How to buy a submarine: part 2

25 Jun 2014

This paper describes some of the approaches that could be taken to replace Australia's Collins class submarines and outlines their pros and cons.

Executive summary

The building of a replacement for Australia's Collins class submarines will be the country's most expensive defence project to date. It's also likely to be the most complex, with a myriad of capability, commercial and industrial issues to be managed: the expertise for the design and construction of conventional submarines resides in Europe and Asia while Navy's preference is for American combat and weapon systems. Pulling those elements together while managing the technical risks is no easy task.

Local construction of the future submarine has been a bipartisan position for several years, and it has the support of industry and the bureaucracy. But there's no simple or fast way to produce a unique Australian submarine. If the government decides to go down that path, it will have to do so in the knowledge that it's a high stakes venture. This paper describes some of the approaches that could be taken and outlines their pros and cons.

Despite claims to the contrary, there's little doubt that the merger of a European design and American combat system is possible—after all, that's what the Collins is. But a sensible early step in the process would be to have government-to-government discussions with the potential players—especially in Washington—to determine what the actual constraints are, and what's merely unsubstantiated folklore.

Surveying the world market, conventional submarine design capability with the experience and maturity required for our purposes can be found in France, Germany, Japan and Sweden. The UK hasn't designed or built a conventional submarine in over two decades, but the trusted nature of the 'five eyes' intelligence relationship and its ongoing nuclear submarine programs means that it's also a potential partner.

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