How to sink $90 billion

So much for sovereignty. Australia is locked out of repairing key US components of our submarines’ computer systems, and the government has committed our fleet to the extraordinarily dangerous role of helping the US conduct surveillance in the South China Sea

20 October 2020 | Brian Toohey/MW Media (Image: RAN/digitally altered)

It is hard to believe that a government genuinely committed to defending the nation would sign a contract to buy 12 ludicrously expensive submarines that would not be operational for at least 20 years, with the final submarine not ready for nearly 40 years. The fleet will be obsolete before its delivered.

But this is what the Turnbull government did when it announced in September 2016 that the majority French government-owned Naval Group would build 12 large submarines in Adelaide. The first sub is unlikely to be operational until the late 2030s and the last one until well after 2050.

It is even harder to understand why the government endorsed the extraordinarily dangerous role for Australian submarines of helping the US conduct surveillance and possible combat operations within the increasingly crowded waters of the South China Sea.

And while the Morrison government repeatedly claims that Australia’s defence force has a “sovereign” capability, in reality we are locked in “all the way” with the USA.

US secrecy prevents Australia from repairing key American components of both the Collins and Attack class submarines’ complex computerised systems.

Ominously, an earlier Coalition government gave Lockheed Martin the contract to integrate these systems into the Attack subs. This is the same company that wasted billions on a dud computerised system for the US made F-35 fighter planes.

Called the Attack class, the conventionally powered submarines to be built in Adelaide by Naval will rely on an unfinished design based partly on France’s Barracuda nuclear submarines.

Their official cost has already blown out from an initial $50 billion to $90 billion. It was revealed earlier this week that Defence officials knew in 2015 that the cost of the fleet had already blown out by $30 billion to $80 billion, yet continued to state publicly that the price tag was $50 billion. Life-cycle costs are expected to be around $300 billion.

Current tensions about maritime boundaries in the South China Sea may well be resolved before the fleet is delivered. Further billions will also have to be spent closing the gap in capability created by the retirement of our six Collins class submarines due between 2026 and 2038 – well before the first six Attack class are operational.

Australia’s expenditure of $90 billion will be enough to put just one Attack class submarine in the South China Sea at a time.

The other submarines will be making the 13,000-kilometre trip up there and back, being repaired and refurbished, or be committed closer to Australia.

Under US command

Australian subs in the South China Sea will be integrated into US forces and will be relying on them for operational and intelligence data. In an escalating clash, accidental or otherwise, they will be expected to follow orders from US commanders. Again, so much for Australia’s sovereignty.

There is no compelling strategic reason why Australian submarines should travel that onerous distance to support the US in the South China Sea. Contrary to popular belief, the vast majority of Australia’s trade with North Asia does not go through the that Sea. Nor does China impose barriers to commercial navigation, much of which involves its own trade.

“We’re backing Australian manufacturing”, says Defence Minister Linda Reynolds in front of a banner for French government-owned defence contractor

China has adopted a defensive anti-access/area denial strategy to control approaches to its homeland, building up an array of forces and sensors. This is in response to the US deploying sensors below and above the sea to prevent Chinese forces passing through choke points in the area to the broader ocean. While China’s actions are seen as aggressive, the US would never tolerate China laying sea-bed sensors and deploying submarines around its naval bases on the West Coast of America.

The Pentagon focuses on always knowing the whereabouts of all Chinese submarines, especially its two nuclear-armed ballistic missile-carrying subs based at Hainan Island. The Americans’ goal would be to destroy these subs at the start of any potential war. However, China’s nuclear armed missiles on land or sea are essential as a deterrence because the US has not ruled out first US first nuclear strike.

Open to detection

Australia’s submarines aren’t nuclear powered, which means they have to come to the surface to charge their batteries every few days. This leaves them open to being detected by increasingly sophisticated sensors and then destroyed. This risk can be greatly reduced by using air independent propulsion; for example, fuel cells, meaning submarines don’t have to resurface for up to six weeks.

But the Australian Navy stubbornly refuses to use this lifesaving technology. It also resists using modern batteries that are lighter and go further than lead acid ones.

Submarines could make an important contribution to the nation’s defence by operating above and below the island chain to Australia’s north to deter a naval force intending to attack Australia. This does not require ultra large submarines.

A report released in March by the executive director of Insight Economics Jon Stanford makes a persuasive case for not proceeding with the Attack class. The report, funded by electronics retailer Garry Johnson, was commissioned by the think tank Submarines for Australia.

One solution might be to design and build a modern version of the 3,100 tonne Collins instead of the 4,500 tonne Attack class submarines. This option has not been costed. A cheaper alternative would be to extend the life of the six existing Collins class submarines. The think tank Submarines for Australia has costed this at $15 billion, with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute costing it at $20 billion.

A much less costly option would be to build proven, high-performance submarines to be based at two harbours in northern Australia and scrap the reckless commitment to integrate them with US nuclear submarines in the South China Sea.

The Singapore Navy is getting new 2000 tonne submarines from the biggest maker of quality conventional submarines, Germany’s Thyssekrupp Marine Systems. Called the Type 218SG, they have hydrogen fuel cells and lithium ion batteries. They are low maintenance, can carry land-attack missiles or the German IDAS missile, which can hit ships and sub-hunting helicopters. The cost would be about $7 billion for six and just over $13 billion for 12, including spares and crew training. A high degree of automation also means they require a crew of just 28 that can rotate on eight-hour shifts instead of the usual 12 hour shifts for most submarines. Compare this with the Attack class requirement of a crew of 63, at a time when it is not easy to attract the large number of submariners required.

Perhaps the best argument, however, for not wasting $90 billion on the Attack class is that cheap underwater drones will soon have an important military role particularly suited to use from bases in northern Australia.

Brian Toohey began his career in journalism as a political correspondent at the Australian Financial Review in 1973. He edited the National Times in the 1980s and has contributed to numerous publications. He is author of Secret: The Making of Australia’s Security State. This story was first published by Michael West Media

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