Jon Stanford and Michael Keating – Submarines; cost, capability and timelines.

This article is a response to the article posted yesterday by Paul Barratt and Chris Barrie.  ‘The case for building the future submarines in Australia.’

Both Paul Barratt and Chris Barrie have served at the highest levels in Defence and their views are clearly worthy of very serious consideration. Indeed, their contention that a military-off-the-shelf (MOTS) solution is impossible because Australia does have a unique role for a submarine and that the future submarine (FSM) should be built in locally, is shared by many people.

Nevertheless, it is surprising that Mr Barratt and Admiral Barrie do not discuss the capability for the FSM required by the Navy, the cost of providing that capability and the timeline in which the capability needs to be delivered. The authors have not attempted to justify spending $4.2 billion each on a conventional submarine (SSK), the first of which will not be delivered for 17 years, when a MOTS conventional submarine would cost well under $1 billion and even a large, highly capable Virginia class nuclear submarine costs around $3.7 billion. These submarines could be delivered in the early 2020s, or ten years earlier than under the White Paper scenario. This would mean that a costly and highly risky upgrade of the Collins submarines would not be required.

While the Navy’s requirement for submarine capability is ambitious, it is by no means unique. Its requirement, for example, is similar to that of the UK and French navies. The problem is that its ambitious capability requirement, particularly for force projection in the South China Sea, points to a need for nuclear submarines, which both the other two navies operate. The previous Defence Minister acknowledged this by saying: “ideally we are seeking a comparable capability to a nuclear submarine with diesel-electric motors”.

Unfortunately this is a fantasy. If Australia is determined to operate its submarines in the South China Sea in support of the Americans, then this could only be achieved with a reasonable margin of safety by a nuclear powered submarine. In that case, Australia should make it clear that its support for the US in forward operations in the South China Sea is contingent on the US agreeing to allow Australia to acquire nuclear submarines.

On the other hand, if Australia cannot or will not acquire a nuclear submarine, then it should abandon the strategy of force projection in far-off contested waters. In any case, as the Australian Strategic Policy Institute has pointed out, there is no evidence to suggest that the US expects the RAN to undertake this task, which, in reality is a great power role.

Once the role of force projection in contested waters has been dropped, then contrary to what Mr Barratt and Admiral Barrie suggest, there are several off-the-shelf solutions that would meet Australia’s submarine requirements. These roles include sea denial in the approaches to Australia, together with intelligence gathering and surveillance in our region. Indeed, a small conventional submarine, readily available off-the-shelf, is more appropriate for these tasks than the large boat the Navy wants. We might need six of these submarines, delivered in the early 2020s at a total acquisition cost of less than $6 billion. Combined with the savings from not having to upgrade Collins (an impossible task, according to a former submarine captain), we would be well over $45 billion better off than under the $50 billion proposal contained in the White Paper, which in any case does not allow for the highly risky Collins upgrade.

Of course, Australian industry participation is a good thing provided it is competitive and does not compromise the defence benefits to be provided by the new assets. If ASC could deliver six SSKs in the early 2020s on a fixed price contract within, say, five per cent of a MOTS price, then by all means go for it provided the risks are managed appropriately. But otherwise, let’s bank the $45 billion or so saved on the submarine acquisition and let ASC content themselves with the $30 billion project to build the nine large frigates they have been promised in the White Paper. They will also be tasked with sustaining the new submarines, at a through life value much higher than the acquisition cost.

Jon Stanford and Michael Keating  are Directors of Insight Economics and formerly worked together at the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, where Dr Keating was the Secretary.

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