November 21, 2013

Australian SEA 1000 Future Submarine, shipbuilding-budgeting issues

For the latest on Sweden's Saab perhap's buying ASC see June 11, 2014’s Australia's Future Submarine - Swedish vs German Claims . It is unclear whether Germany or Sweden hold the strongest intellectual property rights to the Stirling AIP.

A rough sketch of what Australia may want in its SEA 1000 future submarine project. Nuclear or diesel-electric propelled, if diesel-electric then additionally AIP or very large advanced battery capacity, multi-use vertical launch system, US combat system, US weapons including Tomahawk. Probably the not yet developed HDW 216, an enlarged DCNS Scorpene and in development Spanish S-80 are front runners with the SEA 1000 program planners. US Virginia Class, UK or French nuclear attack subs are outside chances. The chance that Swedish Kockums might be chosen (again) is reduced due to the Collins experience and TKMS-HDW.


Australia's new centre-conservative Coalition Government has made no decision on what its project SEA 1000 future submarine will consist of.

The previous centre-left Labor Government (voted out in September 2013) indicated in White Papers and other reviews that 12 future submarines would be constructed from around 2025 to around 2035. The previous Government decided these submarines would be large (up to 4,500 tonne) and hence of unique design, diesel-electric, built in Adelaide, South Australia and that they would probably use the US combat system and US conventional weapons (including the Tomahawk cruise missile). These unique large diesel-electric may effectively be Collins Mk. IIs but not built with Kockums as a major contractor unless TKMS negotiates deals in that direction. The Labor decision was made due to several considerations including:

- economic-industry development potential for the depressed South Australia economy

- popular with Labor's trade union constituency

- Federal and State level electoral considerations ie. votes in South Australia

- ideological anti-nuclear grounds, including popularity with Labor's Green Party ally and

- technical grounds (mainly that Australia possessed no nuclear propulsion support industry, that is if we needed one at all...)

Australia's new conservative Liberal-National Coalition Government has not yet made a decision on what will be in the SEA 1000 future submarine in part because:

- the new Coalition Government has only been in power for two and a half months

- the highly complex 30+ billion dollar project deserves several long reviews

- Australia does not currently have the Defence money to fund the project

- naval shipbuilding and budgeting for Australia is currently taken up by the 2 Canberra Class Landing Helicopter Docks (LHDs) and the 3 Hobart Class (Aegis) Air Warfare Destroyers (AWDs) projects under construction, and

- the issue is still unresolved under the new Government as to whether Australia may buy nuclear propelled attack submarines rather than diesel-electric

Its not necessarily set in stone that 12 subs will be built rather than 6 diesel-electric or 4 to 6 nuclear propelled. The built in Australia requirement is not a given. Industry-jobs-votes requirements in Australia may be met in other ways including offset agreements and heavy maintenance facilities constructed  in Australia including nuclear propulsion support (if needed...).

If, as is likely, 4 Virginia Class can do the job of 12 diesel-electric Collins Mk. IIs then on the crucial issue of lower overall price, a deal is possible.

A final Australian decision may take 4 years into the new Government ie 2017.

In terms of arguments favouring nuclear propelled Phil Radford a freelance writer, based in Sydney, has written the following article of May 15, 2013 in the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI's) The Strategist

A farewell to nuclear submarines, for now

The Defence White Paper signals full-steam ahead for Australia’s most expensive defence project ever: the design and construction, in Australia, of 12 conventionally-powered submarines. With A$200m committed to funding initial designs, however, the enormity of the challenge will start to surface. Australia now has to create submarines with greater range and endurance than anything built by countries with generations of experience.

Hopefully, Canberra analysed its alternatives to the point of exhaustion. In about two years’ time, Adelaide will start to fill up with the 1,500-or-so foreign draughtsmen and engineers that RAND says Australia will have to import, just to execute the design work. And as these experienced submarine designers wrestle with the performance parameters set by government, they’ll pose one very awkward question: “Why are you asking us to design a nuclear-powered submarine without a nuclear engine?”

Currently, the government has no answer. The White Paper simply says that “consideration of a nuclear powered submarine capability [… has been] ruled out”. This reticence is mistake. As Collins Mk II rises from the drawing board, the case for purchasing nuclear-powered boats will only get stronger.

First, consider the money. The projected cost of an all-new 4,000 tonne conventional boat is estimated by ASPI to be over A$3 billion, which includes all project costs. This is approximately the same as the sail-away cost of a much larger Virginia class nuclear submarine off an established production line, and could even be more than a French or British nuclear submarine which would almost certainly sail away for less than $2 billion. Defence would still have to purchase the support systems to get the boats into Australian service, but the industrial and program costs sunk into getting a first-in-class to work would be borne by someone else.

Besides being less risky to procure, these nuclear-powered vessels would be far more powerful than conventionally-powered boats. They could arrive on station faster, stay there longer, carry more weapons, and fight more aggressively. As a deterrent, they’d be many times more formidable.

The Royal Australian Navy might play a simple war game once the new design matures. They could invite a retired American submarine captain over and say : “Sir, to achieve a specific objective in the middle of the Pacific or Indian oceans you have a straight choice between having, under your command, one single nuclear-powered boat, or ‘X’ number of our Collins Mk.II?” Even at this distance, his ‘X’ is likely to be two or three. Expressed as an opportunity cost in dollars, the answer is horrendous.

The objections to going nuclear are clear; but as the challenges of Collins Mk.II become less opaque, the question will be: did the Government diligently and unemotionally address them?

If the over-riding justification for an Australia-built fleet is operational independence, then Government should look squarely at what the current fleet delivers. Only one third of the Collins fleet is generally seaworthy. Refitting them takes four to five times the work required on similar comparable European vessels. And upgrading them requires US help for the most complex elements—the sensors, combat system and weapons.

Australia could almost certainly sustain a fleet of nuclear boats to a higher level of operational availability than currently possible. Neither the US nor UK boats ever need refuelling. The core is closed for the lifetime of the submarine, so the additional nuclear engineering required for through-life support is modest. Establishing a first-class nuclear-boat maintenance facility in Australia would be expensive, but pales beside the gargantuan cost of re-launching the Australian Submarine Corporate (ASC) as a construction yard.

Alternatively, Australia could avoid the cost and political risk of building maintenance facilities here, and instead operate the boats on a similar cycle to the United States Navy’s Guam-based submarines. This would mean the submarines having only a small maintenance footprint here and returning to US West Coast for periodic refits, which is pretty much how the RAAF maintains its fleet of C-17 strategic transports.

In either case, you don’t need a construction yard to maintain a submarine. The activities are quite different. British nuclear boats never re-visit the Barrow yard where they are built.

Nor would the fact Australia’s boats were foreign-built boats necessarily diminish the country’s strategic independence. There’s a fundamental difference between depending on an ally to come to your aid (which, in extremis, Australia does now) and depending on your ally not to obstruct you from paying to defend yourself. That’s why the UK ultimately trusts US not to abuse its position as the supplier–owner of its Trident ballistic missiles, on which the UK’s independent deterrent relies.
Does the case against nuclear boats ultimately rest, then, on Australian jobs foregone? That flank, too, is exposed. Re-booting ASC will merely kick-start thousands of careers that will go nowhere once each design and construction phase is complete. Better, surely, to play the international defence procurement game, and trade jobs on submarines for offsets in industries where Australia can build competitive advantage—and careers with a future.

The stakes couldn’t be higher. Asia is rising and submarines will become Australia’s primary defence asset for many decades. For now, the government has passed on the one weapon that could deliver genuine independent strategic security. But like a pair of lethal mines, cost and capability are floating right in the path Australia’s home-grown subs. This won’t be the last we hear of Australia’s nuclear option.

Phil Radford is a freelance writer, based in Sydney. He specialises in naval strategy and defence procurement." 


Anonymous said...

So what is the military issue behind a bigger son of Collins-class?

Range of a Collins-class submarine today is reached by even smaller submarines like Type210mod or A26. To gather intelligence a small submarine is better suited and a diesel-electric submarine is even quieter than a large Virginia-class submarine.

What about crew size? A Virginia-class submarine is manned with about 130 men. A modern Type210mod needs just 15 men (21 for 3-watch). Therefore 3 crews of Virginias 26 small submarines could be manned. For price of one Virginia class submarine Australia could get at least 4 Type210. For A$30billion Australia could buy more than 40 Type210mod. This submarine could be built in Australia. The advantage of building a steady stream of small submarines is to include improvements in the next batch and to keep the knowledge alive how to build them.

Just 3 operational submarines are easier to track and even very fast submarines can’t be everywhere at once. Also a fast submarine is very noisy. A trip around Australia is roughly 7,000 nm. For each submarine 2,300 nm to patrol. With 26 submarines the area is less than 300 nm. With just 3 operational submarines it is very hard to lose one with a crew of over 100 men.

US combat System due to US weapons? What a nonsense! South Korea ChangBogo-class (Type 209) can fire Harpoon missiles. If Raytheon dislikes selling some Tomahawks Australia could just ask Israel about some Popeyes. Israel operates Popeyes on Dolphin-class submarines (Type 209).

Oh, more range. What about submarine tenders? Even the US Navy has a few.

Going big will result in too few submarines. Going to Virginia will add a capability already existing in the Pacific and Indian Ocean. After 6 or 12 small submarines Australia can still switch to a larger submarine type but then with better knowledge.

Pete said...

Hi Anonymous

I've responded in the next post "Ongoing debate on Australia's SEA 1000 future submarine requirements" of 22 November 2013.