Buying and building Korean AIP submarines: a bargain for Australia

Apr 24, 2023
Sonar Screen For Submarines And Ships. Radar Sonar With Object On Map. Futuristic HUD Navigation monitor

Australia has several very viable options for not buying AUKUS nuclear submarines. All of them are much cheaper in the medium to short term and vastly cheaper and much less political in the long term.

I have written before about alternatives to buying and operating nuclear submarines by Australia.

The main disadvantages of nuclear submarines are cost, noise problems, heat signatures, large crew numbers and no Australian nuclear industry to maintain them. The big sleeper problem will be nuclear waste. Australia by world standards has a very small, but serious problem of what to do with our medium and high level nuclear waste. Once we commit to nuclear submarines this problem of high level nuclear waste becomes enormous. No operator of nuclear powered submarines or ships has solved this waste problem. Reactors and fuel rods are very radioactive and must be secured for 100,000s of years. Australia’s nuclear waste storage is all temporary, no permanent nuclear storage facility exists. To build storage to secure submarine reactors and fuel rods will be very very expensive and no sane person would want high level nuclear storage in their state or country.

We have several very viable options for not buying nuclear submarines. All of them are much cheaper in the medium to short term and vastly cheaper and much less political in the long term. We started the French Barracuda Class program which Scott Morrison very expensively abandoned, though experiencing cost overruns, would have produced 12 world class submarines at a lot less than $350B-$400B+. Options have been seriously considered in the past include Tony Abbott’s suggested Japanese Submarines. Australia looked at German type 214 with a larger Australian version 216 or buying the smaller German 218, as purchased by Singapore. Collins 2.0 has also been considered, this option would have most likely been the best, not the cheapest. If built like the Japanese and Koreans build submarines it could have given us a world class submarine capability. Collins 2.0 is still possible, but to start now will be slow and costly.

So what to do? We plan to spend over ~ $1.5B and 2-3 years per submarine doing a mid life upgrade (MLU) on Collins submarines designed before 1990 based on even older Swedish design. So do we spend at least $9B and 12-18 years on six submarines of more than 36 year old design or make a sensible decision and fill the looming capability gap with a much more modern design of submarine?

We could purchase “off the shelf” 6 German state of the art 218 Air Independent Propulsion (AIP) submarines for less than ~$5B delivered in ~6 years. Alternatively we could purchase German, Japanese or Korean state of the art AIP conventional submarines “off the shelf” as a precursor to starting another Australian submarine building program. There is an estimated $9B budget for the Collins MLU or rumoured $9B set aside for purchasing 3 old 2nd hand US Virginia Class nuclear submarines coming with the associated nuclear waste problem to occur in about 15-20 years. This $9B could give us quite significant purchasing power to buy some world class modern submarines made in overseas ship yards much quicker than Collins MLU and give us 4-6 new AIP submarines of a similar size and range to the MLU Collins class.

I have already mentioned German 218 AIP submarines. They are small, but have many advantages such as small crew numbers(28) and long underwater endurance of 20+days and are already in operation in our region. The German 216 was a larger version proposed to compete with the French Barracuda submarine project, a derivative of the inservice 214 class. The new Japanese Soyru Class that is replacing the successful Taigei class is also a viable option.

However, the most interesting AIP conventional Submarine suitable for Australian operations would be the Korean KS-III design based originally on the reliable German 214 AIP design. KS-III cost “off the shelf” is just under $1.5B each. They have a slightly smaller crew size of 50 verses 58 for Collins Class. They are slightly larger than Collins and slightly shorter range, Collins 21,300km verses 19,000km KS-III. Importantly, the KS-III have an unclassified submerged endurance of 20 days fully submerged without snorkelling, which is much longer than the Collins. KS-III also has 10 vertical launch missile tubes as well as torpedo tubes so would introduce a new powerful missile strike capability to the Australian Defence Force (ADF).

So in summary, for around the cost of each individual 30+ year old Collins MLU or ~1/2 the cost of a 2nd hand US nuclear submarine, Australia could purchase one brand new K-III submarine. So in a much shorter time, estimated ~7 years for first KS-III instead of Collins MLU Australia could plug the Collins capability gap for a similar cost and also avoid the upcoming nuclear waste problems in the 2030s. Issues of range of conventional submarines versus range of nuclear submarines can readily be overcome by resupply “mother” ships combined with forward basing of some of our submarines and resupply ships in Northern Australia, our Indian Ocean Territories and possibly New Zealand.

The other big advantage is we could become a much closer defence partner with one of the most sophisticated submarine and ship building countries in the world. Australian troops help to protect South Korea when it was under threat from North Korea in the Korean War and South Koreans have not forgotten this sacrifice. The Koreans would welcome closer defence and industrial links (note: Hyundai & Daewoo build KS-III) with Australia. These partnerships could range from submarine/ship building, mobile artillery/munitions and possibly missile manufacturing. The production of Li-ion batteries (note: KS-III use Korean made Samsung Li-ion batteries) and fuel cells could also be started in Australia near existing shipyards. Later Australian versions of the KS-III in partnership with Korean manufacturers could be built as part of an Australian continuous submarine/ship building program at the Osborne Shipyard owned by ASC in South Australia instead of the Collins MLU.

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What would you choose: a strategic battery industry, or AUKUS?

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