Costly submarine blunders

HMAS Collins

The wasteful incompetence of the Coalition Government was there to be seen this week, but you would have to look behind lots of flags, jingoism, and brass to see it.

The move by Australia to ditch the French-designed diesel-electric submarines in favour of nuclear-powered ones is an unspoken admission of eight years of bungling.

Three years were lost dithering about trying to decide what was the best way to go in in replacing the Collins Class submarines. Then in 2016 the Turnbull Government made the wrong decision.

Or more correctly, three related wrong decisions. The first was not to use nuclear propulsion. That led to the second decision which was to build from the ground up. And the third mad decision was to build the submarines in Australia.

Now five years has gone as we go back to drawing boards.

And even now the idiocy continues. We are still going to build the submarines in Australia. Australia has little or no nuclear experience other than digging up uranium ore and sending it overseas or allowing the British to do above-ground atomic bomb testing on land stolen from Indigenous people. Plus a small medicine-related nuclear reactor at Luas Heights.

Going nuclear was as obvious eight years ago as it is now. Nuclear subs can stay down longer and are faster and quieter – the very things you need and the very things any competent military adviser would tell a government.

But doing it in Australia, even with US and British help, only makes sense if viewed through the prism of marginal-seat politics. From 2013, with South Australia teetering on the brink of becoming a rust belt because of a collapsing unsustainable car industry ,the Coalition (with a South Australian Defence Minister, Christopher Pyne, at the helm pushed for an expanded ship-building industry in South Australia to take up the slack.

The other political fear was that going nuclear would be a turn-off for many voters. But that fear is probably outdated and is untested.

However, nuclear is one issue, building them here is another. If we really must have these submarines, we should have (and still should) buy them off the shelf, most likely from the US. 

Australia was going to build 12 diesel-electric Attack Class submarines at a cost of at least $90 billion – more than double the original estimate, and cost estimates only go up. Building nuclear ones here will no doubt cost more. We have not been told.

But we could buy 12 Virginia Class nuclear propelled submarines from the US for a total of about $40 billion.

The Collins Class experience was that it took years of perfecting to get a full complement of submarines running. The same extra cost and delay were also a feature of the first five years of the Attack Class program. And no doubt the same will have with the nuclear ones.

We have now spent billions on the Collins replacement and have virtually nothing to show for it. And we will, no doubt, get a hefty cancellation bill from the French.

That bill, together with all the work wasted so far, is going to run to several billion dollars. The Government won’t be telling us how much voluntarily or any time soon. But it will come out eventually through parliamentary committees, freedom of information, the budget process and investigative journalism, despite the Government doing its best to cover up.

One of the astonishing things about this decision is the surprise. The secrecy of the nuclear deal and the dressing it up as part of a new tri-lateral security arrangement simply did not leak, yet to organise it, it must have meant hundreds if not thousands knew about it before the announcement. 

There were a few hints that the Government was dissatisfied with the French Naval Group and what it saw as a lack of progress. But the Naval Group says it has fulfilled everything required of it. I cannot see it doing anything other than claiming the maximum cancellation fee that it can.

And most likely the Australian Government will pay over the odds to get the claim out of the way as quickly and as silently as possible.

This decision should not just be seen as a wonderful new security arrangement to prove that we are standing up to China, or creating a wonderful new industrial capacity. Rather it should be seen as a tacit admission that the whole submarine replacement project has been a costly blundering debacle since the Coalition came to office in 2013.

Turnbull’s words when he announced the decision in 2016 ring hollow now: “The competitive evaluation process has provided the government with the detailed information required to select DCNS [now the French Naval Group] as the most suitable international partner to develop a regionally-superior future submarine to meet our unique national security requirements.”

Pah.

The other thing about this massive spend is that of all government spending, military spending has about the lowest beneficial multiplier effect. If you want a package to build Australian industry, military spending is about the worst way to go about it.

A better way is to get your military hardware as cheaply as possible and spend the savings on more worthwhile and productive things.

The money building a defence industry in South Australia has been a monumental waste.

The bizarre thing is that despite decisions like the submarine one in 2016 and the $13 billion failure to properly monitor JobKeeper, the Coalition still claims that it is the better economic manager and that Labor is the party of wasting taxpayers’ dollars.

And here the Coalition goes again – opting to build military hardware in Australia. Has nothing been learnt?

The smartest thing a Coalition Defence Minister ever said was David Johnstone’s 2014 comment about whether the Adelaide-based Australian Submarine Corporation should build the Collins replacement. He said: “I wouldn’t trust them to build a canoe.”

Crispin Hull

This article first appeared in The Canberra Times and other Australian media on 18 September 2021.

4 thoughts on “Costly submarine blunders”

  1. I heard on the ABC this morning a Liberal politician challenging anyone to come up with a better defence that these nuclear submarines. I look no further than Costa Rica in Central America. During the troubled times in the second half of last century most of the nations around Costa Rica were in political turmoil and civil wars with the Leftists fighting the American backed Right. Costa Rica decided to disband their military in favour of health and education, becoming the most literate country in the world. Therefore the country was not a threat to those around and they did not become embroiled in the troubles. Whilst I do not like the Government of China they are no worse than the USA (or the British Empire before the USA). I certainly don’t fear China any more than the USA, and if we were neutral, I think we would have less to fear from them. Think what this country could do with all that money that we currently spend on immoral death.

  2. Defence industry is arguably more important to government than the ADF itself. Agreed that the whole submarine saga has been a monumental cock-up, largely driven on the phobia politicians on all sides have about anything nuclear. The submarines will likely be the British Astute class which are building now. The most expeditious route is getting on the end of that production line and seeing the first boat in service 10 years earlier than 2040. But no, we’ll continue to follow the made in Australia shibboleth.

    The most successful military acquisitions have been off-the-shelf such as the C-17 air force airlifters and the F/A 18F Super Hornets. We don’t build advanced aircraft in Australia, why are submarines so precious?

  3. Most of this is surely uncontroversial, but there is one point that needs elaboration: nuclear subs can actually be easier to track than diesel electrics. Because reactors can’t be easily turned off, nuclear subs leave a thermal signature on the ocean above wherever they go. Satellite IR detectors can pick this up, a bit like a police helicopter following a stolen car. Manned subs are probably 10 years away from complete obsolescence, and on a cost-effectiveness measure, autonomous drones, cheap and numerous, will likely outclass them long before Australia’s first sub arrives. Another appallingly managed defence procurement fiasco.

  4. In 2010 I published several articles in the Australian Naval Institute’s Headmark magazine (Headmark 135 & 136 – https://navalinstitute.com.au/headmark-back-issues/) which explained why we needed nuclear powered submarines. It was a no brainer! I was ridiculed and ultimately ostracized by those in power. They were sycophants who lacked the subject matter expertise necessary to make informed decisions. Since then our nation has wasted tens of billions of dollars on conventional submarines that are physically incapable of being designed to meet our strategic requirements. Many of the same sycophants remain in power. They are incapable of introducing the nuclear powered submarine capability that Australia truly requires. I honestly believe that we need nuclear submarines but with the current mod of politicians and Defence officials in charge it will only lead to more costly failures. Mark my words we will never build nuclear powered submarines in Adelaide.

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