Analysis by Peter Roberts
The more time passes since the Prime Minister’s sudden cancelling of our order for French submarines in favour of US or British nuclear ones, the more obvious it is that Australia will never actually acquire them.
Not only that, the more time passes the more obvious it is that even if we did buy nuclear boats, they are unlikely to be built in Adelaide. Or if Adelaide, somehow, had some involvement there would be bugger all genuine Australian industrial content in the things.
This became clearer on Friday in the Senate economic references committee when South Australian Senator Rex Patrick – himself a former submariner – closely questioned the Royal Australian Navy Commander Admiral Jonathan Mead about the N-submarine decision.
Mead had to be threatened by Senator Patrick with contempt of the Senate before he answered basic questions.
Admiral Mead first implied (by wanting to take a question on notice) that he had no idea of schedule, then that the boats were to be in the water by the end of next decade.
Mead then implied he had no idea of whether advice on cost was given to the government, then that advice had been ‘provided by the department to government over many months’, and then that ‘our projected cost forward is that it will be significant and it will be more than Attack’.
The upshot is that Australia entered into a process that will lead to the expenditure of more than $90 billion with only the vaguest idea of how much they would cost or when they could be delivered.
As Patrick put it later: ‘Our Collins class subs will still be needed in 2050.
“By that time the last Collins boat, HMAS Rankin, will be unmaintainable and a steel coffin in combat.”
The lack of clarity from the Navy is mirrored by other evidence given – our nuclear science agency and regulator gave very few details on what their role will be in monitoring and regulating any new nuclear propelled submarines, according to Senator Kim Carr.
But it is the likely lack of science and industry involvement in this massive expenditure which is really worrying.
Defence media has been full of speculative stories about whether any submarines would be built in Adelaide, whether Australia might lease submarines from the US, and whether these might be second-hand submarines.
Who would crew and maintain these vessels, who would provide for basic safety given that N-reactors are supposedly going to be fitted to submarines in Adelaide, and whether they would be under Australia’s sovereign control remains a mystery since we will know nothing about the nuclear propulsion systems on board.
Australia acquiring N-submarines under these circumstances is about as useful as giving Borneo head-hunters a F-35 fighter jet.
A senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute Marcus Hellyer has also warned about focusing solely on the boats themselves.
He said: “The Australian Department of Defence refers to nine fundamental inputs that are needed to generate an effective military capability.
“In addition to the equipment, there are factors such as personnel, supplies, facilities, training and industry.
“So even if the RAN could find some boats, that doesn’t come close to providing a military capability without these other elements — all of which Australia currently lacks.”
When you think about it, if the Morrison government was genuinely pursuing the N-submarine option – as distinct from getting out of a bad deal with the French while trying to whip up a fight with Labor and the Greens – it would be moving right now on multiple fronts.
It is not doing so.
Picture: DefenceSA/Osborne shipyards – a new submarine construction yard is being built to the north of the facilities pictured.
Subscribe to our free @AuManufacturing newsletter here.