08 January 2010

Future submarine: no time to waste

The Government has some very important decisions to make regarding the submarines that are to replace the Collins Class submarines currently in service, and it is starting to bump up against some stringent timelines.

The current stated objective is to begin introducing the new submarines into service in 2025, a mere 15 years away. This means that we will need to see contractor sea trials commence in about 2022.

The experience with the Collins Class submarine was that the time from concept development to the delivery of the first of class was 13 years. The time from the cutting of the first steel to delivery of the first of class was six years.

These are respectable timelines. For its latest Virginia Class attack submarines the United States took 15 years from concept development to delivery of the first of class, and six years from the cutting of the first steel.

This means that if we wish to allow ourselves, for the development of a much larger and more capable boat, at least as long as we had for Collins, we will need to be at work on concept development by 2012, and start cutting steel by 2016. These are the latest acceptable dates – even if we meet them, we will be depending upon just about everything going according to plan if we want to avoid the situation we faced in 1998, when acceptance of the Collins Class into naval service was delayed and the Oberon Class submarines were reaching the end of their permissible dive life.

Much has to happen before 2012. We have to settle our acquisition strategy, and then select the team that is to design, build and maintain our next generation submarine.

This means that some threshold decisions need to be made, and fast. Much time has been wasted in the futile pursuit of an off-the-shelf option and strange ideas like running a design competition between European designers who do not build boats anything like the ones we need, and who would not be permitted to build boats incorporating United States technology that we know we will need.

My suggestions for some decisions that the Government should take now in order to cut to the chase:

(1)  Recognise that there is no European military off-the-shelf (MOTS) option that goes anywhere near complying with the requirements specified in the Defence White Paper.

Apart from the fact that there is nothing close to what we need, the laws of physics as they relate to submarine design mean that “near enough” is not good enough. Once it is necessary to adapt a submarine design the requirements for the shape of the pressure hull and the distribution of payload dictate that the “modification” task is essentially a new design.

(2) Accordingly, recognise from the outset that this is going to be a developmental project.

(3)  Abandon the notion of a design competition. 

A design competition between two European designers makes no sense. Why would we want to select a design house on the basis of a choice between two conceptual submarines, neither of which will meet our needs? And why would any European design house commit serious resources to developing the best design when it must know that it is simply a stalking horse for what will ultimately be an Australian project?

We have in this country the resources to design a submarine, but these are scarce resources and we cannot afford to divide them between two competing groups. Nor do we have the resources in the Defence Science and Technology Organisation (DSTO) to provide scientific and technical support to two competing groups.

Design represents less than 5% of total cost, so this is the wrong phase at which to compete the project. Spreading our scarce resources between two teams that are not permitted to communicate with each other runs the risk that we will end up with a choice between two inferior designs. There is plenty of room to compete aspects of the project between subcontractors and equipment suppliers.

(4)  Agree that the future submarine can only be designed and built in an Australian environment.

This will give us optimum access to European and United States technology, which only we will be permitted by either to integrate.

The Collins Class is the appropriate starting point for the future submarine, and ASC Pty Ltd has been the design authority since 2001. ASC must be selected to design and build the future submarine.

An Australian design and build means that we must bear all of the schedule, cost and performance risk, and will become the parent navy. We must recognise this from the outset, and plan and budget accordingly.

(5)  Benefit from US experience by emulating the Integrated Product Process Development (IPPD) model that was used to build the Virginia Class.

This means including designer, builder, major equipment and sub-systems suppliers, combat system integrator, through-life support agencies and key Defence stakeholders into the process from the outset.

The virtue of this system is that it avoids stop-start decision making, and enables resolution of issues where ease of building conflicts with ease of maintenance.

(6)  Select from the outset the combat system pedigree and integrator.

Integration of the combat system was one of the most problematic aspects of the Collins project. The lowest risk approach for the future submarine will almost inevitably be to derive a system from a proven US Navy system.

The wheel-spinning that has taken place over the last twelve to eighteen months means that the project is already hard up against its timelines.

It is now time to develop an appropriate sense of urgency, make the necessary threshold decisions, ensure that adequate funding for commencement of the program is in the budget for 2010-11, and get on with it.

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