By Peter Roberts
Something needs to done to bridge a submarine capability gap no matter what the outcome of an 18 month study by the US. UK and Australia determines about the viability of Australia acquiring nuclear propelled submarines from our allies.
This is becoming increasingly clear as a life-extension of the six Collins class boats will have run its course long before a potential British or American design becomes available.
Even with the extension, the submarines will be close to 50 years old and too old to use in 2040 by the time our first N-subs arrive.
The first option appears to be buy an off the shelf submarine supplier as an interim measure while the N-subs were built – but these would not have the range or capability of the Collins, let alone of the proposed nuclear submarines.
The second would be to lease some British or American nuclear subs – but there are doubts such leases would give Australia fully independent control of what is our most important maritime weapons system.
The final option would be to evolve the Collins class, setting an independent and less-threatening-to-China course that, as I argued earlier this week, would be the least cost, least risky and most industrially attractive option for Australia.
Evolving Collins has received support from Australian Strategic Policy Institute senior fellow Andrew Davies.
He argues that considerable work was done by ASC, which built the Collins, before the Coalition selected first a Japanese, then a French and now a UK or US design, wasting eight years in the process.
However Davies sees a Son of Collins only as an interim measure, maintaining Australian capability and allowing the N-sub design and build proceed in a measured fashion.
As Davies argues: “In practice, Australia’s defence acquisition process has repeatedly shown itself to be very poor at recognising technical risk.
“…As a result, we have now lost a decade on the replacement for the Collins class and have the prospect of underemployed shipyards for the next several years.”
The problem with his approach is that ‘we would be prudent to limit our ambitions for both innovation in design and industrial independence…even if that results in less work for local industry’.
The Collins itself was designed as the first step in creating a sustainable submarine construction industry – sadly abandoned by a government that did not ‘trust ASC to build a canoe’.
But really we cannot just import our next submarines with minimal local involvement other than perhaps some metal bashing in Adelaide.
That would waste decades and hundreds of billions of dollars and leave us just as badly off industrially as we were before Collins were built.
Defence is only possible with a strong indigenous defence industry, as recognised by the Coalition since 2017.
The capability of local industry matters just as much to our security as the weapons we put into the field.
We should reverse this momentous decision taken in secret that threatens our trading position in the world – and build a Son of Collins, building industry at the same time.
Picture: HMAS Collins
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