The transition from the Collins-class submarines to the future submarine fleet will be more complex than any previous capability transition that Defence has undergone. The submarine enterprise will be in constant transition, rather than completing a short, bounded transition process. Traditional distinctions between design and build, between upgrade and sustainment, and indeed between different classes of vessel won’t be as absolute, requiring Defence and its industry partners to think differently.
They’ll need to address challenging risks to prevent a decline in submarine capability and, ultimately, grow the submarine force and supporting enterprise. Overall, Australia’s submarine capability must be treated as a single enterprise, not two distinct fleets.
Even if the Australian Government tries to get out of the Collins business as soon as possible, it will still need to extend at least three Collins submarines and operate them to around 2042 to prevent a capability gap. However, that approach wouldn’t provide a greater number of submarines until around 2044. Extending all six Collins would provide more submarines from 2032 and also help to mitigate one of the key challenges in the transition: the development of a much larger number of submariners. Under this option, the last Collins would be in service until around 2048, and it would be 45 years old. Regardless of which option the government chooses, it’s likely that some Collins boats aren’t even halfway through their service lives, and some members of the last Collins-class crew haven’t yet been born.
There doesn’t appear to be any way to achieve a fleet of 12 submarines before roughly 2054 without breaking out of the two-year future submarine production drumbeat. Doing so would require even greater spending on submarine construction and disrupt the continuous build cycle that the government is committed to.
At least three, and probably more, Collins boats will need to undergo some life of type extensions and serve for at least another 20 years, so maintaining ASC’s ability to sustain and upgrade Collins is essential to a successful transition. If ASC can’t preserve its Collins sustainment workforce, there will be a capability gap. One way to preserve ASC’s viability is to decide now that it will also be the sustainment entity for the future submarine. This will allow it to balance the workforce between Collins and the future submarine as well as to provide its current workforce with career certainty and development as part of a planned transition from one fleet to the other. It will also help to ensure sovereign sustainment of Australia’s submarine capability.
However, to provide ASC with the understanding of the future submarine design necessary to sustain and upgrade the boat throughout its service life, it would be beneficial to bring ASC into the design and build of the future submarine. One potential commercial model for this could be similar to that adopted by the government for the future frigate project, in this case with Naval Group taking on ASC’s submarine arm as a subsidiary that may revert to full government control at some point. This model is, however, not yet proven. However ASC is brought into the build, it will require careful negotiation.
Bringing ASC into the design and build of the future submarine would also allow it to apply its considerable expertise in sustaining submarines under Australian conditions with Australian industry partners to the design of the future submarine. This approach would also allow greater coordination between the upgrade and extension of the Collins and the design of the future submarine. Collins could serve as a test-bed for potential future submarine systems—provided that did not reduce Collins’s capability or availability.
Moving Collins full-cycle dockings (and then conducting future submarine dockings in Western Australia) could also address sustainment workforce risks, but a decision to do so will need to balance the short-term disruption against longer term gain.
Growing the size of the submariner trade is another key challenge, as it will be much larger than it currently is—potentially over three times as large. Two measures can help to address this. One is to extend the life of all Collins boats, as the Navy will need more boats to train more submariners. Potentially, Collins could evolve into being a dedicated training fleet as more future submarines enter service, meaning that the government wouldn’t need to invest as heavily in maintaining the Collins’ regional capability edge.
But the most important measure to grow the uniformed workforce will be to establish an east coast submarine base to provide access to Australia’s largest population centres. Without this, it’s very difficult to see how the Navy could ever crew the future submarine fleet, rendering the massive investment in the vessels nugatory.
There are no clear, stand-out options for an east coast base, and all viable locations are currently occupied. Therefore, the earlier a decision on the location is made, the more time Defence, industry and those members of the community who are affected will have to prepare. We should also not assume that it will be the last future submarines delivered that go to the east; since the point of having an east coast base is to recruit and retain the workforce, it may be necessary to gain access to that workforce sooner rather than later, by basing either some Collins or early future submarines there.