Saturday 21 Jul 2018 | 19:40 | SYDNEY
Saturday 21 Jul 2018 | 19:40 | SYDNEY

Submarines give Smith a sinking feeling

20 July 2011 14:22

Conrad van Coller is an intern with the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute for International Policy.

Last night, Defence Minister Stephen Smith announced a review into the availability of the Collins-class submarines. The Coles Review will investigate the 'optimal commercial framework' for the Collins-class as the submarines approach their retirement in the mid-2020s. At times, only one of six of the submarines has been available, a fact alluded to in a recent Lowy Institute paper.

The launch of the Coles Review follows less than a week after the release of the Rizzo Review which threw light on serious and systematic problems in the maintenance and sustainment of Navy's amphibious fleet. The lack of availability, technical problems and maintenance issues of the Collins-class are well known in Australia. The Coles Review is an implicit acknowledgment that the issues identified in the amphibious vessels are a fleet-wide problem.

The Coles Review is most telling in the context of the Future Submarine program. Smith noted that 'without having confidence in our capacity to sustain our current fleet of submarines, it is very difficult to fully commence, other than through initial planning, the acquisition program for our Future Submarine'. 

The Future Submarine project will be the biggest defence procurement project in Australia’s history and is projected to cost up to $36bn. Yet all the two key agencies who will steward the project have been subject to intense criticism.

The Defence Materiel Organisation (DMO) Projects of Concern list remains substantial, and recent problems with building the Air Warfare Destroyer are seen by some as symptomatic of a poor relationship overall between Defence and industry. The sudden resignation of the long-serving head of the DMO, Dr David Gumley, is further cause for concern. ASPI analysts have also concluded that the Australian Submarine Corporation (ASC) will struggle to complete a project of the scale of the Future Submarine. 

Finally, despite the scale of the Collins-class replacement project, no cost projections have been made in the 2011 budget, the 2009 Defence White Paper, or the recently updated Defence Capability Plan.

The announcement of the Coles Review highlights the difficult situation for Australian strategic planners. On the one hand, the Collins-class sub is an expensive and unreliable asset nearing the end of its lifespan, and requiring increasingly expensive maintenance. On the other, the prospects for its replacement are very gloomy indeed given the systemic flaws in procurement, maintenance and sustainment of maritime assets.

Smith's acknowledgment that proceeding with the Future Submarine is unwise until the problems with the Collins-class are resolved, suggest Australians might have to become accustomed to lacking an effective submarine capacity in the decades to come.

Photo of the Collins Class, HMAS Waller and HMAS Dechaineux by Flickr user Kookaburra2011.