Analysis and Commentary

ASC can’t build a canoe, now trusted with N-submarines

Analysis and Commentary

By Peter Roberts

The decision that BAE Systems Australia and ASC Pty Ltd are to build SSN‑AUKUS submarines in Adelaide promises to return government-owned ASC closer to the role originally intended when then defence minister Kim Beazley established the ASC to build the Collins Class submarine.

The company, which will now also sustain Virginia and SSN-AUKUS class vessels at its Perth facilities, was originally designed to be nurtured over time with follow on work after Collins to become a stand alone builder, and even designer of submarines.

However subsequently the Rudd government delayed ordering new submarines, the Abbott government swung wildly to a Japanese design and Turnbull then turned to the French – only to be reversed by the Morrison government and its choice of nuclear powered vessels.

The low point came when then coalition defence minister David Johnston made the astonishing comment that the Australian Submarine Corporation çould not be trusted to build a canoe.

Johnston, who himself was responsible for the performance or otherwise of ASC, lost his job, ushering in the creation of a separate Defence Industry ministry and a greater focus on industry from its first minister, Christopher Pyne.

Since then ASC has been busy sustaining the Collins, including keeping its weight down as new equipment was added to the vessels through the imaginative use of composites.

Critically, ASC has ‘done it before’, taking part in the design of the Collins, and is expert at the integration of US combat systems which the UK has not previously used.

Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer of ASC Stuart Whiley said: “When the Collins class program was launched in the 1980s, there were detractors who said Australian industry could not complete such an ambitious programme – they argued there were not enough workers with the necessary skills.

“But within the organisation, there was a high level of confidence about our ability to complete the task – we had a sense of enthusiasm and optimism, and a strong resolve to succeed.

“History shows that ASC successfully grew a skilled workforce to build and maintain an asset as complex and unique as the Collins Class submarine fleet.

“We are confident that we can do it again with nuclear-powered submarines.”

The other submarine build partner is just as logical – BAE Systems is the United Kingdom’s long-term submarine build partner as well as being Australia’s biggest defence company with 5,000 employees.

BAE’s involvement ensures a strong connection between the SSN-AUKUS design led by BAE Systems in the UK, where Australian experts are working alongside the Brits to develop a build strategy for when the vessels are built locally.

The dominance of the UK which is designing the SSN-AUKUS remains a worry, with the government yet to demonstrate that a substantial amount of meaningful work and Australian developed technology and systems, will eventually feature in the finished vessels.

Obviously Australian industry is not going to produce nuclear reactors, but there are hundreds of companies that are keen to work on the vessels – if only they are given certainty through innovation and production contracts.

Further reading:
BAE Systems, ASC to construct Australian n-submarines
Australia’s submarine comedy of errors

Picture: ASC

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