Its Never Too Early to Start Planning for the Future

 In China, Defense, Cyber/ICT, Australia, Air, Canada, Forces & Capabilities

Some of the great­est defence indus­try suc­cess­es have come as a result of long-term plan­ning and, yes, keep­ing pro­duc­tion pipelines hot. To this end, the Royal Navy is already set­ting the ground­work to replace the Astute Class fast attack sub­marines with what has become known as the SSN® pro­gram – should Australia join in a col­lab­o­ra­tive effort?

It is the largest defence acqui­si­tion project in the his­to­ry of the nation, but the $50 bil­lion project to replace the ageing Collins Class sub­marines with 12 region­al­ly supe­ri­or sub­marines is in deep water.

Despite repeat­ed rebuffs by senior Defence uni­formed per­son­nel, bureau­crats and suc­ces­sive min­is­ters of defence and defence indus­try, con­cerns released recent­ly by the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) in the report titled Future Submarine – Transition to design, com­bined with polit­i­cal con­cerns, all serve as pow­er­ful fuel to ques­tion the pro­gram. 

When first announced, the Attack Class was promised to deliv­er a quan­tum leap in the capa­bil­i­ty deliv­ered to the Royal Australian Navy and its sub­ma­rine ser­vice by lever­ag­ing tech­nol­o­gy and capa­bil­i­ties devel­oped for nuclear sub­marines, imple­ment­ed on a con­ven­tion­al sub­ma­rine.

Further com­pli­cat­ing mat­ters is the con­stant­ly fluc­tu­at­ing price asso­ci­at­ed with the pro­gram, with fig­ures rang­ing from the orig­i­nal $80 bil­lion as stated by former defence indus­try and defence min­is­ter Christopher Pyne, to a now esti­mat­ed $145 bil­lion as revealed by Future Submarine Program man­ag­er Rear Admiral Greg Sammut during Senate esti­mates.

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This cost explo­sion is fur­ther exac­er­bat­ed by an appar­ent ‘slip’ in the planned com­mence­ment date for con­struc­tion of the lead boat, HMAS Attack, which was widely pub­li­cised as 2022 – 23 and has now sub­se­quent­ly been pushed back to the 2024 time frame – fur­ther expos­ing Australia’s ageing Collins Class ves­sels to poten­tial adver­sary over match. 

RADM Sammuwas quick to explain this away, like a skilled oper­a­tor, inform­ing Senate esti­mates that the slated time frame was ref­er­enc­ing the stand­ing up of con­struc­tion per­son­nel, tools, infra­struc­ture, process­es and equip­ment to com­mence the con­struc­tion of HMAS Attack’s pres­sure hull in 2024. 

Finally, with the first vessel expect­ed to enter the water in the mid-to-late 2030s, con­cerns regard­ing the cost, deliv­ery and capa­bil­i­ty of the ves­sels is serv­ing to raise ques­tions about the value propo­si­tion for a con­ven­tion­al sub­ma­rine at a time of increas­ing tech­no­log­i­cal advance­ment in com­pa­ra­ble ves­sels oper­at­ed by peer and near-peer com­peti­tors in the Indo-Pacific. 

Australia is not alone with its pur­suit of ever more lethal, stealthy and capa­ble strate­gic force mul­ti­pli­ers like sub­marines, the British Royal Navy’s fleet of Astute Class fast attack sub­marines, despite a laboured birthing process, have emerged as some of the most lethal and highly-capa­ble sub­marines ever to put to sea. 

Comparable even to the US Navy’s ven­er­a­ble and con­stant­ly evolv­ing Virginia Class fast attack boats, the Astute Class is designed to escort air­craft car­ri­er and amphibi­ous war­fare task groups, inter­dict enemy con­voys, both civil­ian and mil­i­tary and keep the ocean clear for the Royal Navy’s fleet of Vanguard and future-Dreadnought Class bal­lis­tic mis­sile sub­marines to main­tain a cred­i­ble at-sea deter­rent. 

Towards the future – SSN®

However, the con­stant evo­lu­tion of adver­sary nuclear attack boats, in both Russia and increas­ing­ly China as the Indo-Pacific becomes an area of a planed increased British pres­ence, has prompt­ed the British Ministry of Defence and the Royal Navy to com­mence the early-stages of a replace­ment sub­ma­rine, to sup­ple­ment the later-build Astute’s and even­tu­al­ly replace the entire fleet.

This new vessel des­ig­nat­ed the SSN® is the brain­child of the Maritime Underwater Future Capability (MUFC) office of the Royal Navy, with esti­mates the RN’s pri­ma­ry sub­ma­rine yard, Barrow-in-Furness will not be ready to com­mence con­struc­tion on a new class of sub­ma­rine until at least the late 2030s. 

However, this won’t be the only chal­lenge, as inde­pen­dent think tank, Save the Royal Navy and respect­ed ana­lyst HI Sutton envis­age a vessel that will be 25 per cent larger than the Astute Class, weigh­ing in at around 9,200 tonnes and opti­mised for deep water, anti-sub­ma­rine, mar­itime inter­dic­tion and convoy/battle group escort duties. 

This design empha­sis will dif­fer­en­ti­ate the SSN® class from both the pre­ced­ing Virginia and Astute class­es, which are designed to oper­ate in both deep ocean and con­fined, lit­toral waters with equal effi­ca­cy.

Private ana­lyst, HI Sutton states this deci­sion, echo­ing a sim­i­lar US move to even­tu­al­ly replace the respec­tive class of attack sub­marines is driven by a number of exist­ing and planned weapons system devel­op­ments, namely:

The Russian Navy sub­ma­rine force is seen as more of a threat than in the past 25 years, both in terms of capa­bil­i­ty and actions. As more Pr.885M SEVERODVINSK‑M Class SSGNs join the fleet in the mid-2020s the qual­i­ty of the threats faced on a day-to-day basis in the North Atlantic will mas­sive­ly increase.

“New Russian weapon sys­tems, notably the Poseidon Intercontinental Nuclear-Powered Nuclear-Armed Autonomous Torpedo and var­i­ous unmanned under­wa­ter vehi­cles (UUVs) will be deep-diving threats. New weapons will need to be devel­oped to counter these.

“Many of the mis­sions which cur­rent­ly bring SSNs inshore are likely to dimin­ish by 2040. ISR (intel­li­gence sur­veil­lance and recon­nais­sance) will be con­duct­ed from ever greater ranges, often by other vehi­cles (UAVs, UUVs, USVs, cyber…). Special Forces capa­bil­i­ties are ulti­mate­ly unlike­ly to win out.”

An oppor­tu­ni­ty to get in at the ground floor

With Navy under­go­ing the largest peace­time trans­for­ma­tion of capa­bil­i­ty and plat­form in its his­to­ry, the Royal Australian Navy is well posi­tioned within the broad­er devel­op­ment of the “joint force” Australian Defence Force and its tran­si­tion towards a fifth-gen­er­a­tion force. 

At the fore­front of this is Plan Pelorus 2022Chief of Navy’s vision for devel­op­ing “a think­ing, a fight­ing, an Australian Navy” sup­port­ed by unique­ly Australian and world-lead­ing capa­bil­i­ties to ensure that Navy is capa­ble of meet­ing the oper­a­tional and strate­gic require­ments estab­lished by gov­ern­ment. 

A key com­po­nent of Plan Pelorus 2022 is the renewed focus on Australia’s imme­di­ate region – the Indo-Pacific.

The plan­ning state­ment artic­u­lates: “We live in an increas­ing­ly com­plex geopo­lit­i­cal envi­ron­ment, within a dynam­ic Indo-Pacific region. The mar­itime domain is cen­tral to the secu­ri­ty and pros­per­i­ty of our nation. As resources become increas­ing­ly scarce, and the com­pe­ti­tion greater, all ele­ments of nation­al power must work togeth­er to achieve the desired out­comes for our nation, and those of our friends. Fuelled by tech­no­log­i­cal advances and avail­abil­i­ty of infor­ma­tion, the future is increas­ing­ly unpre­dictable.

“Navy has a cru­cial role to play to sup­port our gov­ern­ment, and we must con­tin­ue to evolve and pre­pare for a myriad of oper­a­tional pos­si­bil­i­ties. This is the basis of our 2022 Headmark. Clarity and align­ment in our under­stand­ing of our Headmark will effec­tive­ly guide our day-to-day actions.”

Furthermore, Australia’s closer col­lab­o­ra­tions with defence primes from around the world, par­tic­u­lar­ly BAE Systems, Lürssen and Naval Group all pro­vide oppor­tu­ni­ties for fur­ther­ing the rela­tion­ships into the future, they also pro­vide a frame­work for future col­lab­o­ra­tion for a future, future sub­ma­rine pro­gram, serv­ing to spread research and devel­op­ment costs, while deliv­er­ing a highly capa­ble and inter­op­er­a­ble sub­ma­rine plat­form. 

Such an exam­ple is Australia’s col­lab­o­ra­tion with BAE Systems on the Type 26 Global Combat Ship, and Hunter Class frigate in Australian ser­vice, which could serve as the bedrock for a future Hobart Class replace­ment, as the common hull is expect­ed to serve as a Type 45 guided mis­sile destroy­er replace­ment plat­form. 

The Royal Navys long-trou­bled and costly Type 45 Daring Class ves­sels are slated for replace­ment begin­ning in the mid-to-late 2030s, with the Royal Navy cur­rent­ly kick­ing off research and devel­op­ment for the next-gen­er­a­tion of guided-mis­sile destroy­er that will be respon­si­ble for pro­vid­ing the RN with an advanced, future-proofed area-air defence and sur­face com­bat­ant capa­bil­i­ty in sup­port of the Queen Elizabeth Class car­ri­er strike groups and oper­at­ing inde­pen­dent­ly in con­test­ed envi­ron­ments. 

Reportedly known as Project Castlemaine, the Royal Navys Type 4X pro­gram aims to build on the suc­cess of the Type 26 Global Combat Ship with the selec­tion by the vessel by the Canadian and Australian navies, respec­tive­ly, to max­imise the spread costs asso­ci­at­ed with research and devel­op­ment and acqui­si­tion by guar­an­tee­ing a larger pro­duc­tion run and shared com­po­nent and acqui­si­tion lines.

This approach also pro­vides an oppor­tu­ni­ty for increased and sus­tained levels of inter­op­er­abil­i­ty for key Five Eyes allies all oper­at­ing the same or sim­i­lar plat­forms – the sim­i­lar deliv­ery time­line and capa­bil­i­ty require­ments cur­rent­ly ful­filled by both the Daring and Hobart Classes serves to build on the prece­dent estab­lished by the Type 26 and paves the way for larger pro­duc­tion runs to meet the grow­ing oper­a­tional and strate­gic require­ments of both nations. 

Type 26 also serves to show that US combat sys­tems, favoured by the Royal Australian Navy, can be inte­grat­ed within the con­fines of a large, British-designed sur­face com­bat­ant and could serve to pave the way for a Hunter Class-based Australian replace­ment for the Hobart, sup­port­ing the gov­ern­ments long-term naval ship­build­ing pro­gram, sup­port­ing the devel­op­ment of Australias defence indus­tri­al base. 

This model serves to pro­vide a firm basis upon which Australia and the UK could fur­ther col­lab­o­rate on the SSN® pro­gram, deliv­er­ing a glob­al­ly supe­ri­or fast-attack sub­ma­rine that ful­fils the tac­ti­cal and strate­gic objec­tives of both the Royal Navy and Royal Australian Navy well into the later-half of the 20th cen­tu­ry. 

In light of this poten­tial, should Australia set the foun­da­tions for future col­lab­o­ra­tion?

Maintaining the region­al order and enhanc­ing Australia’s nation­al inter­ests 

However, the ques­tion now becomes, given the geo­graph­ic area of respon­si­bil­i­ty Australia will become increas­ing­ly respon­si­ble for and depen­dent on, is the RAN and the recap­i­tal­i­sa­tion and mod­erni­sa­tion pro­grams cur­rent­ly under­way enough for Australia to main­tain its qual­i­ta­tive and quan­ti­ta­tive lead over region­al peers?

It is clear that Australia’s region is going to be increas­ing­ly con­gest­ed as both great and emerg­ing powers con­tin­ue to invest heav­i­ly in their own sub­ma­rine capa­bil­i­ties.

The grow­ing pro­lif­er­a­tion of steadi­ly more capa­ble plat­forms across the nation’s north­ern approach­es presents sig­nif­i­cant chal­lenges for the nation’s exist­ing Collins Class sub­marines in the short-to-medium term and the future sub­ma­rine force of the future. 

Australia is defined by its rela­tion­ship and access to the ocean, with strate­gic sea lines of com­mu­ni­ca­tion sup­port­ing over 90 per cent of global trade, a result of the cost-effec­tive and reli­able nature of sea trans­port.

Indo-Pacific Asia is at the epi­cen­tre of the global mar­itime trade, with about US$5 tril­lion worth of trade flow­ing through the South China Sea and the strate­gic water­ways and choke points of south-east Asia annu­al­ly.

The Indian Ocean and its crit­i­cal global sea lines of com­mu­ni­ca­tion are respon­si­ble for more than 80 per cent of the world’s seaborne trade in crit­i­cal energy sup­plies, namely oil and nat­ur­al gas, which serve as the lifeblood of any advanced econ­o­my.

Traditionally, Australia has focused on a plat­form-for-plat­form acqui­si­tion pro­gram – focused on replac­ing, mod­ernising or upgrad­ing key capa­bil­i­ties on a like-for-like basis with­out a guid­ing policy, doc­trine or strat­e­gy, lim­it­ing the over­all effec­tive­ness, sur­viv­abil­i­ty and capa­bil­i­ty of the RAN.

Let us know your thoughts in the com­ments sec­tion below, or get in touch with This email address is being pro­tect­ed from spam­bots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.or This email address is being pro­tect­ed from spam­bots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..  

Source: Defence Industry News

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