Analysis and Commentary

Australia’s submarine comedy of errors

Analysis and Commentary

By Peter Roberts

It is getting harder by the day to continue thinking that Australia is not making a hash of our most expensive and complex defence program – building 12 Attack class submarines at a cost of $90 billion.

The government has finally given clarity whether three or all six of our Collins boats will need a life-of-type extension to cover the gap between them reaching the end of their lives and the delivery of enough new vessels…all six will be upgraded.

Yet there is no certainty about how much the Attack construction will cost, nor how long it will take, nor how relevant the vessels conventional propulsion systems will be or even how relevant the subs themselves will be when they come into service.

And most destructively, there is no certainty about where is the focus for building up the skilled submarine workforce in Australia – in Adelaide or Perth.

This seeds of this mess were sown during the term of the last Labor government when decisions on the submarine were not made in good time, with cascading slippage in timelines and hurried decision making the result.

The Coalition compounded the problem with high level incompetence from PM Tony Abbott and defence minister David Johnston.

Abbott famously pulled out of his hat the idea that Japan could build our new submarines, with Johnston following suit with the astonishing comment that the Australian Submarine Corporation çould not be trusted to build a canoe.

Silly because Japan’s submarine is not up to the technological level of our own Collins, and breath-taking as Johnston himself was responsible as minister for the performance of the ASC.

This led to the appointment of Christopher Pyne as defence industry minister who recast Australian industry’s relationship with defence from one of irrelevance to a key part of defence capability planning.

But the decision to select the French Attack bid was totally rushed, with ensuing cost escalations inevitable and a need to renegotiate the just-minted contract to state clearly the role of local industry.

And of course, the decision to site construction in Adelaide was political, the consequence of a loss of support for the government over the ‘canoe’ comment.

Which brings us to today with a new submarine construction yard being built alongside ASC in Adelaide, just sited just north of a new yard (pictured) just handed over that will construct the Hunter class frigates.

So Adelaide is to be the large ship construction site for the Navy and Perth the builder of a larger number of smaller vessels.

All well and good except WA has been trying to persuade Canberra to shift deep maintenance work for the Collins to Perth.

This would seem to create two sites of submarine excellence which makes no sense on the face of it given the looming difficulties in securing enough people with specialist skills to work at one, let alone two sites.

And, of course, this is yet another decision hat has been delayed again and again.

South Australian Senator Rex Patrick, a former submariner, took to social media to voice our collective frustration: “Future submarine costs have gone from $50B to $89B and Collins life extension costs from $6B to $10B.

“The @DeptDefence team that brought you this are also promoting a risky move of Collins maintenance from SA to WA for more than $1B.

“Someone take charge!”

Picture: Osborne south shipyard

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