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Australia, Defence and the anti-Midas touch with submarines

by Rex Patrick | Jun 2, 2024 | Comment & Analysis, Latest Posts

It was revealed at Senate Estimates this week that there’s a corrosion problem with HMAS Sheean, one of our Collins Class submarines. Former senator and submariner Rex Patrick scrapes off the rust to reveal a much more alarming problem.

Vintage plates

In South Australia, part of the government’s support for historic and classic cars is that cars older than 25 years are eligible for vintage plates with reduced registration fees.

HMAS Sheean, currently nearing the end of a two and a half year refit at ASC, would have qualified last month for vintage plates if it was a car. Except it’s not a car, it’s supposed to be a key defence asset intended to deter conflict or to fight and win in war should deterrence fail.

Anyone who cares about our serving submariners would reasonably question the wisdom of sending a 25-year-old submarine, built on 40-year-old technologies, into harm’s way (note, there are four other Collins subs that are older than Sheean).

That certainly wasn’t the original plan.

The ‘Sadim Touch’ – $10B of incompetence and counting

Fifteen years ago, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd unveiled the 2009 Defence White Paper. A key feature of his national security plan was the replacement of the 6 Collins Class submarines with 12 future submarines.

Construction of the first future submarine was to begin in 2016, in time to see it fully tested and commissioned in time to replace the first retiring Collins Class submarine in 2024.

But sadly for the taxpayer, almost everything our submarine procuring politicians and officials do ultimately turns into costly ruin – it’s a case of the Sadim Touch (the opposite of the Midas Touch).

After the 2009 White Paper was released, Defence embarked on a high risk ‘son-of-Collins’ dream [2009], then a Japanese solution spearheaded by Tony Abbott [2013], then conversion of a French nuclear submarine design into a diesel-electric design [2016].

AUKUS risks unveiled – is Australia sleepwalking into a submarines disaster?

Zut alors

The French ‘Attack Class’ submarine project played out from 2016 to 2021, when it was abruptly cancelled, at a cost of $4 billion dollars and 5 years.

But the $4 billion was less than half of the money being poured down the drain. Defence’s incompetence in not doing something that most other countries did with ease – establish or upgrade a submarine capability – meant that Defence would have to extend the life of the Collins subs.

Rewind to June 2013, Mr David Gould, then General Manager Submarines, revealed to the Senate “I think it is very likely that some of the Collins fleet will have to have some form of extension to their cycle. But how many and for how long, I really could not say at the moment.”

Over time that revelation was formalised and subsequently titled the ‘Life of Type Extension’ (LOTE) project, and the number of Collins submarines that would be extended went from 1 to 4, to 5, and now 6. And as the number of submarines requiring a life extension grew, so too did the cost.

Having spent $4 billion to not buy any submarines, they’re now allocating another $6B of taxpayer’s money to extend the life of the Collins Class. And why?

Because Defence, in a show of grand bureaucratic incompetence, was incapable of buying new submarines.

The capability gap is here, again

On 10 June 2011, The Australian newspaper ran a front-page story with the headline ‘Not a single submarine seaworthy’. The piece by defence reporter Cameron Stewart explained that every one of the nation’s six Collins-class submarines were temporarily out of action for various reasons, the Navy could not deploy one single boat on operations. What a great deterrent!

His report was just the tip of the iceberg. From 2009 to 2012 Australia had almost no submarines available to defend itself. This was despite the fact that across those 4 years defence had spent, on-average, $410 million per annum on submarine sustainment.

Of concern, over those 4 years the annual cost for submarine maintenance had risen from $329 million per annum to $516 million per annum. This cost continued to rise as Defence, with the backing of Gillard/Rudd and then Abbott governments, threw money at the problem with the hope of improving availability.

This year Australian taxpayers are footing $769 million to keep the Collins Class submarines at sea. What’s worse is, as was revealed at Senate estimates, we are back to three submarines sitting on hard stands and we seem to be unsure of the material or operational states of the other three that are in the water.

Like vintage cars, where it’s near impossible to get parts and it becomes more costly to keep them running, and mostly just for weekend use, our Collins class submarines are heading into troubled availability waters. All aboard the submarine merry-go-round, the capability gap is here, again.

A submarine disaster

To summarise, Defence wasted $4 billion dollars to not buy French Attack Class submarines, is now paying $770 million a year to keep, at best, 3 submarines in the water, and plans to embark on a $6 billion LOTE program to extend the life of the Collins Class until the AUKUS submarines start arriving (assuming they do).

But even the planned $6 billion LOTE spend seems an optimistic number. Last year Defence conceded to the Senate that the refits that were to implement the LOTE program had increased from 2 to 3 years, a 50% blowout. Time is money. ASC, the Government owned shipyard with the lead on LOTE, advised the Senate this week that, despite this blowout in planned time, Defence has not sought updated costing information for 2 years. Blindness is bliss!

But to make matters even worse, the Minister for Defence now has a ‘secret report’ in his hands prepared by Gloria Valdez, a Retired Deputy Assistant Secretary of the US Navy who was tasked by the Government to conduct an ‘independent assurance activity’ of the Collins LOTE, that characterises the LOTE program as perilously risky. A 3-year LOTE refit might be but a dream.

Le plus ca change

But none of this is likely to change anything. Defence Minister Richard Marles and his Defence brass are operating under the ‘press-on-regardless’ philosophy referred to as ‘press-on-itis’ in accident reports. After all, it’s only your money and your security.

Just like the decision-makers who got us in the position we’re in now, all the decision-makers guiding us to the new destination will be long gone and on nice public pensions before it’s obvious that the new projects have gone completely off the rails.

And besides, by the time the AUKUS submarine program starts blowing out its already bankrupting $368 billion budget, the Collins shemozzle will look incredibly cheap by comparison.

Secret Defence docs: we need a large civilian workforce for AUKUS nuclear submarine reactors

Rex Patrick is a former Senator for South Australia and earlier a submariner in the armed forces. Best known as an anti-corruption and transparency crusader - www.transparencywarrior.com.au.

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