For ABC News, March 18, 2009 Andrew Davies of the Australian Strategy Policy Institute, has written a useful commentary on Australia's program for a new and unique locally built submarine. The reasons for it are similar to India's ATV program:
"New submarine fleet a long way off
So far only a few things are clear - there will be a replacement for the Collins submarine, and it will be delivered sometime after 2020.
There has been a recent flurry of media reports about the plans for Australia's future submarine fleet. Depending on who you read, the number of subs to be built is anywhere from six to 18, and the project budget is somewhere between $12 and $35 billion.
So who is right? As it happens, the correct answer is 'none of the above' - yet. The road to a future submarine is a long one and there are many decision points to be negotiated before the final solution emerges. In fact, this project is a very good example of just how complex defence projects can be. It's easy to be critical in hindsight when projects like the Seasprite helicopters go wrong, but this is a good case study of just how hard it can be to see the right path in advance.
So far only a few things are clear; there will be a replacement for the Collins submarine, it will be built in Adelaide and delivered sometime after 2020, and nuclear subs are out of the question. Pretty much everything else is still to be settled. Even very basic questions such as how large the subs need to be, what technologies they will have and who is going to design and build them are still to be answered.
The complexities of the submarine project arise from a number of sources, but they all owe their existence to a single observation: there is no submarine on the world market that does what we want. When deciding to build the Collins class, the Australian government of the day decided that the country would be best served by having a submarine fleet that could conduct extended patrols thousands of miles from home. There is no suggestion that that requirement will be relaxed. In fact, the Prime Minister has stated that Australia's naval forces will be strengthened in order to play a role in an increasingly contested Asia-Pacific region, the countries of which will field dozens of new submarines over the next few decades.
The world's submarines fall into two broad classes - long-range and high-endurance nuclear subs and much shorter-range conventional ones. The only submarines that fall in between are our own Collins (a design now over 20 years old), Japan's fleet [Soryu and Oyashio class] (constitutionally banned from export) and a South Korean [KSS-III] design only just starting to take shape. So chances are that nothing on the world market will do the job we want. And even if it did, any submarine versus submarine engagement would look uncomfortably like an even fight if both sides were operating subs bought in the same marketplace.
Australia is almost uniquely well-placed to do better than that. We have a close alliance with the United States that gives us access to sensitive systems, weapons and technologies, and we have a hard-won national capability to build those technologies into a European-sourced submarine design. (The Collins was based on a Swedish [Kockums] design.) In other words, we can have the best of both worlds - US systems [especially Raytheon's combat system] developed for their very capable but all-nuclear fleet coupled with state-of-the-art European conventional submarine technology. The resultant boat could give us the edge we seek.
But there is a very delicate balancing act to be performed in doing that. For a start, there are technical issues to be surmounted in marrying the different design philosophies. For example, nuclear submarines have essentially no power limitations, so equipment designed for them does not take into account the power budgets that have to be managed in conventionals.
But just as importantly, the Americans and Europeans hold their submarine technologies very closely and don't want them to 'leak' (admittedly not a propitious word to use when writing about submarines) to other countries. Australia would have to manage the process very carefully to keep the potential providers confident that their secrets were safe with us. So the Australian Government will act as a trusted broker in government-to-government and navy-to-navy negotiations. Industry will be brought in progressively as the design firms up.
So where are we now? Basically, at step one. Defence has asked a number of submarine design houses for a 'concept design', essentially a high-level 'sketch' of what the future submarine might look like. That concept will be refined over the next two years, after which preliminary designs will be refined for another couple of years. Between 2013 and 2016 the detailed design will be developed, with construction not starting until (at the earliest) 2016.
Before the concept is fully developed, there can be no firm decision on the number of submarines - after all, how do we know how many we need before we know what each one can do? Similarly, costs won't be known until the design is well advanced. And, of course, we need to be convinced that the manning and support of any expanded submarine fleet could be managed.
So take any dramatic headlines in the near future about the size, shape and cost of Australia's future submarine fleet with a grain of salt.
Australia built the Collins Class and is planning a future conventionional submarine for similar reasons to the much more ambitious Indian ATV program (currently under construction). That is because they:
- provide the best technical solutions to specific national requirements
- provide greater national security through self reliance - independent of foreign suppliers
- further the national R and D bases
- maintain national naval construction-industrial bases, and
- boost national and ruling government prestige.
I think all these factors are legitimate reasons for paying a higher cost for indigenously built submarines.
Australia appears to have excluded the nuclear propulsion option due to cost, reliance on the US nuclear submarine shield (under ANZUS) and US pressure on Australia to remain diesel/electric. The US earlier dissuaded Canada from considering nuclear propulsion as that would give that dependent allie a measure of independence.