American, British or French nuclear submarine would surely have been a better option.

In particular, American nuclear powered Virginia-class subs are some of the most state of the art and well praised in defense circles and would be an excellent choice for Australia. As Babbage noted last May, "(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."

In the end, domestic considerations like job creation and economic matters may have ruled the day when it comes to Australia's future submarine choice. With Julia Gillard trailing in the polls, it certainly would have been an unpopular choice to hand billions in defense contracts to any foreign supplier at a time when the government is running a budget deficit. However tough the challenge would have been for Gillard, let's hope Australia also weighed the ultimate consideration: getting the most capable submarine to defend the nation for the best cost.