FEATURE | Australian submarine transition plan takes shape

Photo: DoD
Collins Class submarines HMAS Collins, HMAS Farncomb, HMAS Dechaineux and HMAS Sheean in formation while transiting through Cockburn Sound, Western Australia.

The future submarine has achieved key milestones with the signing of the overarching strategic partnering agreement on February 11 and in quick succession the design contract on March 5. This is good news for the future submarine platform itself, but there have also been developments in the broader submarine transition picture.

Moving Australia’s submarine capability from where it is now with a fleet of six Collins-class submarines to a future fleet of 12 Attack-class submarines will be the most challenging capability transition that the Australian Defence Force has ever undergone. Last October, in an ASPI special report, I attempted to refocus the discussion from the future submarine itself to the key issues that the government and the Department of Defence will need to resolve in order to transition successfully.

It will of course take time to develop a complete picture of how the transition will work, but some pieces of the puzzle are starting to fall into place.

A key date in the transition process, namely, when the first Attack-class submarine will provide actual operational capability, is a crucial stick in the sand for planning the transition process. Over the past six months or so that date has firmed up. Based on a delivery date of around 2032 followed by a two- to three-year test and evaluation phase, Defence is saying the first submarine will be operational in 2034 or 2035. That’s a little later than the date I used in the transition study. Of course, that date could still slide, but Defence has to base its planning around something.

One of the key questions that Defence needs to resolve in planning the transition is whether the government’s goal is to increase the number of submarines in service as quickly as possible, in which case the navy would keep Collins submarines operating as Attack submarines entered service, or to get out of the Collins business as soon as possible without a capability gap, in which case the navy would retire a Collins whenever an Attack submarine arrived. That, however, would mean we wouldn’t have more than six submarines until sometime in the early to mid-2040s.

Defence has consistently said that the minimum capability that it will provide during transition will be at least six submarines, although the number of Collins that Defence has said it would need to put through a life-of-type extension to achieve this has drifted over time from at least one to at least three. What has not been clear is when the combined fleet would go beyond six.

But at recent Senate estimates hearings, Chief of Navy Michael Noonan said, “We’re expecting we will upgrade at least five.” And, assuming at least five Collins-class submarines are life-extended, “I would expect that the navy will have a force of eight or more submarines by the late 2030s.” Since the navy will only have two, or best case three, Attack-class submarines by then, the only way to get to eight or more in total is to keep all the Collins in service.

Of course, Defence officials were quick to assure the committee that the government had made no decisions on the number of Collins to be upgraded, but Defence’s hand is now clear – it wants to move beyond six with the arrival of the first Attack-class submarine. And this is of course a good thing, both to increase capability and to enhance the navy’s ability to train the very much larger number of submariners needed to operate the fleet. Incidentally, my analysis suggests that even if Defence puts all six Collins through a life-of-type extension, the fleet can’t get beyond nine until around 2050 without accelerating the build of the new submarines. But nine is still better than six.

If the idea is to keep more Collins going longer, potentially well into the 2040s, Defence will need to retain the ability to maintain and upgrade them for potentially another 25 years, and that gets at the issue of the viability of ASC, which sustains the Collins. In the face of the ramp-up of other naval construction activities seeking skilled workers, ASC will need to keep and renew its skilled, experienced Collins workforce. At successive estimates hearings, ASC has noted that it is already losing some of its workforce to that competition. An environment of unbridled competition for workers would be catastrophic for all naval capabilities.

So it is very encouraging to see that Naval Group and ASC have signed a framework agreement to work together in Australia’s sovereign submarine programs including on workforce development. It is particularly encouraging to see the plural programs used – it’s vital to manage both the Collins and Attack programs as part of a single enterprise.

I have also argued that it’s vital for Naval Group to draw on ASC’s understanding of Australian supply chains to ensure the future submarine is designed for sustainment in Australia. So again, the fact that the framework agreement also includes supply chain services is a good thing.

And this latest signing follows earlier agreements between ASC and Naval Group subcontractors Jeumont Electric, FIVA and ENDEL to support the future submarine program. So even though the issue of who will sustain the Attack submarine is still open, it seems that ASC is setting itself up for a long-term future, in partnership with Naval Group.

A key transition question that remains unresolved is the location of full-cycle dockings. It isno secret that Defence has asked ASC to study the feasibility of moving submarine full-cycle dockings out of the submarine shipyard in Adelaide to Western Australia. Of course, there is no way the government will make any announcement on such a politically sensitive issue before the election.

But Defence’s head of naval shipbuilding programs, Stephen Johnson, made the telling remark at estimates that, “somewhere around the 2032 to 2034 timeframe, perhaps sooner, we’ll run out of room to do everything in South Australia.” And considering that the design of the future submarine shipyard has commenced, one would think that it would be helpful for its designers to know whether they had to include a full-cycle docking facility in their plans.

And as for progress on an east coast submarine base, we’ve got nothing new to report.

Article reprinted with permission from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s analysis and commentary site The Strategist.