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Australia Submarine Capabilities

Collins Class (Type 417)  Submarine Collins Class (Type 417) Submarine

The Royal Australian Navy (RAN) currently operates six ocean-going, diesel-electric Collins-class submarines, which are based at Fleet Base West, HMAS Stirling, south of Fremantle in Western Australia.

With significant natural resources within its 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone, and 99.9% of its bulk trade being maritime based, Australia is committed to securing the region's sea lines of communication. The RAN's mission, as part of the Australian Defence Forces, is to ensure unimpeded trade. As a result, it plays a vital role in promoting regional stability as a prerequisite for the continued prosperity of the area and of Australia itself. [1] This mission was demonstrated in 1999 when RAN submarines provided reconnaissance during the landing of UN peacekeeping troops in East Timor. At the time, it was feared that Indonesia might deploy its two Type 209/1300 vessels to the area. [2]

Australia's Submarine Tables
 

Australia's submarine force also plays an integral part in the RAN's mission of sea denial to hostile forces by controlling focal points in the island groups off Australia's northern coast. [3] More specifically, the six vessels are intended to provide a platform for covert surveillance reconnaissance and offensive operations against warships, submarines and merchant shipping, as well as mining and special operations support. [4] A weapons handling system designed to be able to operate Tomahawk missiles may also indicate the submarines' potential future use as land-attack platforms. [5] However, to date, no such missiles have been ordered.

The current submarine force of Collins-class vessels were built locally by the Australia Submarine Corporation (ASC) based on a design from Sweden's Kockums. The RAN commissioned the six submarines between 1996 and 2003, but with significant delays due to design deficiencies discovered during sea trials. [6] In 1999, a study commissioned by the Minister for Defence concluded that problems with the fuel system, engines, propellers, noise, communications, and combat systems meant that the Collins-class submarines "cannot perform at the levels required for military operations." [7] The submarines have since undergone numerous upgrades to resolve most of these problems. [8] The most significant upgrade to date was a $600 million project ending in 2010, which involved replacing old combat systems with the Raytheon system and installing upgraded heavyweight torpedoes. [9] These additions enable the submarines to detect, acquire and track targets, as well as to engage both surface vessels and submarines. Nonetheless, challenges persist – at times only two of the six submarines have been available for service – and the program has faced public criticism over its high costs. [10] Another government review released in December 2011 noted continued management deficiencies in the sustainment of Australia's submarine program. [11]

Despite – or perhaps because of – difficulties with the Collins-class submarines, the RAN has plans for expanding its submarine fleet. In a 2009 Defence White Paper, the government committed to acquiring 12 advanced submarines by 2030, initiating the country's "largest ever single defence project" at an estimated cost of $36 billion. [12] The envisioned capability is for a roughly 4,000 ton conventional submarine with a long range, that can perform anti-ship and anti-submarine warfare as well as intelligence collection and special forces insertion. A longer range vessel is seen as important for enhanced Australian cooperation with the United States in order to counter China's growing naval power. [13] The program received funding in 2012 to continue studies leading to a final design choice, but further delays could call into question Australia's ability to complete a replacement by the time the Collins-class boats go out of service. [14]

Options under consideration include domestic construction of a new design, modification of the Collins-class, or acquiring a military off-the-shelf submarine from Europe or Japan. [15] In order to complete the design indigenously, Australia would require "a domestic workforce of roughly 1,000 skilled draftsmen and engineers." [16] The RAND Corporation, contracted by the Australian government to assess the country's domestic submarine design capabilities, found that although Australia could develop such a workforce over 15-20 years, the submarines could be completed faster and cheaper if designed with assistance from foreign partners. [17] Most current off-the-shelf advanced conventional submarines weigh roughly 2,000 tons and perform operations closer to shore, but could be modified to meet Australia's requirement for a larger submarine to carry out long-range missions. [18] A nuclear submarine such as the 7,800 ton U.S. Virginia-class could also provide the desired capability, but would require special servicing and intellectual property arrangements. [19] Australia's 2009 White Paper explicitly ruled out the option of nuclear-powered submarines, and the government has so far declined offers of U.S. assistance. [20] Australia's 2013 Defence White Paper set aside the military off-the-shelf options, reiterated the government's lack of interest in nuclear submarines, and described the issue as a decision between an "evolved" Collins-class of submarines and an entirely new class of submarine. [21] However, analyst Ross Babbage has expressed skepticism that the positions outlined in the White Paper will remain governmental policy following the upcoming late 2013 national election. [22] Some experts continue to argue that Australia's needs would be best met by leasing U.S. Virginia-class or U.K. Astute-class boats. [23]

Sources:
[1] D.J. Shackleton, AO Vice Admiral, RAN Chief of Navy, "Plan Blue: Australia's Maritime Strategy," RAN, www.navy.gov.au.
[2] Derek Wollner, "Getting in early: lessons of the Collins submarine program for improved oversight of defence procurement," Research paper No. 3, 2001-2002, Information and Research Services, Department of the Parliamentary Library, www.aph.gov.au.
[3] Interview with Vice Admiral Don Chalmers, Chief of Navy, "Navies take up the challenge (I)," Naval Forces, 1998, Vol. 19, No. 5, pp. 50-57; in ProQuest Information and Learning Company, http://proquest.umi.com.
[4] "The Royal Australian Navy (RAN) today," Naval Forces, Supplement/Special Issue.2003; in ProQuest Information and Learning Company, http://proquest.umi.com.
[5] A.W. Grazebrook, "Australian Naval programmes revisited," Naval Forces, 1998, Vol. 19, No. 1, pp. 28-33; in ProQuest Information and Learning Company, http://proquest.umi.com.
[6] "Submarine Forces, Australia," Jane's Underwater Warfare Systems, 29 June 2011.
[7] Malcolm K. McIntosh and John B. Prescott, "Report to the Minister for Defence on the Collins Class Submarine and Related Matters," Commonwealth of Australia, June 1999, www.defence.gov.au.
[8] "Submarine Forces, Australia," Jane's Underwater Warfare Systems, 29 June 2011.
[9] "Australia's Collins Class Subs, Submariners on Track for Upgrades," Defense Industry Daily, 15 November 2005, www.defenseindustrydaily.com.
[10] Chris Russell, "Australia's Ship-Building Capability Questioned as 'Complex' Maintenance Puts More Subs Out of Action: Subs all at Sea," The Advertiser, 11 June 2011, www.lexisnexis.com; Dan Oakes, "Two Subs Out of Action for 9 Years; Only One of Six in Submarine Fleet Fully Operational," The Age (Melbourne), 11 February 2010, www.lexisnexis.com.
[11] John Coles, "Collins Class Sustainment Review Phase 1 Report," Australian Government Department of Defence, 4 November 2011, www.defence.gov.au.
[12] "Defending Australia in the Asia Pacific Century: Force 2030," Australian Government Department of Defence, Defence White Paper 2009, www.defence.gov.au.
[13] John Kerin, "Gillard bows to U.S. on Submarines," Australian Financial Review, 24 November 2011, www.lexisnexis.com; Jonathan Pearlman, "$46b Sub Plan: Aussies Dive into Debate; Issue is whether Fleet is for Territorial Defence or to help U.S. in the Region," The Straits Times, 14 July 2012, www.lexisnexis.com.
[14] Julian Kerr, "Future Subs Not Even on the Drawing Board," Weekend Australian, 29 October 2011, www.lexisnexis.com; Andrew Davies and Mark Thomson, "Mind the Gap: Getting Serious about Submarines," Strategic Insights, 57, April 2012, www.aspi.org.au.
[15] Hamish McDonald, "Navy Eyeing off New Japanese Submarines," The Age (Melbourne), 9 July 2012, www.lexisnexis.com; David Ellery, "Kockums Out of the Loop for Sub Contract," Canberra Times, 18 February 2012, www.lexisnexis.com.
[16] John Birkler et al., "Australia's Submarine Design Capabilities and Capacities: Challenges and Options for the Future Submarine," RAND Corporation, 2011, www.rand.org.
[17] John Birkler et al., "Australia's Submarine Design Capabilities and Capacities: Challenges and Options for the Future Submarine," RAND Corporation, 2011, www.rand.org.
[18] Jonathan Pearlman, "$46b Sub Plan: Aussies Dive into Debate; Issue is whether Fleet is for Territorial Defence or to help U.S. in the Region," The Straits Times, 14 July 2012, www.lexisnexis.com.
[19] John Kerin, "Nuclear Subs Back on the Table," Australian Financial Review, 8 March 2012, www.lexisnexis.com.
[20] John Kerin, "U.S. Floats Nuclear Subs Option," Australian Financial Review, 22 February 2012, www.lexisnexis.com; John Kerin, "Controversy Unabated over New Submarine," Australian Financial Review, 21 June 2012, www.lexisnexis.com.
[21] "2013 Defence White Paper," Australian Government Department of Defence, Defence White Paper 2013, www.defence.gov.au.
[22] Ross Babbage. "Australia Needs Strategic Rethink on Submarines," The Diplomat, 20 May 2013, www.thediplomat.com, retrieved 11 July 2013.
[23] Ross Babbage. "Australia Needs Strategic Rethink on Submarines," The Diplomat, 20 May 2013, www.thediplomat.com, retrieved 11 July 2013; Simon Cowan, "Australia's Nuclear Sub Option," The Diplomat, 26 October, 2012, www.thediplomat.com, retrieved 11 July 2013; Harry Kazianis, "Australia's Submarine Folly," The Diplomat, 4 May 2013, www.thediplomat.com, retrieved 11 July 2013; Ross Babbage, "Meet The Diplomat Writers – Ross Babbage," The Diplomat, 14 May 2012, www.thediplomat.com, retrieved 11 July 2013.

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This material is produced independently for NTI by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of and has not been independently verified by NTI or its directors, officers, employees, or agents.

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