Future submarines
3 May 2013|

Today’s White Paper launch saw the two ‘lower’ options for the future submarine taken off the table. We now know that the RAN’s future boats won’t be an existing off-the-shelf design or a relatively modest derivative of them. This decision was taken on the basis of a judgement that existing designs that were available for export or licence production in Australia didn’t have the performance—especially the range and endurance—needed for operations across the Asia-Pacific theatre.

In effect, this decision has removed the two least expensive, least risky, (probably) fastest and least capable options from the potential solutions. What we’ll see is either an evolution of the Collins class or an entirely new design. Both of these options are likely to be expensive and involve significant project risk. I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive, of which more shortly.

Also announced today was that there was a viable way ahead to keep the Collins boats operational for an additional duty cycle of eight years. (That was actually a re-announcement of comments made by Defence officials at last year’s Submarine Institute of Australia conference and in the second part of the Coles Review.) That’s important because, as Mark Thomson and I found last year, the only credible ways of avoiding a collapse of Australia’s submarine capability some time next decade was to either move to rapid acquisition of an existing design or to extend the Collins life to provide the time to design and build a replacement.

The net result is that the plan is now to do whatever engineering work is required to improve the maintainability of the Collins boats and to get an extra operating cycle out of them, and then replace them. It’s likely that this work will involve an extensive rework (and possibly replacement) of major elements of the Collins’s propulsion system—including the diesel engines, electric motors, generators and the batteries. Once that’s done, assuming of course that it’s successful, the Collins class will have proven combat, weapon, sensor and propulsion systems and we could start looking at a new hull design that incorporated those systems or modest extensions of them. Thus the evolved Collins the new design might have much in common. A previous ASPI paper provided some schematics of how this might work.

Of course, it’s much easier to say all that than to do it, and it would be idle to suppose that we’ll avoid substantial risks and costs in the future submarine program. In fact, to some extent today’s announcement doubled our bets on being able to pull off some serious design work.

Andrew Davies is senior analyst for defence capability at ASPI and executive editor of The Strategist. Image courtesy of Department of Defence.