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Australia’s nuclear submarine trade-off

  • 20 September 2021
  Defence is a costly business, and few branches of defence are more costly, and questionable, than a country’s submarine capability. Since 2009, Project SEA 1000, the name for Australia’s Future Submarine program, has fascinated strategists and defence planners. In 2016, this resulted in an agreement with the French submarine company DCNS (now called Naval Group) to build an un-designed attack class vessel. Other contenders in the competitive tender — Germany and Japan, for instance — had existing models. 

Another thing stood out: the design for the 12 twelve Shortfin Barracuda Block 1A submarines would be based on a nuclear powered version without its primary attribute. As the late Gary Johnston of Submarines for Australia acerbically put it, the contract ‘dumbed down a nuclear submarine by removing the whole basis of its superior capability, and then charging at least twice as much for a far less capable submarine.’

As to when this new capability would come into force, at a predicted cost of $90 billion, no one could quite say. Optimists opted for a period in the early 2030s. But this did not reassure certain Australian politicians, including Senator Malcolm Roberts, who expressed his concerns in May last year. ‘In the middle of this pandemic we cannot afford to proceed with this contract. This money will be far better spent to support the Australian recovery from the economic pit that is caused by this pandemic. By the time these submarines are delivered, they will be obsolete.’

Problems for the program began to mount. Projected costs began to inflate. Disputes about how the labour should be shared became regular. Suspicions remained that this agreement was, at heart, a French driven enterprise benefiting French industry while being underwritten by the Australian tax payer. In May 2021, the dispute between the Australian Defence Department and Naval Group had become so acrimonious as to lead to a freeze by the company on hiring more staff in France while halting expenditure on aspects of the project in the absence of any reimbursement guarantee from Canberra. 

With the program shadowed by rumours that defence planners were considering a less expensive, revamped version of Australia’s existing Collins Class submarine as a viable competitor, terminal signs were showing. But even this did not prepare Naval Group, France or, for that matter, most Australians, for the joint statement by the governments of the United States, United Kingdom and Australia.

According to the statement, a new security grouping, AUKUS, ‘guided’