When it comes to the Federal government’s submarine replacement program, R.W. Chinnery finds the media commentary at the bottom of the Collins class.

 

The commentary by the media on the issue of whether Australia builds the replacement of the Collins class in Adelaide or buys them from Japan has once again demonstrated that they just don’t get it – they manage to miss the point on multiple levels.

The submarine replacement program, SEA1000, is about acquiring the best possible capability for the Royal Australian Navy for real warfare at the best possible price in reasonable time before a conflict catches us out with inadequate submarine capability.

To hear the Australian media talk about it, you would think the whole reason for having submarines is to create jobs for South Australia.

It is desirable to build Australian warships in Australia, but this must not be the overriding priority. Capability must come first and it must be delivered when the Navy needs it, not when industry is capable of supplying it.

The choice to build in Japan would be an unfortunate decision, bequeathed to the current government by a lack of urgency on the part of the former Labor government.

So much more needed to be done between 2009 and 2013. Worse, the little results that were achieved were two non-starters: a clean-sheet Australian design or a revamp of the Collins design – a waste of time.

However, all is not lost.

It seems unlikely that such a significant purchase (as many as ten boats according to the rumours) would not involve some significant degree of Australian work, if only out of political expediency. Here again, however, the media’s lack of initiation warps the discussion.

They talk about the choice to build here in Australia or Japan as if it were an either-or proposition. This demonstrates ignorance of modern shipbuilding practice, specifically, a failure to understand the important difference between construction and consolidation.

Ships are not necessarily built in once place any more. Different sections – modules to use the technical term – can be built by various shipyards, which send them to a primary contractor yard where the structure is put together – consolidated – and the various sub-systems are integrated into a cohesive unit.

This is neither a recent innovation nor a new practice of Australian naval shipbuilding. It is the way the Hobart class destroyers are being built. The Canberra class LHDs were built up to the flight deck in Navantia’s yard in Spain before being brought by heavy lift ship to BAE’s Williamstown yard for completion.

It is not hard to see an arrangement involving the construction of Australia’s first few boats at the already hot and running construction line in Japan, using some modules built in Adelaide.

This would allow ASC the time to “warm up” and build more of each successive boat with the transfer of the structural consolidation work from Japan to Australia from perhaps the fourth or fifth boat.

However, the government needs to be wary of overestimating the benefits of Japanese build and underestimating the challenges.

The Navy will inevitably want numerous modifications to the off-the-rack Soryu design, not the least of which would be swapping out the Japanese combat system for the US one the Navy wants.

The Soryus, though large for a non-nuclear sub, are not designed for operations far from home, the diametric opposite of what Australia needs. Increasing bunkerage (fuel storage) and crew provisions are likely to require significant alterations to their internal structure. Submarines are as intricate as Swiss watches, so such changes are not a minor undertaking.

Furthermore, their indiscretion rate (the frequency with which the snorkel must be raised to run their diesel generators) is relatively high due to the high power demands of their systems. The Japanese are working on an improved Soryu with longer-lasting and lighter Lithium ion batteries.

Of course, all of this may be just a government tactic to rattle the cage of the state-owned and heavily unionised shipbuilder ASC prior to negotiations.

Whatever the case, the media have let the public down big time. This is one of the biggest decisions any Australian government will make for decades…beyond actually joining a war between major powers. It would fundamentally change the nature of our relationship with China, who will no longer see us as a swayable player, therefore leaving Beijing with an incentive to play hardball with us, both diplomatically and commercially. We would be essentially making an informal strategic pact with Japan – more binding than any of the formal agreements we have now.

Many of Australia’s defence woes emerge from the myopic and parochial approach to defence taken by past politicians.

This is something the media ought to be challenging rather than validating.

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