In my last post, I looked at the latest information on the life-of-type extension program for the Royal Australian Navy’s Collins-class submarines. That’s essentially Defence’s strategic risk mitigator for its long submarine transition. But it’s part and parcel of Plan A, the current plan. It’s not an alternative or a Plan B. Let’s look at what we’ve learned about possible Plan Bs for submarine capability that the government and Defence might be considering.
Outside of Defence, there are many Plan Bs being proposed for the submarine transition and no consensus has emerged. It’s a confused space with people talking past each other. That’s partly because some regard Plan B as a replacement for Plan A, while others think it’s something in addition to Plan A. Some argue that it’s something we should be embarking on now; others regard it as something to have in our back pocket just in case. But if it’s something Defence should be holding as a contingency plan, what are the triggers that would make it use it? Some commentators are convinced we’re there already, but the government and Defence haven’t publicly set any red lines.
Generally, the proposers’ Plan Bs mirror what they thought Plan A should have been in the first place. If you think Plan A should have been the acquisition of a different large, conventional submarine, then that’s your Plan B. One variant of this Plan B that has some vociferous backers is the idea of reopening the submarine competition to reinject commercial tension and rescue a Commonwealth taken “hostage” by the French.
This could involve the original unsuccessful participants in the submarine competitive evaluation process, or Saab, which wasn’t included in the first place. But telling the French that Australia isn’t committed may not bring the increased commitment from Naval Group that such an approach seeks. And other potential candidates have been burned already. The bottom line is that Naval Group has a five-year head start over any path seeking to design and build a new large, conventional submarine.
If you think it should have been nuclear-propelled submarines (SSNs), then that’s your Plan B. But there’s no convincing map yet for what that path looks like. Its perhaps possible that SSNs could become part of Plan A at some point in the future should the government decide to switch from building Attack-class boats to SSNs, but there’s no credible way to get that capability faster than Plan A.
“Acquiring off-the shelf boats built overseas could provide the navy with some capability, even it that’s well short of the range and endurance it seeks from the Attack class.”
There doesn’t seem to be any Plan B that can deliver the kind of submarine capability Defence wants faster than Plan A. Therefore, another strand of Plan Bs involves dialling the navy’s capability aspirations down to open up other solutions. One that received some attention earlier this year is the acquisition of an interim submarine. Media reporting claimed Defence was considering the acquisition of an off-the-shelf boat such as the German Type 212 made by TKMS as a stopgap measure.
At first glance, a “Super Hornet” option might seem appealing. Acquiring off-the shelf boats built overseas could provide the navy with some capability, even it that’s well short of the range and endurance it seeks from the Attack class, and mitigate the risk in the transition.
But it seems unlikely the navy would accept a boat that didn’t have the AN/BYG-1 combat system and Mk-48 torpedo used by the Collins and Attack classes and the US Navy. That would create interoperability problems not just with our ally but inside the RAN itself. If Defence did seek to integrate the AN/BYG-1, the design and delivery times that would generate would likely get us into the 2030s anyway. The other difficulty for the navy is what to do with them once the Attack-class starts arriving. It’s going to be hard enough managing two fleets of submarines during the 10-year overlap between the Collins and Attack classes. It’s hard to see Defence managing three.
Despite the debate in the public sphere, the government’s and Defence’s thinking around Plan Bs remains opaque. I’ve previously examined some of the more excited claims that the government is considering walking away from the Attack-class and regard them as highly improbable. But Senate estimates hearings in early June confirmed that Defence has at least put some thought into the Plan B space. However, with the department continuing to deflect senators’ questioning, it’s difficult to say where that thinking is heading.
Overall, there seem to be two broad approaches inside Defence. The secretary, Greg Moriarty, acknowledged his concerns about the Attack class and stated it was prudent to look at alternatives:
- “We are very committed to delivering the Attack but it’s appropriate that we would be looking at alternatives if we were unable to proceed. I think that just prudent planning.”
- “I’ve had a number of discussions with senior officers about how we might proceed if we’re unable to proceed with Attack.”
- “I have certainly thought more about this issue over the last 12 months … Because it became clear to me that we were having challenges with the Attack-class program over the last 12 months, so of course you do reasonably prudent thinking about what one of those options might be or what you might be able to do if you were unable to proceed. But the government is absolutely committed to trying to work through with Naval Group and build a regionally superior submarine in Adelaide.”
That’s more than Defence has previously admitted; however, Moriarty didn’t indicate what actual measures—if any—these ruminations had led to.
“We have put too many eggs in the basket—not just in terms of opportunity cost, but in terms of senior decision-makers’ attention, force structure imagination and industry capacity.”
In addition to the secretary’s conversations with his senior colleagues, the other line of effort appears to be the Defence capability enhancement review, kicked off in February at the request of the previous minister for defence. The department refused to discuss at estimates what the review was looking at but did confirm it was assessing Defence’s planned investments across all domains; it’s not merely a submarine Plan B exercise.
But officials emphatically stated that the department had not engaged with TKMS or with Saab. That would suggest it isn’t considering bringing them into the future submarine program or acquiring an off-the-shelf solution. My sense is that Defence regards those approaches simply as non-starters. So other than Defence stating what it’s not doing, we haven’t learned much about Defence’s contingency planning for submarine capability.
But it’s important to recognise that Plan Bs to address delays or shortfalls in submarine capability should not just involve submarines. Part of the problem created by Australia’s fetish with submarines is that we have put too many eggs in that basket—not just in terms of opportunity cost, but in terms of senior decision-makers’ attention, force structure imagination and industry capacity.
Regardless of whether the Attack-class is delivered on time, Defence needs to be doing much more to deliver capability sooner, particularly the new kinds of capabilities the government identified in the 2020 defence strategic update that can impose greater cost on an adversary at greater range. There are many systems that can contribute to this goal that aren’t submarines. Many (but certainly not all) of the effects we want submarines to provide can be delivered by other systems, not necessarily replacing crewed submarines but providing greater capacity and redundancy in the Australian Defence Force. Those effects include maritime strike, anti-submarine warfare, covert surveillance and minelaying.
To my mind, unless the Attack-class program simply collapses, any Plan Bs that Defence is willing to consider are not about submarines per se. Rather, they involve capabilities that complement Plan A. Defence’s approach to industry earlier this year to look at installing towed-array sonars on the Anzac-class is a positive example of this. Long-range strike missiles or aircraft would be another.
So, Defence needs to be considering Plan Bs to replace Plan A if necessary (and just as importantly, it needs to define the triggers for activating that plan). But it also needs to actually pursue Plan Bs that work with Plan A (or its replacement) to provide the full range of options to deliver the effects the strategic update is seeking. Hopefully that’s what the capability enhancement review is doing. Considering the near-universal concern that Defence’s force structure plan was met with when it was released in July 2020 due to its glaring misalignment with the strategic environment described in the strategic update, a thorough review of Defence’s capability plan has got its work cut out for it.
Marcus Hellyer is ASPI’s senior analyst for defence economics and capability.