Perhaps the biggest concern about the present situation with Australia’s future submarine program is the acute and growing probability of a capability gap. The first of the French ATTACK class submarines is not scheduled to enter service until 2035, but as a high risk, developmental design, it will almost inevitably be delayed.
At the same time, the first of the COLLINS class submarines will reach the end of its planned 30-year life in 2026. The Minister for Defence, Peter Dutton, has recently stated that all six COLLINS class submarines will have their lives extended for ten years by means of a comprehensive upgrade that will maintain the level of capability required to continue to undertake high intensity operations in the ‘grey zone’. But the upgrade will involve integrating major new systems into a platform whose design dates from the 1980s. This will be highly risky. It may either not work at all or may take a lot longer to complete for each boat than the two years allowed under the present plan.
The original intent in the 2009 Defence White Paper was to double the size of the Submarine Force from six to 12 boats by the end of the 2030s. This is now impossible. In fact, under the worst-case scenario in the second half of the 2030s the RAN could have no submarines at all capable of being deployed ‘up threat’. Such a disastrous outcome at a time of high strategic threat would not only undermine Australia’s national security but would also rapidly erode the high level of expertise and number of personnel in the Submarine Force at a time when we can very least afford it. This could take decades to rebuild Minimising the Capability Gap, the latest report from Submarines for Australia, addresses this issue. Drawing on the experience of members of our expert reference group, we examine a possible way forward that would both reduce the capability gap and place the future of the Submarine Force on a much stronger footing.
We have provided the report to the Minister for Defence.