By Sarah Dingle Apr 15, 2011
Australia is facing serious naval capability problems unless it can get its new generation of submarines operational within the next decade, according to a study by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
Australia is set to decommission its six existing Collins class submarines in 2026 and the Government says a new fleet of 12 submarines built in Adelaide will take their place.
The report says it will take at least 15 years to build the new fleet and the Navy could be caught short unless efforts are stepped up to build the replacements.
The 2009 Defence White Paper outlined a process to select and build the submarines, which will have greater range and longer patrol endurance.
The Collins class submarines have been plagued by problems from the outset and they are still expensive to maintain.
But defence analyst Mark Thompson, from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, says issues with the Collins class subs have delayed planning for the new fleet.
Mr Thompson says no progress has been made since the 2009 Defence White Paper.
"The longer you delay, you build more risk into what you're trying to do because you are going to have to rush, you are going to have to try to cut corners," he said.
"The longer the project gets delayed the narrower your options become. We are struggling to make our existing submarines work and that, I think, has probably diverted a bit of attention from the next generation of submarines.
The serious flaws in the Collins class submarine means they have been kept on land at various times for maintenance that can last years.
Mr Thompson says due to their maintenance and time out of the water the boats have suffered much less wear and tear, and it might be possible to extend their life.
But he says the on-board system is increasingly obsolete and the diesel engines would have to be replaced at great expense.
He also says the boats would still lack the top-end capabilities the Government wants from the new fleet.
Acquiring the future submarines from start to finish will cost billions, but Mr Thompson says their final price tag depends on exactly what the Government wants them for.
"If you want submarines that could complicate the planning of a potential adversary who wished to block our sea lanes, you could probably get away with small European-designed submarines," he said.
"If, on the other hand, you want submarines that can go forward into North Asia, which is the strategic hot spot, then you are looking at a larger and more sophisticated submarine.
"[An] estimate of the larger option came up a bit over $30 billion for 12 submarines. With the European option, $1.5 billion per boat."
Mr Thompson is calling on the Government to address the situation in next month's budget.
"The best thing that could happen is in the forthcoming budget if the Government were to identify some initial work to begin looking at what their options are and doing some initial design work," he said.
A spokesman for Defence Minister Stephen Smith said designing and building the future submarines will reach well into the 2030s.
He said Mr Smith is still considering the report but the Government is very focused on making sure the lessons from the Collins program are not ignored.