AUCKLAND, New Zealand – Australia’s surprise decision to procure nuclear powered submarines (SSNs) from the United States and the United Kingdom follows difficulties the country has faced with its future SEA 1000 Attack-class submarine program and the realization that a conventionally powered submarine (SSK) won’t meet its future needs, a regional defense expert told USNI News.
The 12 New Boat Attack Class Program was intended to replace the existing Collins Class Attack Boats of the Royal Australian Navy, but experienced delays and cost increases which had pushed up the total estimated program budget to 90 billion Australian dollars.
In 2016, the Australian Ministry of Defense selected the Shortfin Barracuda 1A from the French shipbuilder Naval Group. This is a modification of the design used for the French Navy’s Suffren-class nuclear attack boat, but it carried a high level of risk as the modifications meant it was a new design. for an SSK, not a standard option.
The Attack class is “evolutionary rather than revolutionary” and was not ready to introduce major new capabilities beyond what the Collins class already offered, Marcus Hellyer of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute told USNI News.
He said the Attack class followed a “traditional configuration” and would not have had an air independent propulsion system, lithium-ion batteries, vertical launch system or large diameter tube for deployment and the recovery of larger unmanned submarines. systems.
The problems on SEA 1000 started early. A strategic partnership agreement to manage relations between organizations for the duration of the program was expected in October 2017. It was finally signed in February 2019.
In September 2018, the Naval Shipbuilding Advisory Board suggested that the government consider alternatives to the SEA 1000 program if the SPA was not signed. The board said extending the life of the Collins class would allow more time “to develop a new procurement strategy for the future submarine if necessary.”
The Collins-Class SSK Life Extension Program was subsequently approved to ensure that the RAN retains its submarine capability for the foreseeable future, pushing the withdrawal date back to 2038.
Despite the signing of the SPA, in early 2020, an Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) report titled âFuture Submarine Program – Transition to Designâ found that the SEA 1000 program âcannot demonstrate that its expenditure of 396 million Australian dollars on the design of the future submarine has been fully effective in achieving the two major design milestones of the program to date.
There had been an overall delay of nine months up to this point in completing the Concept Studies Review (CSR) and System Requirements Review (SRR). ANAO found that the different approaches to commercial and engineering work between Naval Group and the DoD have “influenced progress to date.”
These issues have strained the relationship between the DoD and Naval Group, which the ANAO has described as “key risk mitigation.”
While these supposedly have no impact on the overall delivery of the program, the report pointed out that an overall delay of three years or more could result in a gap in the RAN’s submarine capability. At some point in the past year, the DoD must have realized that it was taking a lot of risk and spending a lot of money to get a platform that would not offer the capacity increases that RAN was including. will need in the 2050s and beyond.
While Hellyer said this attack would have been a high performance conventional submarine, the intention was to have “the continuity of the Collins class LOTE”. He explained that the problem with this is that “we are at the end of the evolutionary curve of the underlying technologies for SSKs” and that the only improvements in capacity were due to having a bigger boat (Collins says 3,400 t versus Attack at 4,500 t) with the capacity to hold more fuel and batteries so that it travels faster and stays in station longer.
The DoD had experienced similar issues with the Collins class 20 years before using an adaptation of the Royal Swedish Navy’s Gotland-class design by shipbuilder Kockums to generate the capabilities the RAN needed to extend the endurance of the SSK.
Hellyer added that at the end of the day the DoD was spending too much time and money on “incremental improvements” and that “if you want fundamental changes in the performance of submarines, you have to switch to nuclear propulsion. “.