Discussion of the future submarine capability needs to be based on facts

Much public argument on replacing our Collins-class submarines is confused and nugatory through not using a common basis of facts and assumptions.


Wednesday, 28 December 2011
Letter to The Australian Financial Review
(published Tuesday, 03 January 2012)

Brian Toohey's ”Adelaide to Detroit, the underwater route” (December 28-January 2) is again underwater in his fixation on European submarines, but not in his scepticism about political pork-barrelling by federal and state politicians ever eager to divert the defence budget elsewhere to buy votes. And in rejecting the supportive claims by feather-bedding interests in commerce, the unions and indeed parts of academia. 

Can we therefore summarise recent debate on replacing our Collins-class submarines (which is meant to start in the mid 2020s). 

ASPI’s estimate of up to $36bn (over decades) for an Australian build could be somewhat high but they are correct about the technological, industrial and budgetary risks of another local indigenous project. The Kokoda Foundation’s estimate of $18bn seems on the low side at first glance but their study (when released in full) might justify it. 

Toohey's Brian’s off-the-shelf European submarine alternative, however, will not work; except perhaps as a four-boat interim option because they cannot really meet the capability needed in the long term unless greater numbers than 12 are procured. 

This would increase the $9-12bn claimed for this option substantially. It would also be harder to crew and operate the larger but less suitable fleet needed.

If no-one else is building the type of conventionally-powered submarines we need, and the task might be too big for us to build them again, then the option of leasing Virginia-class nuclear-powered boats from the US also needs to be examined. Much fewer than 12 boats would then be needed (greater range, endurance, speed, etc) and the cost differential between nuclear and conventionally-powered boats continues to drop anyway. 

They would be the most modern submarines available, a tested commodity, and fully compatible with our major ally operationally and logistically. The Americans would look after the reactor, thus negating our limited nuclear engineering capacity (and paranoia among some about nuclear energy).  

No-one credible seems to doubt that the class that replaces the Collins replacements will be nuclear powered (and probably leased from the US). 

We should at least look at jumping a generation directly. 

Back to Letters: 2013