Drop nuclear power and develop the Collins class, our best submarine option – by Peter Roberts

Commentary by Peter Roberts

It’s been a long weekend for defense industry observers, but here are the ramifications of the Australian submarine decision so far: it is clear that we have crossed Japan twice; we crossed France twice; we ignored our neighbors like New Zealand and Indonesia; we made China angry; and made an enemy of the leading nation in the European Union.

And here we stand about submarines: After eight years of intensive submarine procurement, we have no contract with anyone to build submarines in Adelaide or anywhere else.

See David Thomas’ comments on international and economic relations here.

So in the meantime we will continue to industrially upgrade our six Collins-class submarines, which – and that has to be the basis – were built on site to be the basis for a submarine design and construction industry.

After giving up hope eight years ago of continuing to promote Australian intellectual property and the supply chains that were developed for Collins, we were caught relying only on these Australian-made ships and supply chains.

This begs the first industrial question – why not take what is certainly the least costly, least risky, least provocative to China and, most industrially useful, is to evolve our existing Collins design.

Collins is known to have matured into a very good submarine indeed, and advancing the design would bring us more submarines, faster than any other option, with more Australian technology and skill development opportunities.

Which brings us to the N-Sub option.

Yes, nuclear submarines can stay at sea longer, but they are not as quiet and deadly as the Collins – this is proven by the regular “sinking” of US warships by our submarines during exercises.

The real problem is that the adoption of US or UK nuclear technology will inevitably lead to far less meaningful Australian content in our future submarines, even if they are “built” in Adelaide.

The first submarines are likely to be imported from the US or even rented, with only a few being built in Adelaide.

And for the rest, the fewer changes we make to the original designs – and associated supply chains – the lower the risk associated with the design.

So we’re going to move from a Collins industrial development exercise that involved substantial Australian technology transfer and local development to a largely imported design.

This is a return to the bad old days of “build-to-print” when local “content” was king, even if it only meant doing the most basic assembly and manufacturing operations on site.

It would undo the real strides the coalition has made since 2017 in developing the local defense industry through an interventionist industrial policy.

We turned our back on Build to Print to drive innovation, the development of native Australian defense technologies and the inclusion of local SMEs in global supply chains.

Let’s not give up on that and let’s get back to a bit of metal bashing that would involve build-to-print – and imported nuclear technology.

Let’s start with our strong point – the Collins – and develop it into a real Australian alternative.

Image: DefenseSA / Osborne Werften – A new submarine shipyard is being built to the north of the facilities shown.

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