By Dr Tom Lewis*
Of all of the possible solutions to Australia’s need for submarines, a worse one could not have been made than the situation we have ended up with.
Consider the possibilities.
A brave government advised honestly would have gone nuclear. I have already written on why in The Spectator. But if we are too fearful to go for the quality solution, and insist on remaining with diesel-electric engines, then the best thing to do would have been to make our choice rather like you buy a car.
You walk into the showroom, and inspect the one you see before you. You seek out unbiased reviews. You take it for a test drive. You check the warranty. You go for some extras, if you can.
The last thing you do is the reverse. Imagine going in and asking for a car they sell, but you want the electric engine taken out and a diesel put in. And fuel tanks of course.
If you have a sackful of money with you of course the car dealership will agree. Pay up front please. And monsieur, you say you are happy to wait 12 years for delivery. Of course!
What makes it worse is this is a military machine we’re talking about. It has to be armed. And being a submarine it has to be quiet. That’s what submarines do – they hide, or die.
Choosing the French submarine option isn’t even as simple as changing out the engine in a car. Nuclear engines – the proposed submarine is based on a successful French design – don’t need fuel tanks. But diesel engines do. That fuel gets burnt, naturally enough. So that means the fuel tanks get constantly emptied, and the balance of the submarine changes. This affects whether the submarine suddenly plunges purposefully to the seabed, or surfaces very embarrassingly in front of an enemy warship. Good luck with this, you French engineers. Incidentally, the French Navy, like the Brits and the US, only operate nuclear boats. Why is that?
But if we did insist on diesel, we could have chosen various designs of submarines from around the world. The Japanese Soryu, for example. Or the German variants: 100 years of success has a lot to offer. But on all accounts resist the urge to fiddle. Would you behave that way with a new car?
Australia has had a poor track record in building submarines. We had an excellent operational success story with the British Oberons in the 1960s-70s, but we didn’t build them ourselves. They were built in the UK. Then our government insisted we build a new submarine in Australia, and along came the Collins.
The Collins though wasn’t just a Swedish design assembled here. It was altered: more capability was needed for one thing. It had to go further and stay there longer. And not having built submarines before – more complex machines than spaceships – we had a lot of problems. Assistance from the USA and persistent excellent Australian engineering gradually overcame the situation. Not that the Collins has been a great success. If it was we might have built Collins Mk 2.
Instead we have decided to go down the same path again. The French design will be a one-off – just like the Collins. It will not have a proven design, already in the water, that we evaluated and tested – just like the Collins. It will be expensive, at $80 or even $10 billion for 12 subs…far more than buying proven designs which already exist. A Virginia-class from the USA might cost $4b. And the new sub program will take ages – the Collins class will have to have its life extended to stop the gap, with the first submarine not arriving until the 2030s.
The warranty situation on a new design submarine will be interesting. If it just doesn’t work do we get our money back? If it is as “noisy as a rock band” as someone once described the Collins-class, then do we get a rebate? Certainly not. Instead a manufacturer usually offers to work through the problem to get a solution. But performance indicators are of course kept secret for a good reason: who wants to tell a potential enemy how capable these machines are? So how will the public, who paid for it, know if the vessel is any good?
Providing assembly jobs in Australia is a laudable aim. But at the end of the day submarine acquisition is about providing a weapons platform. Not something that has so many problems it will generate a further problem: that of morale which will affect recruiting and retention of submariners.
If you want a success story which shows more capable submarines can be embarked upon and acquired then look to the Royal Navy in the 1950s. The Brits had decided they wanted to go nuclear. They turned to the US Navy to help. Vickers-Armstrong laid the keel of HMS Dreadnought in 1959 and the Royal Navy commissioned the submarine in 1963 with an American nuclear plant. The British have since had a long program of successful building of vessels with nuclear engines, eventually getting out of the diesel business. We should follow their lead – assemble a proven design, preferably with nuclear engines, here.
It’s a measure of how nervous Australian politicians are about the nuclear word that we’ve not followed the lead of our two long-time partners, the USA and Britain. Neither countries’ navies operate diesel boats any more. Neither should we.
Both countries have a successful submarine building program that relies on replacing their own vessels with a follow-on design. This is better than the stop-start process Australia has followed in South Australia. By all means build submarines here. But don’t do it in this way. By 2030 we could have an all nuclear fleet in the water, if we went down the road the British did. As it is, I fear we are proceeding down a rocky path to a watery grave.
*Dr Tom Lewis OAM, a former intelligence analyst with the ADF, is the author of Darwin’s Submarine I-124, which chronicles the story of the 80-man submarine which still lies outside Darwin, sunk in combat with HMAS Deloraine in 1942. His latest works are Teddy Sheean VC; Eagles over Darwin – how the USAAF defended north Australia for much of 1942; and Medieval Military Combat, an analysis of the reality of battlefield combat in the Wars of the Roses.