2014 will be a landmark year for Australia’s submarine service. Submariners will celebrate 100 years since the Royal Australian Navy’s (RAN) first submarine entered service during World War One. This year will also see the government make key decisions regarding Australia’s future submarine force and how it plans to replace ageing vessels currently in service.
It is a time to reflect on the past and the future.
HMAS Collins, one of six submarines operated by the RAN, is set to retire by the mid-2020s after a 30-year-long career. The other five vessels in the class will follow shortly afterwards as they reach the end of their operational life. With just over ten years to go before the first planned retirement, the government has already begun evaluating design concepts under the Sea 1000 programme.
In October, David Johnston officially requested Japanese help to develop a new fleet of submarines during a visit to Tokyo. That ‘help’ could see Australia buy at least ten Soryu-class submarines from Japan for around A$20bn. The 4,200 tonne diesel-electric submarines – ten of which are currently being built for the Japanese Navy – could be Japan’s first significant defence export since it revised its pacifist constitution this year.
There are concerns over the Soryu’s limited range compared with the current Collins-class fleet; the Soryu can travel 11,000km at 12km/h while the Collins can manage a significantly more capable 22,000km at 19km/h. Range is critical to Australia’s submarine force because of the huge distances they cover in both domestic and international waters.
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"Our submarines must possess the range and speed to reach patrol areas in reasonable time without constantly returning to base," wrote David Feeney, the Labor Party’s assistant spokesman for defence.
Breaking promises: no domestic-built submarines
As part of its 2009 Defence White Paper, the previous Labor government articulated its desire to expand the RAN’s future submarine force from six vessels to twelve. "The future submarine will have greater range, longer endurance on patrol, and expanded capabilities compared to the current Collins-class submarine," the white paper said. This was also the stated policy of the Coalition government – led by Tony Abbott – which came to power in 2013.
It’s a well-worn phrase for today’s politicians and top brass that you can do more with less.
Cost estimates for the new submarines have ranged between A$20bn and A$40bn, making it one of the Australian Defence Force’s largest acquisition projects ever. The most expensive option is a domestic submarine designed and built by government-owned shipbuilding firm ASC – formerly the Australian Shipbuilding Corporation. The least expensive option would be an off-the-shelf design, built in Europe or Asia.
In a time of constrained budgets, especially in defence, cost is an overbearing factor in Canberra’s decision-making process.
Both the Labor and Coalition governments, and the 2009 White Paper, said the new submarines would be built in South Australia just like the Collins class. That would maintain the country’s sovereign capability in submarine manufacturing as well as manufacturing jobs in South Australia. But the Abbott government has slowly backtracked on this promise.
"We should make decisions based on defence requirements, not on the basis of industry policy," Abbott told reporters in September.
Not surprisingly, unions have condemned this u-turn and warned that jobs are at risk. "The pressure on Australia’s shipbuilding industry is at crunch point," said Glenn Thompson, assistant national secretary of the Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union . "Unless the government confirms a rolling build for all naval surface vessels, well as our submarines, we’ll be dead in the water."
Former naval commanders and industry leaders have also lent their support to keep submarine manufacturing in Australia.
Why is Australia buying Japanese submarines?
There are wider strategic reasons why Canberra sees a Japanese submarine as beneficial. Japan is one of Australia’s biggest trading partners in the region and both countries have fostered closer economic and security ties over recent years. In July, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Tony Abbott signed the Japan-Australia Economic Partnership Agreement, giving "preferential access" to Australian exports. Both countries have also agreed to participate in joint research, development, and production of defence equipment and technology.
One of the drivers behind closer relations is the growing dominance of China in the Asia-Pacific region. It is in this context that Canberra may prefer to work with Tokyo, which shares a common adversary, than with European countries who don’t. Another high-priority for Australia’s future submarines will be the integration of US combat systems, something which may be easier working with a close US ally like Japan.
The second reason is industrial. Australia’s Collins-class vessels are the first, and quite possibly the last, submarines ever to be built in Australia. Although opinion is divided, some analysts would say Australia’s experiment with building its own submarines has largely been a failure. The Collins-class submarines have regularly been in the media spotlight over reliability issues, operational effectiveness and poor availability – contributing to a negative perception of the submarine in Australia.
On top of this, ASC’s poor performance in building the RAN’s new class of air warfare destroyers (AWD) – known as the Hobart-class – has also added to the general feeling that it is not up to the task of building complex warships. The destroyers are running two years late and are A$500m over budget. Recent reports suggest state-run ASC – which has never built a surface warship before – will be sidelined in favour of commercial giant BAE Systems.
A 2012 RAND report, commissioned by the Department of Defence, also stated Australia would need around 1,000 skilled draftsmen and engineers for the new submarine programme. Although industry could provide numerous technical draftsmen and engineers to the replacement effort, many would lack experience in submarines and their availability would be limited due to other demands. According to RAND, this inexperienced workforce could delay the project three for four years and increase costs by 20%.
Are experts worried about the loss of this vital sovereign capability? "We can’t lose something we don’t have," Mark Thomson, a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said via e-mail.
"The Collins, like the AWD, has a locally built hull but all of the critical subsystems – motors, engines, weapons, sensors, combat system – are imported." Thomson admits to having ‘sympathy’ with the government’s approach but says there should be a plan B if difficulties emerge working with a first-time exporter like Japan.
Maintaining Japanese subs: who will do it?
Maintaining the future submarines is also a point of contention. The federal government has promised more jobs in South Australia, whichever submarine design is chosen, as that is where the submarines will be maintained. Thomson agrees that Australia can maintain foreign-built boats. "We routinely maintain aircraft built overseas – as does Qantas – so there is no reason we cannot do the same with vessels built offshore. In fact, we’ve done so in the past."
The US Navy has unveiled new technology allowing any unmanned surface vehicle (USV) to autonomously act with others as a swarm.
Some, however, worry that Japan will not share technical details of sensitive technologies with Australia, meaning some repairs would have to be carried out abroad. In light of Australia and Japan’s recent agreement to share defence technology this seems unlikely, but it will certainly be part of future negotiations between the two countries.
With Australia turning its back on domestic-built submarines, and state-run ASC also taking a backseat in the Hobart-class project, this could be the beginning of the end for the shipbuilding industry. That’s the worry for many workers in South Australia, where the country’s once-successful car industry has all but collapsed and where Australia’s shipbuilding capacity is concentrated.
The RAN’s Anzac-class frigates are also due to be replaced sometime in the next decade and, once again, there will be a concerted effort to build a successor in Australia. But just like with the Sea 1000 submarine project, cost, capabilities and industrial policy will all play a role in deciding whether they are manufactured at home or abroad.
If Australia’s next-generation of submarine is built in Japan, it would signal the end of a short-lived experiment to build submarines domestically. It will form part of a tumultuous century for the RAN’s submarine service, which ominously lost its first submarine just seven months after receiving it in 1914.
Nonetheless, the Australian Government still recognises the vital role submarines play protecting vital sea routes and other strategic interests, no matter where they are built.