There is a niche in the global submarine industry that Australia is well-placed to occupy, reports Alan Austin.
IT WOULD BE a bold move which only a visionary and courageous government could accomplish. Australia has the chance now to reimagine its status as a global naval manufacturer and exporter. The challenge is to build a smaller, faster, stealthier, stronger submarine than its rivals, which requires fewer crew and is cheaper to build and operate.
This can be achieved with a scaled-down version of one of the best submarines ever designed: the Collins class. Where was this built? In South Australia in the 1990s.
This “daughter-of-Collins”, as former Prime Minister Paul Keating dubbed it, offers multiple gains. It will replace the current ageing Collins class more quickly than other options, it will give Australia’s navy boats fit for purpose, it will generate export income and build a springboard for expansion into other high-tech manufacturing. It's a win-win.
Australia lost its car manufacturing industry during the disastrous Tony Abbott period. Australia’s military procurement suffered badly throughout the later Coalition years due to ineptitude, lack of enterprise and corruption. New submarine construction will restore Australia’s heavy industry capability and recover – eventually – the treasure lost with all those Coalition failures.
The boat for middle-power countries
None of the submarines considered by the previous incompetent Coalition Government is right for Australia.
- Japan’s Soryu class diesel-electric, 84 meters long, speed of 20 knots submerged, 65 crew. The Abbott Government announced in 2014 that it was buying these but did not proceed;
- France’s Barracuda class nuclear attack submarine, 99.5 meters, speed of 25 knots, 60 crew. The Turnbull Government contracted to buy twelve in 2015. The Morrison Government welched on that deal in 2021, costing Australia its international reputation as an honourable trading partner, compromising Australia’s medium-term security, and losing taxpayers around five billion borrowed dollars with nothing to show for it;
- American Virginia class nuclear-powered fast-attack submarine, 115 metres, speed of 25 knots, 135 crew. Designed in the 1990s, first delivered in 2008;
- Britain’s Astute class, nuclear-powered attack submarine, 97 metres, speed of 30 knots, 98 crew. Designed in the 1990s, first launched in 2007.
These compare with the current Australian Collins class, which is 77 metres, speed of 20 knots, crew 42, including six officers.
Assessing Australia’s needs
The new Australian sub should be around 60 metres, diesel-electric, speed 30 knots and operable with a crew of four officers and 25 sailors. This is based on the following needs:
- Given regional stability is steadily improving, Australia can ensure its defence with smarter decisions, more advanced technology, better regional collaboration and much lower expenditure;
- Australia’s immediate neighbours are Papua New Guinea, Timor-Leste, New Zealand, Indonesia and Malaysia. Nuclear submarines are not needed to patrol these waters and cannot access New Zealand ports under laws unlikely to change. Malaysia and Indonesia also have serious misgivings;
- The concept that Australia, population 26 million, could deploy nuclear attack class vessels in the South China Sea or beyond to engage militarily with China, population 1,439 million, is ludicrous. This seems to be the underpinning of the previous Government’s failed endeavours.
- The risk of China attacking Taiwan is limited. Even if it does, Australia has no treaties with Taiwan, and will not be involved;
- The risk of buying American nuclear submarines is that they will be operated and controlled by Americans and effectively just add to the U.S. fleet.
Building the six Collins class submarines in Australia was an extraordinarily ambitious project. The challenge was to build faster, stealthier and more lethal boats than its successful predecessor, the Oberon class.
Keating recalled recently that “Kim always had the admiral’s hat on. I had the money and the guns".
Construction began in 1990 and encountered multiple engineering problems, all of which were eventually overcome. The first boat was delivered in 1996, the sixth in 2003. These will now serve until the mid-2030s.
'... very capable, up to par with anything the United States has to offer ... The Collins was a triumph.'
Australia can do this
ASC, the government-owned shipbuilders based in Osborne, South Australia, built the Collins vessels and has continual experience maintaining them. It has also successfully delivered three Hobart class destroyers and other vessels.
Home-built submarines superior to Collins are now possible because of advances since the 1990s in metallurgy, engine design, sonar technology and batteries. Weapons systems are also more compact.
Importantly, Australia is one of two major lithium mining countries. Lithium-ion batteries have double the storage capacity of lead-acid batteries. Australia becoming the world’s leading lithium battery producer will be a highly-profitable spin-off.
Can new Defence Minister Richard Marles pull this off? As Deputy PM, he had the choice of portfolios and chose defence. He has put his hand up. Let’s see what he delivers when he dons his admiral’s hat.
South Australia's enthusiasm
The project has passionate support from the State Government.
What the Deputy Prime Minister has been able to see firsthand today is the extraordinary capability that South Australia offers when it comes to shipbuilding. This has been something that is now in our blood here in South Australia. We are the home of the Collins-class submarine. We built the AWDs. We now see firsthand the work in terms of the delivery of the Hunter class.
What should we call this new class of submarines built in Australia? One option is to honour the last of the Coalition defence ministers, whose incompetence has inadvertently gifted the new Government with this shot at greatness.
Perhaps, to recognise the recent historic change of government, the Toto class? Or if the incoming Government succeeds with this ambitious project, as it should, then why not simply the Albo class?
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