December 10, 2014

Australian Future Submarine Choices – Need for a Plan B

A Scorpene class submarine. A relatively simple purchase for Australia?
Australia's Abbott Government's newly stated preference for a quick submarine selection has increased the emphasis on existing submarine designs. This excludes the HDW 216 and also the conventional DCNS Barracuda-SMX Ocean which would both need years of design-development. What is left are the existing, in-production, Soryu's, HDW 214s (perhaps in Dolphin 2 form) and the DCNS Scorpene.

The Abbott Government might announce Australia’s future submarine, likely to be Japan’s Mitsubishi-Kawasaki Soryu, following the Japanese elections to be held on December 14, 2014. It makes sense for Australia not to hold a tender if the Government wants an in-production submarine rather than a risky drawing board design. If the unprecedented sale of Japan’s Soryu (Plan A) falls through Abbott needs a Plan B. Given Australia’s financial situation six new submarines make more sense than twelve.

This article follows my earlier On Line Opinion submarine articles here and here.

The Australian Government’s preference for Japan’s Soryu is partly based on three aspects that could not be part of any tender process. One is deepening Abbott’s friendship with Japanese Prime Minister Abe (like Abbott Abe is a political conservative). Another aspect is the Australia-Japan regional alliance value of purchasing the Soryu. Australia would gain no such alliance benefits in buying submarines from the major European hopefuls (Germany, France and Sweden). The increased tactical  interoperability of Japanese and Australian Soryus would be an additional aspect.

Japanese Political Uncertainty

The December 14, 2014 Japanese election involves at least three levels of uncertainty. First it is for the lower House (of Representatives) where Prime Minister’s Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is in a ruling coalition with the basically pacifist Komeito party. If the LDP loses seats or Komeito gains seats Abe will have a weaker mandate to push through his defence export (Soryu largest item) policies. Secondly, and depending on the election’s result, Komeito might break from its conservative LDP ally and ally itself with leftist opposition parties. Thirdly the Japanese electoral rules require the existing Cabinet, including Prime Minister Abe, to resign. Abe then expects to be re-elected by LDP members, as Prime Minister, but that isn’t a sure thing.

Australia is unfamiliar with such nuances of Japanese politics even though such politics might impact a Soryu selection, delivery and maintenance process for over forty years. The enormity of the Soryu sale will be a test case for Japanese politics, Japan’s constitution and its defence industry as Japan has no major defence sales record.

A German or French Plan B

Japanese uncertainties mean Australia needs a Plan B to buy from European submarine sellers. These sellers have no serious political uncertainties and have proven defence sales records. Problems exist for the European sellers in anticipating what Abbott wants. This uncertainty demands an expression of Australian needs short of a formal tender.

In 2009, at the peak of the mining boom, it was calculated that Australia needed 12 specially designed large submarines. But now we are in a mining trough this seems an unsustainable extravagance. It may well be that the European contenders have anticipated that Australia is still wedded to the 2009 requirements for submarines that weigh 4,000 tons (surfaced). Germany’s TKMS has apparently proposed the Type 216 to the Australian Government. France’s DCNS has proposed a conventional development of the Barracuda SSN. DCNS envisage that a future conventional Barracuda, also called the “SMX Ocean”, would weigh 4,700 tons (surfaced). As both submarines would basically be Australia only (“orphan”) designs they are handicapped compared to the, in production (for Japan) Soryu. Meanwhile Sweden is offering a larger version of the drawing board design (A26). Sweden built its last complete submarine in 1996 or arguably 2001 if you count the Collins class.

The tonnage Australia really wants, or is prepared to tolerate, is a pivotal issue. If Australia is prepared to select submarines at the upper tonnage end of European designs Australia could then make decisions that result in minimal design lags and avoid major excess expense. This would increase the chances that the European submarines are built on-time and on-budget. Australia has practiced flexibility in (apparently) choosing the Soryu, that is less than 3,000 tons (surfaced). Such flexibility should also apply to current designs built by Germany and France.

If Japan’s proposed Soryu deal falls through the Australia government might really be after extended range versions of existing German or French submarines. These are Germany’s Type 214 and France’s Scorpene.

If Australia applied the same design realities of the Soryu Mark 2 to the 214 or Scorpene then lower tonnage would be more reasonable. The new batch of Soryu’s (which I call the Soryu Mark 2s) apparently will be without the extra weight of Stirling air independent propulsion (AIP) plants fitted within the Soryu Mark 1s. Instead (according to Japanese sources) the Soryu 2s will apparently rely soley new Lithium-ion batteries that have a higher performance than existing lead-acid batteries Japan, however, is capable of designing its own AIP technology - which may perhaps be fitted in the Soryu 2.

Germany and France also appear to be developing Lithium-ion batteries. For the Soryu, 214 or Scorpene lighter Lithium-ion batteries should allow extra diesel fuel to be carried for the extra range required (already 21,000 kms for the Collins).

A vertical launch system (VLS) appears to be absent in the Soryus and therefore should not be a weight gaining requirement for German and French proposals. Tomahawk cruise missiles can be fired from existing horizontal torpedo tubes. Modified VLS is not required for divers as divers are increasingly being catered for in detachable dry dock shelter technology that sits behind a submarine’s sail-fin .

Six Submarines Not Twelve

To save many $Billions in purchase, manning and sustainment costs it would be better if Australia aimed at acquiring just six submarines not twelve. This takes into account Australia’s tight financial circumstances with many competing demands within and outside the defence budget. It also takes into account Australia's reported inability to man more than 2 Collins simultaneously (ie. massive crew shortages). A requirement for twelve submarines was an uncosted, minimally justified, extravagance included in Australia's  2009 Defence White Paper (page 70, section 9.3 ) drawn up under the Rudd Labor Government. 

There appears to be a historical trend of shooting high in Australian submarine numbers. The numbers of UK built Oberon class submarines (operating 1967-1999) proposed for Australia shrank from eight to six subs The proposed number of the Collins (operating 1996 - present) went from ten, to eight, to six subs .

Australia's naval budget should not be spread too thinly given that the major new ship acquisitions will need to be maintained. These new acquisitions are the two 27,000 ton Canberra Class Landing Helicopter Docks and the three 7,000 ton Hobart Class AirWarfare Destroyers. The Navy also plans to build eight mainly ASW Future Frigates (Project SEA 5000) in the 2020. The Future Frigates may displace 7,000 tons - approximately twice that of their ANZAC Frigate predecessors. Apparently 21st century smaller crew and miniaturised electronics efficiencies do no apply to the Future Frigates. All of these new ships will arguably double the combat tonnage of the RAN. All before doubling the size of our submarine fleet to twelve larger subs.

Despite the political, financial and strategic uncertainties the Abbott Government needs to make a series of reasonable decisions for the future submarines. By having a reasonable Plan B the political risks of Plan A (choosing Japan’s Soryu) can be reduced. Plan B involves existing German and French submarines that are also in production (like the Soryu). Given Australia’s rapid naval expansion choosing a reasonable six submarines makes more sense than twelve. Whatever happens a repeat performance of designing a very large “orphan” submarine like the Collins should be avoided. 

Peter Coates


Anonymous said...

Dear Pete,

I read in "The Australian" that RAN was looking at the German 7,100 t F125-class frigate. This ship will be maned with a core crew of just 120 men + 70 specialist depending on operations. This new type of ship is thought for peacekeeping and peacemaking missions.

The 5,800 t F124-class frigate is the ASW and AWD ship of German Navy with a crew of 255 men.

This F124 Sachsen-class is based on the same design as Netherlands 6,000 t De Zeven Provinciën-class or Spanish 6,000 t Álvaro de Bazán-class („Trilateral Frigate Cooperation“). 5,300 t Fridtjof Nansen-class is based on the Spanish frigate but slightly smaller.

Is 6,250 t Hobart-class to small to do ASW and act as AWD?


Peter Coates said...

Hi MHalblaub

Australia's DMO and the Defence Minister appear to be revising the plan to build 8 x 7,000 ton frigates under Project SEA 5000 (noting the DMO website for that project has been taken down).

It seems extravagant for the AWDs not to have an acceptable ASW capability.

A reason for this revision may be the extravagance of the Navy's wish to replace the 8 ANZAC Class frigates (of 3,600 t) with twice the tonnage 7,000 ton "frigates".

"Extravagance" given:
- such weight saving trends as smaller crew-automation and miniturised electronics.
- Australia's reduced spending power with the end of the mining boom
- and overly specialised, limited mission, AWDs and ASW Frigates
- the major cost overruns and time-lag of AWD construction.

All this puts in doubt whether Australia will pick the 5,000-7,000 ton frigate-destroyers you have listed.



Peter Coates said...

Hi MHalblaub

This article has also been published today on On Line Opinion as "Future submarine choices: more than a one horse race" at - with a discussion going.

"Hasbeen" on the discussion thread has been in military ship-boat building - see .



Alexander Judzewitsch said...

Collins subs cost us more than $605m per year to maintain. An early replacement can save us billions which could be spent on new subs with lower maintenance costs. Replace 10 years early saves more than $6Bn and that is possible.
Nuclear powered subs are the only ones that give us the capability we need in a production submarine. Both these have been stated as essential for our new subs. So why not arrange with the USA to crew and possibly lease two Virginia class subs starting in say 5 years? It would save huge sums in maintenance and two operational SSNs have far greater capability than all of our Collins. The Americans would be happy to have us pay for two boats to work in our region as it would save them the cost of doing it. That leaves open the options of having all SSNs or a mix of diesel-electric plus SSNs as we could add SSKs or SSNs to our capability depending on what is available and our perceived needs in the future. The above suggestion meets all of the requirements stated so far and saves heaps of money.

Peter Coates said...

Hi Alexander Judzewitsch

Now that I'm back from Christmas hols I'm providing a response to your timely comments as a new blog post later today.