Skip to comments.Diving in at the deep end (Australian submarine plans)
Posted on 10/14/2010 8:11:28 AM PDT by sukhoi-30mki
Diving in at the deep end
Cameron Stewart, Associate editor
WITH the government planning to spend $36bn building 12 new submarines, debate is raging about the wisdom of the project. THE Gillard government's plan to build 12 new-generation submarines in Australia carries with it enormous political, strategic and financial risks.
It will be easily the largest and most complex defence project attempted in this country.
If it goes right it will give the navy its most deadly weapon while also safeguarding the future of the naval shipbuilding industry.
If it goes wrong, it could jeopardise national security and trigger the single largest waste of taxpayer funds since Federation, making spending scandals such as Building the Education Revolution and the pink batts scheme seem like small change.
Yet ever since the plan was announced in the defence white paper in June last year, there has been a paucity of debate surrounding a project the Australian Strategic Policy Institute says could cost an astonishing $36 billion.
But now it seems that is changing. A group of former submariners, including at least two former commanders, have called on the government to rethink its plans to build the world's most sophisticated conventional submarines, saying the idea is flawed and unrealistic.
The opposition has also questioned the government's plan, saying the Collins-class submarines are so beset with technical problems they are unlikely to last until their planned retirement in 2025. In these circumstances, says opposition defence spokesman David Johnston, the only option for Australia may be to purchase military off-the-shelf submarines from Europe, rather than wait to build a largely home-grown submarine.
"It is becoming a situation where the choices are so limited that military off-the-shelf submarines are almost the only option in the short term if we are to continue to have a viable [submarine] capability," Johnston says.
The suggestion that Australia may need to buy European submarines off the shelf and modify them for Australian conditions has angered the navy and the Submarine Institute of Australia.
The navy has fired back, saying European submarines would be unsuited to Australia's needs for long-range patrols deep into the northern hemisphere.
"It isn't as simple as saying a couple of Scorpene submarines from France can replace our Collins-class submarines, because they cannot," navy chief Russ Crane tells The Australian. "They cannot go anywhere near the capability of our Collins-class submarines."
Crane says European boats do not have the range required for
the Australian navy and would be inconsistent with the philosophy of having a national submarine capability.
"It doesn't appreciate, in my view, our strategic reality here in Australia and you can't divorce yourself from your geography. We are an island nation in a particular part of the world.
"That's why Collins was built the way it was, to give us extended range, extended endurance. That's why we didn't then go down the route of buying off-the-shelf small submarines from other nations."
So far, the government has remained silent on the details of its grand plan. It says only that the
12 new submarines will be constructed in Adelaide, but it does
not say whether the new boats will be an existing European military submarine constructed here under licence and modified for Australian conditions, or a completely new class of submarine like the Collins.
This looms as one of the Gillard government's most important decisions, but the likelihood is that it will punt on the ability of local industry to produce a largely home-grown submarine, or "son
Non-defence issues are also at play. Labor sees the project as a nation-building exercise, boasting that it would "contribute to the modernisation of the Australian manufacturing industry".
This annoys some, who say any decision should be guided only by Australia's strategic needs. One former submarine commander, who asked not to be named, says: "The aim of the submarine project is to provide the best submarine capability to Australia for the best value. That does not include nation-building exercises such as creating a design and development capability for submarines in Australia."
The downside of building home-grown submarines is the cost and risk. Apart from the possible $36bn price tag, the project would be prone to the same sort of first-of-class technical setbacks that afflicted the six Collins-class boats and which have haunted that fleet ever since.
Former defence science minister Greg Combet once admitted the project would be "at the margins of our present scientific and technological capability" and it would be "the most complex and sophisticated industrial project ever pursued in this country".
The Treasury and some in the Defence Department believe the financial risk in building home-grown submarines is too great, and say it makes more economic sense to buy ready-made boats.
Off-the-shelf military purchases are viewed more favourably after several recent successes, including the F/A-18 Super Hornets, the C-17 transport planes and the Abrams tanks. Each of these capabilities has been or is being delivered on time, on budget and in good working order.
One alternative to developing a new class of home-grown submarine is to purchase the rights to a tried and tested submarine, such as the German, Spanish or French subs. This would be substantially cheaper, at about $12bn for a dozen submarines that could be constructed under licence in Adelaide with less technical risk.
But are they good enough to meet the navy's needs?
The defence white paper called for the construction of the world's largest and most advanced conventional submarines with numerous extras to carry out long-range missions. Such a boat would likely be about 4000 to 4500 tonnes, compared with the 3500 tonne Collins. European submarines are much smaller at between 1400 tonnes and 2400 tonnes, and they carry fewer weapons and have a shorter range.
At its core, the submarine debate requires a cool-headed judgment about what Australian industry is capable of and the costs and risks associated with that. The only reference point for this is the Collins-class experience.
But the beauty of the Collins is in the eye of the beholder.
"These are extremely capable submarines," Crane says. "They suffer in reputation through events that happened many years ago. I would like to think that given the capability we get out
of Collins today, a Collins reinvented and updated for the future is an option."
But critics say the Collins experience is the reason why Australia should not try to repeat the experiment on a grander scale. They point to the present state of the fleet, which has two of its six submarines almost permanently in dry dock, with barely two submarines available for operations at any one time because of technical, maintenance or manpower issues.
Retired submariner Bill Owen, Australia's first submarine squadron commander, is part of a vocal minority that believes Australia cannot afford to risk a repeat of the Collins-class project.
"The Collins have been a disaster in every way and we can't afford to be idealistic any more [about home-grown submarines]," he says.
"They involve a huge level of technical and operational risk. Going for a military off-the-shelf option would greatly reduce that operational and financial risk.
"We need to get a really well-proven submarine from overseas and start all over again," according to Owen.
He supports a proposal recently submitted to the government by a former submariner, Rex Patrick, which calls for the early retirement of two Collins-class boats and the early purchase of an initial batch of four ready-made submarines from Europe, to be followed by two more batches in the years ahead.
Patrick argues that the alleged shortcomings of European submarines have been overstated by those who support a home-grown model.
ASPI analyst Andrew Davies believes there should be an honest, up-front debate about the relative merits of European submarines versus home-grown boats. He points out that the shorter range of the European submarines could be partly offset if they operated more frequently out of forward allied bases such as Guam.
Former submarine commander Peter Briggs says there would still be significant technical risk in choosing a ready-made European submarine, because it would need to be heavily modified to suit Australian conditions and strategic requirements.
"Once you start to adapt a submarine you are heightening your risk more than you would be by giving a designer a clean sheet of paper," he says.
"If you want to adapt a design by adding fuel or batteries or whatever, you start running into the laws of physics of submarine design. These [European boats] are like a Swiss watch: they are beautifully built for the Baltic Sea or the Mediterranean but they are totally not designed for the conditions we operate in."
The Submarine Institute of Australia's president Peter Horobin also believes the smaller European submarines would not be able to carry out the prescriptive requirements for Australian vessels outlined in the defence white paper.
He is adamant that the Collins-class project has been a success and says the Collins boats should provide the base for a new home-grown submarine.
"One of the options must surely be to evolve from Collins itself, so you would take the lessons learned from Collins forward into a larger boat design," he says.
But the man who oversaw the building of the Collins-class fleet, former Australian Submarine Corporation chief Hans Ohff, says the Collins experience will be of little use in building a next-generation submarine.
"I am of the view that the Collins cannot be evolved," Ohff says. "It is a 1980s technology and today you would have a totally different shape, different components. You cannot take a 1980s design and make a 2020 design."
The problems of the Collins-class fleet have led the federal opposition to call for a more serious examination of the European submarine option.
Johnston says the Collins fleet is unlikely to remain viable until 2025, which is considered the earliest date by which a largely home-grown submarine would be available. He believes buying ready-made European submarines potentially makes strategic and economic sense rather than allowing the Collins class fleet to limp along for the next 15 years.
"The only solution I can see is that you go to Europe and get something in train quickly," he says. "As time goes by the options available to the Australian government become more and more limited. Urgent leadership from the government is desperately required now."
Additional reporting: Brendan Nicholson
Submarines on board the HMAS Waller, one of the contentious Collins-class submarines. Source: The Australian
A question. Are these new boats,particularly the German designs, a reworking of Walther’s peroxide design from WW2?
Nope-the new ones are a completely new design which use a hydrogen-oxygen fuel cell system.
The newer "stealthy" German boats use fuel cells to generate their motive power. There is also a Swedish design that uses a Stirling cycle external combustion engine which condenses the exhaust and discharges it outside of the pressure hull. Both are very quiet.
The peroxide turbine was not a continuous drive option. It was intended to generate massive shaft horsepower for a short interval while blowing a large steam bubble where the boat had been. Basically, it was an escape drive used when surface ships had you bracketed with depth charges. Thirty seconds at twenty knots submerged, then coast away from the collapsing steam bubble. The peroxide used was very unstable (80% or better H2O2) and proved dangerous to store in a working submarine.