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Subs taskforce mulls new Collins before nuclear boats arrive

Thursday, November 18, 2021 9:49 AM | Alanna Mahlakolisane (Administrator)

Subs taskforce mulls new Collins before nuclear boats arrive


Exclusive
Andrew Tillett Political correspondent
Nov 16, 2021 – 5.17pm


Defence officials are weighing up whether Australia will need a new conventional submarine to avoid a capability gap while the navy waits for a fleet of nuclear-powered boats to be delivered.

This could include building an updated version of the navy’s Collins-class submarine in Adelaide by the government-owned shipbuilder ASC with support from the submarine’s original Swedish designer, Saab Kockums, according to multiple sources.

Submarines featured heavily in an unpublicised virtual bilateral meeting between Defence Minister Peter Dutton and Swedish Defence Minister Peter Hultqvist last week.

“The minister spoke to his Swedish counterpart about the strategic environment, AUKUS, and the ongoing role Saab plays in supporting Australian Defence,” Mr Dutton’s spokeswoman said.

Mr Hultqvist said he briefed Mr Dutton on the “increased national military capabilities of the Swedish Armed Forces”, which included acquiring stealthier submarines.

While the nuclear-powered submarine taskforce is concentrating on acquiring submarines from the United States and Britain under the AUKUS arrangements, sources said the chief of the taskforce, Vice-Admiral Jonathan Mead, had a remit that also includes looking at interim submarine capability.

The government had initially floated leasing a British or American nuclear-powered submarine until the first of the new boats were delivered, but this is viewed as increasingly unlikely.

Admiral Mead told a budget estimates committee last month Defence wanted at least one nuclear submarine, and ideally more, before 2040 and was working to accelerate that timetable.

In the meantime, all six Collins-class submarines will have their lives extended for another 10 years, beginning in 2026 and two years thereafter. However, that means the first submarine is due to retire in 2038, cutting it fine if there are any delays with the nuclear program.

Navy chief Mike Noonan has left open the possibility of carrying out a second life extension to the Collins-class submarines, but sources said the price difference between refurbishing an ageing submarine and building a brand new diesel-electric boat based on the Collins but with more modern systems would be comparatively small.

ASC has conducted comprehensive studies on modernising the existing Collins-class submarines, which drawing upon the original design could form the basis a new boat.

“Building a new Collins-class submarine would give you more capability and keep the workforce together in Adelaide. And you are not trying to force a 40-year-old submarine to do stuff,” one source said.

The fresh consideration of interim submarine capabilities comes after Defence Department Secretary Greg Moriarty told Senate estimates last month the department had “not at the moment” provided advice to government on the matter.

“The focus of the Nuclear-Powered Submarine Task Force is to work closely with the UK and US over the next 18 months to identify the optimal pathway to deliver at least eight nuclear-powered submarines for Australia,” the department said in a statement.

“In parallel, the government is investing between $4.3 – 6.4 billion in the life-of-type extension of all six Collins class submarines. The Collins class submarine to this day remains one of the most capable conventional submarines in the world.”

Australian Strategic Policy Institute analyst Marcus Hellyer said building a “son of Collins” had problems, including that original component manufacturers were no longer around and the navy was reluctant to operate three classes of submarines, but nevertheless it could help mitigate risk.

“We’re in a bad situation. But it is definitely worth exploring in a serious way,” he said.

“You line up the schedule [for retirement of the Collins and delivery of the nuclear-powered submarines], and it doesn’t line up. If your delivery drumbeat for the nuclear-powered submarines is greater than two years, you are getting new boats slower than the old ones are retired.”

The Australian Industry and Defence Network said while a decision on an interim submarine was a matter for the government, such a program would benefit local defence contractors and preserve the capabilities created by the cancelled French submarine program

“It would allow an Australian workforce to be grown and prepared for the construction of the nuclear submarine. It would allow Australian Industry to efficiently and effectively establish itself for the coming task,” chief executive Brent Clark said.

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