In the last post on the topic, I tried to provide a quick summary of what Australia has combat submarines for, and the current state of the Collins class. In this second installment, I present a quick survey of the options available to the ADF. Much of this material is a summary of ASPI’s report on submarines, so if you have the time, read that!
Anyway, the short summary of the options open to Australia is as follows. I’m postponing a discussion of how many of a particular submarine type Australia might conceivably want to operate until later.
Option 1: Phase them out.
Like any other expensive piece of military hardware, we do have the option of simply not buying any more submarines.
Let’s not kid ourselves, however; such a step would represent a major scale back in Australia’s defence capabilities, at a time where our Great and Powerful Friend is likely to become relatively less militarily powerful, and other countries in the region are going to become more so.
Regardless, you might make the judgement that the chances that Australia will face any serious military threat are so minimal that submarines are aren’t needed – the New Zealand option, if you will.
Option 2: build a new generation of bespoke Australian subs
We could, indeed, do this. A new Australian submarine, fitted with a smorgasboard of the best conventional sub technology that the world has to offer. The South Australians would be happy. This is, in fact, the current default plan.
Unfortunately, there’s a few problems. Even if we started right now, the submarines may not arrive in time to replace the Collins class. We could try and do life extensions on the existing subs, but we might run in to the same kind of issues that plagued the last few years of the F-111; in short, there might be more unpleasant reliability surprises, and the Collins class would be very, very old technology by then and not militarily useful.
Secondly, bespoke subs built in Australia will be enormously expensive, particularly if we insist on the full bells-and-whistles version. The ASPI estimates that 12 bespoke Australian “super-subs” will be around $36 billion; though judicious analysis of whether all the bells and whistles are necessary might push that down somewhat.
Thirdly, there’s a non-zero chance that we’d screw the replacement design up in the same kinds of ways the Collins was screwed up. This isn’t because we’re somehow uniquely incompetent; it’s because building submarines is hard.
Option 3: buy (or assemble) an overseas designed conventional sub
This is the least risky, easiest option, and certainly the second cheapest (aside from phasing out submarines entirely). They could be delivered in time to avoid a capability gap, the chance of Collins-like bugs could be avoided particularly if the usual ADF temptation to insist on modifications could be temporarily suppressed, and we could either have them built overseas (cheapest) or assemble them in Adelaide (ra ra ra Australian manufacturing).
There is a problem, however; most of the off-the-shelf submarine conventional submarine designs in prospect aren’t quite what the RAN wants. The usual example used for this option is the German Type 212 or the export variant type 214. It’s one-third smaller than the Collins, and roughly half the size than that proposed for the Collins’ successor.
Because of the perceived limitations of the readily available conventional subs on the market, there are some proposals to buy off-the-shelf to cover the capability gap, and then still build a new bespoke solution. This would obviously further add to costs.
There is one off-the-shelf, conventionally-powered submarine of roughly the size wanted, the Soryu class. Unfortunately for Australia, the Japanese don’t export their weaponry to anyone.
So they’re the conventional options, and none of them are entirely satisfactory, particularly if you really see the potential military theat out there. Hence, in a follow-up post we look at the fourth option – nuclear-powered attack submarines.