21 April 2009

Future submarine: why the design competition?

In Defence industry: delays are costly I commented on the high cost to both defence industry and Defence itself of delays in the issuing of Requests for Tender (RFT) and changes in capability acquisition plans, and gave some examples. The future submarine project SEA 1000 might be about to throw up another example of an exercise that will be costly to industry without yielding any benefit to the Department of Defence.

On 27 October 2008 the Minister for Defence announced that he had approved funding of $4.67 million for a program of studies in support of the acquisition of Australia’s future submarines (the project now known as SEA 1000).

This project is of central importance to Australia’s future defence posture. Press commentary indicates that the forthcoming White Paper is likely to propose the acquisition of a fleet of twelve next-generation submarines to replace the current fleet of six Collins Class submarines when they begin to be withdrawn from service from 2025, and Professor Hugh White, the principal author of the 2000 Defence White Paper, has proposed a fleet of eighteen in his recent paper for the Lowy Institute.

Further, there is press commentary to the effect that submarine design and maintenance is to be one of the core industrial capabilities to be sustained in Australia. This is as it should be. With any front line platform the possession of the platform without the capacity to maintain and upgrade it makes it a capability of doubtful worth, but there are particular considerations that apply to our submarine fleet.

First, our submarines are unique. Second, the requirements of successful submarine warfare are so demanding that any submarine is a work in progress throughout its life. Technological development is always presenting the submarine fleet with new challenges (more capable anti-submarine warfare) and opportunities to improve the capability and self-defence characteristics of the submarine.

In his October media release the Defence Minister stated:

- Defence will engage industry to assist development of the project acquisition strategy for Government consideration in the second half of 2009

- Work on the concept design of the future submarine will commence in 2010, following which

- There will be further consideration by Government in 2010.

As I understand it the current thinking of Defence is to select two European submarine designers to engage in a Defence-funded competitive design development.

This strikes me as a redundant step which will waste time and money we do not have, as well as imposing on the goodwill of European submarine builders whose involvement we will need in due course.

There is only one sensible strategy for the development of Australia’s future submarine and that is to establish an Australian design team and get on with it. The reasons for this include:

- Our submarines are unique, for good reason. They are the only diesel electric submarines that are required to undertake long transits in order to reach their area of operation. All other long-range submarines (U.S., Russian, Chinese, British, French) are nuclear powered. European submarines patrol close to their home base.

- No-one starts designing a submarine from a clean sheet of paper: our future submarine will take as its starting point an existing design.

- The design of our long-range submarines cannot be based upon any of the nuclear designs. Design and operation of diesel electric submarines is all about energy management. With a nuclear reactor on board, energy management is not an issue, so there is a completely different design philosophy.

- As we found in the development of the Collins project, no European design comes close to our requirements.

- We need both European and United States technology in our next generation submarine:

: Europeans have the design skills for quiet operation at low speed, and the experience of design and operation of diesel electric submarines.

: The United States has the skills to make submarines quiet at transit speeds, and we must make our submarines inter-operable with United States naval assets.

- The Defence Materiel Organisation has already acknowledged here that the project will incorporate a mix of European, Australian and United States technology.

- It is almost certain that the United States will not release its sensitive technologies to a European designer for incorporation into their designs. Submarine technologies are amongst the most sensitive military technologies of all, and the U.S. Navy will rightly be concerned to ensure that there can be no leakage of their technology to any of the European submarine builders.

It follows that the only sensible starting point for Australia’s next generation submarine is the Collins Class, and everyone knows it. The relevant knowledge and skills are here and should remain so.

It is to be hoped that the next time the Government considers this project it will decide to cut to the chase and announce that this will be an Australian designed and built submarine, incorporating the best of European and United States technology, but selected, managed and integrated by us.

No comments: