Australian-built conventional submarines vital to fill looming capability gap, says defence thinktank

Australia must build conventional submarines before escalating to a nuclear-powered model or the whole program could fail, the Australian Industry and Defence Network says.

Pressure is building on new defence minister, Richard Marles, to work out how to deal with the looming capability gap, as regional tensions increase.

Marles has said the submarine capability gap – with the existing Collins class ageing into obsolescence before any new, nuclear submarines hit the water – is his top priority.

His predecessor, Peter Dutton, suggested the United States might lend Australia a couple of nuclear submarines – but that notion was widely dismissed, with one expert saying there was “no way this is a plan”.

Both on and off the record, insiders say a more likely solution is to build a non-nuclear submarine here. That would help train the workforce while providing new submarines sooner than the nuclear option.

A group of submarine veterans has pushed for a “son of Collins”, or an evolved version of the existing fleet. The Collins’ Swedish designer, Saab Kockums, said it would be happy to help.

It is understood a long-term freezing out of the Swedes is thawing, with more official communications back and forth. Saab Kockums also recently invited Australian defence writers to inspect its work upgrading its existing fleet and working on its upcoming A26 models.

Building a son of Collins was initially considered and dismissed before the Abbott government instigated a competitive evaluation process (CEP), pitting Japan, France and Germany against each other to build Australia’s next fleet.

France, with its conventional Barracuda class submarine, won the CEP only to be unceremoniously dumped partway through in favour of the Aukus agreement.

As it becomes clearer that any nuclear-powered submarines are unlikely to be in service before 2040, and that even with extensive overhauls the existing Collins class will progressively be taken out of service before then, attention has turned to that capability gap, and returned to the idea of a son of Collins.

However, submarines from other countries could also be an option, as could filling the gap with other technology in place of submarines, such as missiles, sea mines, long-range aircraft and warships.

The Australian Federation of Shipbuilding Unions has said it wants up to six conventional submarines built here, to plug the capability gap and maintain the workforce and skills.

Marles has said he has an “open mind” on the idea of a son of Collins or another interim option.

“I don’t want to set the hares running on any of that. What I would say is my mind is really open because it needs to be in order to deal with what is the capability gap that has arisen, we will be very focused on trying to deal with that,” he told the ABC.

Guardian Australia has asked Marles for more details on how he will decide what to do.

AIDN chief executive, Brent Clark, (who was also the Australian chief executive of Naval Group, the contractor for the French submarine) said an updated Collins class submarine was the best option after all the “pontificating” without achieving anything.

“From an Australian industry perspective, there is an urgent requirement for the construction of an interim submarine in order to ensure that the Australian workforce and the Australian industrial enterprise is brought up to speed, so it actually does work in constructing a submarine before we take on the complexity of building a nuclear submarine in Adelaide,” he said.

Leaving it until the start of the nuclear program would mean Australian industry had gone 30 years without building a submarine, he said. “If we try to build a nuclear submarine without building an interim submarine, we will fail.

“The risk to the program in terms of cost, schedule, etc. would make it unviable.”

An updated Collins would be the least risky option, Clark said, because industry is already working on the existing submarines, their maintenance, and the extensive life-of-type extensions.

Former South Australian federal senator Rex Patrick, a defence expert and former submariner, said the Aukus submarines (which the Australian Strategic Policy Institutes estimates could cost up to $171bn) are “unaffordable”. Rather than a new Swedish boat, though, Patrick says Australia must buy an existing one “off the shelf”.

“I am agnostic… but it ought to be a submarine that is at sea,” he said.

“All our room for delay has disappeared.”

Spain, Germany, Singapore and Israel have possible options, Patrick said.

This week, former defence secretary Dennis Richardson seemed to dismiss the importance of the capability gap. He told the ABC that “every galah in the pet shop is talking about a capability gap”.

“Half wouldn’t know what a capability gap is if they fell over it,” he said, adding that it was more important to boost defence spending to more than 3% of GDP.

However, ASPI senior analyst Marcus Hellyer said the gap was already here. Of the six Collins class, two are generally operational at any one time while two are in maintenance, and two are preparing to be deployed (this is known as the “rule of three”).

“When Navy says we won’t have [a capability gap], they’re saying we’ll keep having two submarines available to deploy for the next 20 years,” he said.

“If you think that two 40-year-old submarines are sufficient, fine. But I think it’s not.”

Hellyer said building some boats overseas might be an option and Australia could focus on maintenance instead.

Hellyer said the search for the perfect submarine has been the enemy of the good. “We have wasted so much time, now, that doing things fast is of the essence,” he said. “And if that means buying things off existing lines overseas (instead of building them here), that’s what we’ll have to do.

Or “complimentary capabilities” such as smart sea mines, anti-ship missiles, and long-range aircraft could help fill the gap.

“The whole submarine space is inherently a wicked problem,” he said. “There are different solutions, none of which will make everyone happy.”

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