Stone the crows! David Johnston was dead wrong to say he would not trust the Australian Submarine Corporation to build a canoe. [i]

What the former defence minister should have said was that he was confident that the ASC could assemble and maintain a first rate canoe, if given a generation to get it right.

But pointing to ASC’s track record would not have saved the soon-sacked minister; because a priority for the new submarines to replace the Collins class is that they generate jobs. While the defence and foreign policy aspects of the debate ran in the background, last week’s argument over the new submarines was essentially about employment.

And this is very bad indeed, because it obscures what the program is all about. Defending Australia while keeping its submariners safe.

South Australian politicians of all persuasions say the successors to the Collins class, must be built, or at very least fitted out and maintained in Adelaide because the state needs the work. Thus the South Australian minister for defence industries, Martin Hamilton-Smith says:

A viable Australian shipbuilding industry must include submarines and frigates in a continuous build cycle, or there will not be enough work to sustain the industry … all possible efforts have to be made ensuring that money is spent in Australia, supporting Australian workers and their families.[ii]

While no one ever mentions industry protection there are also advocates of Australian manufacturing. According to former South Australian governor, present chair of the State Royal Commission on nuclear power and retired Rear Admiral Kevin Scarce, he isn’t, “calling for a subsidised industry but people should stop thinking of investment in shipbuilding as a pure cost and start thinking of it as an investment in the advanced manufacturing industries needed to sustain a modern global economy.” [iii]

And of course the comrades want to keep the number of dues-paying members up. “A year ago David Johnston stood here and promised to build 12 subs right here in Adelaide. Today, the papers read we are likely to see Japanese submarines – Do you feel betrayed?” (AMWU national secretary Paul) Bastian asked the crowd. Bill Shorten addressed the large crowd, pledging that if elected, Labor would build submarines in Australia, stating, “Australia’s security relies on four uniforms: army, navy, air force and defence contractor, which is you.” [iv]

It confounds the Crows that all the arguments over where the subs should be assembled ignore the core issue – they must, must, be built by people with the competence to ensure Australian sailors do not drown and Australia is left undefended because of design and construction flaws.

Perhaps this is so obvious and essential that it does not occur to anybody it needs stating. Then again, we have enjoyed peace on the high seas for so long it seems only sailors and serious strategists can contemplate the need for submarines on active service.

But submarines are fundamental to the national defence in peace and war. As chief of navy Ray Griggs puts it’:

Our submarines provide us with strategic weight in a way that no other ADF asset or combination of ADF assets does. By strategic weight, I mean that submarines are a capability that shapes or changes the behaviour of other nations and the calculus of their leaders. And what are submarines designed for? They’re an offensive capability, intended to sink ships and other submarines. Yes, they do other tasks, but this offensive capability is the bread and butter of the trade. Because of their potency, our submarines can have a powerful conventional deterrent effect.[v]

Which surely sets the context for the debate. For much of the last two decades Australia had submarines in the line of battle but they were no deterrent, not fit for purpose, at times not even fit to cruise peaceful seas.

Granted none have sunk – although two are said to have come close. [vi] But overall the Collins combat-ready record used to be really rotten.

Some 15 years ago the McIntosh-Prescott review detailed a mass of problems with the five of the six class Collins class then completed.

The goods news was:

The Collins class submarines are well designed for Australia’s special requirements and have generally been soundly built. … Apparently sensible remedies for nearly all defects have been presented to us, which gives us confidence in the ultimate performance of the boats. The main issue is to improve the managerial and contractual structures so that the deficiencies are recognised and addressed much more quickly and robustly.

But the bad news was very bad indeed:

We have considered carefully whether the submarines could be “sent into danger”. Obviously this is a relative question, depending on the one hand, on how complex and technically advanced the threat to the submarine would be, and on the other, how important a military contribution the submarine could make. In our view, the circumstances would have to be extremely serious indeed to risk the submarines in their present state.[vii]

And it stayed that way for another decade. As Andrew Davies pointed out in 2012:

A $10 billion investment by the Australian taxpayer—one that has come with a significant opportunity cost due to the economy-wide shortage of skilled workers, engineers and project managers—has been mismanaged to the point where the submarines have essentially been unfit for purpose.[viii]

In 2009, two submarines were available just 10 per cent of the time. [ix]

It now seem the Collins class has evolved into a viable fighting force. A 2012 British report by British warship construction and maintenance expert John Coles was scathing. But his final review last year reported:

What has been achieved to date is remarkable, delivering a level of performance that would not have been viewed as possible two years ago. It has been an enormous pleasure to observe the astonishing turnaround of a seriously failing project to one that should, within just two years, achieve or better International Benchmark performance.

But he warned that relying on “on the heroic efforts of individuals to sustain benchmark performance” is not a viable plan. [x]

Good, but in terms of qualifying the ASC to assemble the replacement class, let alone build it from scratch not good enough.

As retired Collins class commander James Harrap put it:

I do not believe we have the capability to independently design and build our own submarines, nor do we have the ability to grow the submarine workforce at a faster pace than what has been achieved over the past two years. Our future must build upon our past, with regard for our failings as well as successes. We can’t afford to set ourselves impossible requirements, because we will surely fail to meet them.[xi]

There is a strong alternative argument – prudence dictates servicing submarines in Australia, it’s sensible to keep them where they are safe and near the sea-lanes they exist to defend. If that is accepted the case for having the people who maintain them build them is strong. [xii]

And that is the question that must be answered – can Australia build and maintain fit-for-purpose submarines? The lives of sailors and the defence of the nation depend on it.




[i] Senate Hansard, November 25 2014 @ recovered on February 16

[ii] Martin Hamilton-Smith, “Open project definition study on submarines does not go far enough,” February 9 @ recovered on February 15

[iii] Flinders University, “Kevin Scarce backs SA shipbuilding,” November 25 @ recovered on February 15

[iv] Australian Manufacturing Workers Union, “ ‘Save our jobs’ – shipbuilders turn out in their masses in SA,” September 11 2014 @ recovered on February 15

[v] Ray Griggs, “Submarines in Australia’s maritime strategy,” (in) Australian Strategic Policy Institute, The submarine choice: perspectives on Australia’s most complex defence project, September 2014 @ recovered on February 15

[vi] Cameron Stewart, “Submarine’s crew was 20 seconds from death, The Australian, December 26 2008, Cameron Stewart, “Sailors feared worse as submarine HMAS Farcombe sank,” The Australian, September 10 2011

[vii] Malcolm K McIntosh and John B Prescott, Report to the minister of defence on Collins Class submarines and related matters June 20 1999, @ recovered on February 15

[viii] Andrew Davies, “Sub par management: the Coles review and the Collins class,” The Strategist December 2012 @ recovered on February 15

[ix] John Coles, Study into the business of sustaining Australia’s strategic Collins class submarine capability, March 2014 @ recovered on February 2015

[x] Coles, ibid

[xi] James Harrap, “Reflections of a Collins class submarine captain,” Asia Pacific Defence Reporter, May 4 2012 @ recovered on February 16

[xii] Peter Briggs, “Why Australia should build its own submarines,” The Strategist, January 2015 @ recovered on February 15