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The submarine debate continues…

The explosive interview granted by Naval Group Australia CEO John Davis last week to a handful of reporters has triggered the usual fire storm of commentary over the ATTACK class submarine project. Much of the comment centred on Davis’s admission that Australian industry content on the early submarines (at least) might be less than 50% and that the capability of Australian defence companies is less than Naval Group expected when they began the project.

His comments elicited a joint statement from the French and Australian defence ministers, Florence Parly and Linda Reynolds, reaffirming the two governments’ commitment to the program’s schedule and Australian Industry Capability.

Not surprisingly, however, a number of commentators have suggested cancelling the entire project, buying a fleet of smaller, cheaper European submarines ‘off the shelf’ and leasing or buying nuclear power submarines from the USA or even from France.

Here are my thoughts.

The ATTACK class submarine project was announced in 2009, but the government of the day did precisely nothing about advancing the project for six years. This has created heavy schedule pressure for all parties. Schedule matters. We lost too much time after 2009 and can’t afford now to stop and then re-start the project.

Why? Because, firstly, it would take a long time to choose a new submarine and start the construction process, so time savings may be illusory. Secondly, the RAN can’t do its job with a submarine that lacks the range and endurance it needs. Operational capability matters. We need big submarines. If we try to save time by acquiring available, off the shelf diesel-electric submarines they’ll be too small and with too limited a range to be effective, even if they can be delivered quickly off a ‘hot’ assembly line – you might as well save the money and not have any submarines at all.

As for the nuclear option – well, that’s not really an option at all. Australia has no nuclear industry and no nuclear expertise to speak of in our workforce. It would take a generation to win the political and cultural battle that makes nuclear energy acceptable in Australia, and therefore makes nuclear submarines supportable within Australia. Would the US Navy lease us a fleet of nuclear boats in the meantime? If so, under what terms and conditions? Would they be sovereign strategic assets or just an adjunct to the US Navy? Would they be subject to US constraints over how and where they’re used and when and where they are subject to periodic safety checks, for example? Bear in mind the US Government didn’t agree to let any of its allies – us, the Japanese, the Brits – field the F-22 Raptor. What makes anybody think they, or anybody else, would let us use their nuclear submarines? I repeat: the nuclear option is not an option.

Industry capability matters too and Australian companies, and the monopsony customer that sustains them, need to consider that they may not be as advanced, integrated and capable as their counterparts in Europe. Reading between the lines, that’s what I’m taking away from John Davis’s comments. There’s an industry capability development job to be done and it will need a customer to fund much of the work ahead of contracts being awarded – if the industry capability isn’t there, then you can’t blame Naval Group for not awarding contracts and you can’t blame Defence for not insisting it does. This might make the first batch of submarines fairly ‘French’, if that’s what it takes to deliver them on time and effective; industry development and technology transfer gives Australian industry the chance to step up for the following batches.

The ATTACK class boats will be delivered in batches of, probably, three. Each new batch represents an opportunity for Australian firms to play a greater role in designing modifications and technology insertions, delivering and integrating those insertions, and actually building the boats themselves. If the Australian industry content for the first three is well below 50%, the potential exists for it to rise well above this subsequently.

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