HANS J OHFF. Submarines and how not to defend Australia

Nov 14, 2019

The Government’s new submarine project continues to be subjected to serious criticism. I have written on the ill-conceived SEA 1000 project since before the decision was made to award the contract to the French company NAVAL Group Australia (formerly DCNS) in April 2016.  I now argue that we must face up to the underlying issue, which is that the two critical decisions, to buy sub-optimal diesel-electric boats, and to design them for missions off the coast of China, are fundamentally incompatible.

Prof Hugh White, Dr Michael Keating‎ and RADM (retd) Peter Briggs presented the first Insight Economics report, ‘Australia’s Future Submarine: Getting This Key Capability Right’, at the Canberra Press Club in September 2017. Its key observation is that the decision to acquire the French SHORTFIN BARRACUDA Block 1A submarine class was an extravagantly expensive solution that would involve very high design, construction and delivery risks. With the COLLINS-class reaching the end of its useful life before the new class will be commissioned by the RAN, the report identifies a capability gap as the main risk. The probability of late delivery, that is after the COLLINS class has been laid up – will in all likelihood leave the RAN with no operational submarines. The report also found that the FSM design is unlikely to deliver the required capability at any price. Yet, notwithstanding this apocalyptic message, the government made no attempt to revisit the decision, and the Labor opposition have not taken up the issue.

In their article ‘A Very hungry future submarine’ Drs Andrew Davies and Marcus Hellyer, have again drawn attention to the high program cost and the accelerated cash-flow of the FSP. ‎ Hellyer was interviewed on ABC RN Breakfast on 6 Nov to discuss the apparent $30 billion cost escalation at this early stage of the program.  Avoiding being drawn on whether the future ATTACK-class will be value for money, Hellyer took the view that diesel-electric boats were inferior to nuclear-powered submarines. Notwithstanding this he proffered that the SEA 1000 program could deliver a superior diesel-electric submarine in our region. He confessed, however, that he did not know what the government meant by ‘superior submarine capability’.

Many critics of the program would agree with the conclusion

An Australian-based diesel-electric submarine ‎is unsuited to operate effectively in the South China Sea (SCS).

Diesel-electric have different operational requirements to nuclear-powered submarines. This will limit the regional capability of the new submarines even in the unlikely event that the ATTACK-class is built with state of the art electrical drive trains and an operational capability as originally envisaged by the RAN.

The acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines is not feasible on political, social, economic, technical, local construction, environmental, operational and thru-life support grounds.

The government has appropriated approximately six billion dollars for the project mobilisation and the design of the ATTACK-class. This exorbitant sum does not buy a submarine, and it does not include approximately $410 million in break payments applicable if NAVAL Group is not contracted to build the submarines.

Unless the mobilisation and design cost include a very large amount for intellectual property and know-how transfer, and a very high profit margin for NAVAL Group, it will be difficult to spend six billion dollars by 2022/23.

The construction and thru-life cost of the future class – estimated to be $200 billion ‎over 50 years – ‎would arguably be the highest per capita cost of any submarine acquisition program the world over.

The intended and necessary change from lead to light-metal batteries during the submarine construction phase or post-delivery would improve operational performance of a diesel-electric submarine but cannot be quickly, easily, and inexpensively achieved. It would require a fundamental redesign of the submarine.

But while these facts indicate Australia is buying the wrong submarine for the mission, the more important point is that we have chosen the wrong mission.

What lies behind the purpose for the government (RAN) insisting on a submarine capability for deployment in the South China and/or East China Seas. Intelligence gathering? That could be much better and more safely attained in alliance with the Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force! But confronting Beijing in the South China Sea by conducting freedom- of-navigation across the man-made islands built by China as a way of pushing against Beijing militarisation of the SCS as demanded by former head of the Defence Department,Department of Foreign Affairs and ASIO, Dennis Richardson would be high risk.Interdicting submarines around the PLA-N bases in the SCS once hostilities have commenced would mean a declaration of war! Australia’s economic well-being is inextricably linked to China. As a middle power of 25 million people Australia should not declare war on anyone.

I am reminded of the VADM Wolfgang Wegener thesis. Formulated after the Battle of Jutland Wegener established that Sea Power = fleet size x industrial capacity (shipyards, supply chain, fuel logistic support, manpower) x favourable geo-strategic position.

Notwithstanding the sinking of fourteen British ships and the loss of twice as many sailors during the Battle of Jutland, Britain won the naval outcome of WWI by containing the German fleet in the Baltic Sea and in the German Bight (i.e. the south-eastern corner of the North Sea), thus denying the Imperial Navy access to Great Britain and the Atlantic. In other words, the Royal Navy occupied the better strategic position post the Skagerrakschlacht, forcing the Emperor’s High Seas Fleet to stay in port.

The PLA-Navy with its growing fleet, the huge industrial capacity, and favourable geographical position outguns the RAN, and arguably the USN, in every variable of the Wegener equation. This would not markedly change if Australia were to acquire nuclear-powered attack submarine.

Hugh White, in his new book How to defend Australia understands this. Although when all else fails, he erroneously concluded that Australia may need to consider acquiring nuclear forces.

Before we prepare for the unlikely event of war with our major trading partner let’s stop punching above our weight, and reinforce the country’s defence capabilities. Andrew Davies argues succinctly that a fall-back option could be to ‘temper our ambitions and settle for a fleet that will deliver value for money capability in less than the most challenging situations’.

I believe also that the only way for Australia to buy affordable, and effective, submarines is to first revisit precisely what purpose that fleet is to have. Our relationship with China must be managed carefully and diplomatically. Deploying Australian attack submarines in the South China Sea is NOT the answer.

Hans J Ohff, Visiting Research Fellow at The University of Adelaide

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