The submarine is arguably the ultimate weapon of choice of the weaker power, but we are making a $90bn mistake.
Australia’s controversial Attack-class submarine program has been widely criticised. At $90bn in out-turned dollars, it is very expensive. With delivery scheduled between 2035 and 2050, the boats will be in service far too late. Australian industry content will be too low to maintain our sovereign submarine capability.
These criticisms are all valid and provide sufficient grounds to cancel the Attack program now.
As the Auditor-General has pointed out, at around $140m the cancellation cost would be modest at this stage, but it will grow significantly the longer we delay.
The fundamental problem with the Attack-class submarine, however, is that it will not be fit for purpose. It will be unable to deliver a sufficiently large or potent force to deter an adversary from taking military action against Australia. Its vulnerability to detection and counter-attack means it will lack both efficiency and effectiveness in its operations, while its survivability will be increasingly challenged.
Modern conventional submarines are effective where they can maximise their advantage of stealth. For example, the mission objectives of the Japanese Soryu can be achieved with patrols about two weeks long and the submarine remaining dived throughout to minimise the chances of detection.
Australia’s diesel-electric submarines operate in a very different geography. They undertake operations of up to 70 days, with half of that time spent getting to and from their patrol area. As a senior naval engineer once noted, “Australia has the only navy in the world which flogs its diesel-electric submarines thousands of miles, across oceans, and then sends them on patrol”. It is not unusual for a Collins-class submarine to travel four or five times further each year than most other nations’ conventional submarines.
With these long transits and a limited number of submarines in our fleet, it is impossible for Australia to deploy a conventional submarine force of adequate size. Despite the submarines’ heavy armament, Australia’s contribution in its theatre of operations amounts to little more than a token force.