• A concept image of the Attack class submarine. (Credit: Naval Group)
    A concept image of the Attack class submarine. (Credit: Naval Group)
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Editor’s note: This is a digital only special of our usual print column which was to appear in the upcoming April/May edition.

If you haven’t already noticed, Australia’s project to build 12 Attack-class submarines is stuffed, cactus, rooted, verging on collapse.

Here’s how media outlet Independent Australia characterised the project: “A nuclear submarine with a diesel-electric engine is a fail. An American combat system won’t work in a French vessel because the Americans and the French do not talk. Lead-acid batteries will be obsolete well before the subs are delivered.”

There’s lots more, including claims of cost blowouts, delays, excessively ambitious specifications.

An underlying theme of some commentary is that fundamentally this project is in deep strife because we chose to deal with THE FRENCH, reflecting a longstanding prejudice derived from Britain and predating Napoleon.

Certainly there is much to be concerned about as we are creating a whole new submarine design almost from keel up.

From the outset this was recognised as technically high risk, involving both designing and building a new submarine and transferring the technology to Australia to develop a new sovereign industry capability.

This was always going to be expensive and it would be nice to have new submarines much sooner than we are.

One day there may be a good explanation as to why a new design derived from a French nuclear attack boat was preferred over an evolved version of the Navy’s Collins boats. After all, the Collins subs do much of what Australia requires and the design philosophy of successful submarine building nations has been to evolve their existing boats, not hop straight to a new design.

Media reports in late February indicate the Prime Minister had commissioned an internal Defence review of alternatives, which would only make sense if the alternative could deliver a submarine of comparable or superior capabilities sooner while still achieving the government’s industry objectives.

It’s hard to imagine this alternative could be any cheaper as some $2 billion costs have already been incurred and Naval Group would not walk away without substantial penalty costs.

As Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) analyst Marcus Hellyer observes, abandoning Australia’s largest ever defence deal would not be a good look for either the government or Defence.

In one sense, a review of alternatives is a useful step in making clear to all the doubters that there is no realistic alternative (unless there is). As the Submarine Institute of Australia conference in Canberra in November was told, Plan B is to make Plan A work. See more on this view from Chief of Navy Vice Admiral Michael Noonan in the print edition of ADM’s April/May edition coming out next week in both hard and soft copy.

Still the government is unhappy, prompting new Naval Group CEO Pierre Eric Pommellet to nip down under for three weeks, of which two was spent in quarantine. His talks with the government talks appear to have resulted in a revised plan for the design over the next two years with a firmer date for construction of the first hull in 2024.

In late March, NG and the Commonwealth signed off on amendments to the over-arching Strategic Partnering Agreement with NG committing that at least 60 per cent of the design and acquisition contract value will be spent in Australia.

This was clearly a very sore point and would appear to reflect underlying French concerns about Australian industry capabilities and Australian concerns that without enforceable contract provisions, European suppliers would become entrenched in the program without the desired technology transfer to Australian firms.

NG also surely appreciates that this is straight out Aussie politics – one nut or bolt made in France which could have been made in Australia will surely result in a torrent of condemnation from the likes of Senator Rex Patrick.

According to Janes, under the amended SPA, Australian content will be agreed at each stage, with penalties for under delivery and incentives for exceeding the target.  How will we know? Perhaps only when the data is dragged out of defence officials in Senate estimates hearings.

So how late is the project running? In January, the latest Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) report on the submarines project (the third such report) identified a nine-month delay in the design phase against Defence’s pre-design contract estimate.

Most recently, the Systems Functional Review milestone was achieved in January, as against the original March 2020 forecast. That actually picked up five weeks of the schedule, which considering the problems with COVID, seems actually an encouraging accomplishment.

One problem for the government is that not much visible to the public is happening. The new construction yard is rising in Adelaide but much actual submarine design work is happening on CAD screens in Cherbourg, which the taxpayers can’t ever see.

In the second ANAO report on subs, Defence made the fair point that success of the Future Submarines would be driven by preparations during the design phase when much of the engineering effort would be required.

Way back then, this correspondent reported seemingly endlessly on the mounting woes of the Collins subs – excessive noise, a combat system that didn’t work, unreliable engines, contaminated drinking water, the list goes on.

Having learned from Collins we can now do this so much better. Example – shore-based test facilities will prove combat and propulsions systems long before they ever go to sea. So by all means, expedite the design process, but not too much.

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