A Sunburnt Country’s Submarines

Australia needs new submarines, but which? When? And how?


A military submarine is fast, deadly and quiet. It can hunt and sink shipping with ease or when required, deliver a deadly ballistic missile barrage from almost any body of water. Its power is increased further when loaded with missiles carrying nuclear warheads; it is no exaggeration to say that some submersibles carry enough power to level a small nation. For nations that possess long coastlines (such as Australia) submarines function as an effective defense deterrent to foreign aggression, projecting power far beyond the country’s shores. But how does a nation go about procuring these vessels? And what are they looking for?

The principal debate regarding military submarines is propulsion methods; does a nation invest in expensive nuclear powered subs or opt for cheaper diesel operated vessels? Diesel boats typically cost anywhere from one quarter to a half of nuclear boats. They are also easier to maintain, easier to sell to a public often set against nuclear power, and, thanks to technological advances, can stay submersed for up to a month. That being said nuclear submarines are usually significantly faster (they generate far more power for propulsion) and can operate submerged almost indefinitely (limited solely by crew supplies and material fatigue). The U.S navy has historically been a pioneer in the use of nuclear subs; the first operational nuclear submarine was the U.S.S Nautilus who commenced sea trials in 1955. Perhaps it is no surprise then that all U.S navy submarines are nuclear.

A secondary debate is armament and role. Should a navy purchase attack submarine designed to track and sink shipping and subs, or ballistic/cruise missile submarines designed to deliver a missile payload to a land based target (or perhaps a hybrid of both). Obviously large and well-funded navies are not limited; they will purchase and operate as many submarines of both types as possible. But for ‘middle’ powers such as Australia government funding is not that generous.

Which brings us nicely to Australia, an island nation looking to replace its aging Collins class submarine fleet. The Collins class (named after RAN Vice Admiral John Collins) was designed in the late 1980’s with construction beginning in 1987 and the first submarine was formally commissioned in 1996. The decision to produce the submarines in Australia (albeit based on a foreign design) was made by the nation’s cabinet. Six boats were built, behind schedule and over budget (although only marginally) and they have been plagued by technical faults ever since. At the time, the program was the most expensive ever undertaken by the Australian defense forces, and yet the Mcintosh Prescott Report commissioned by the minister for defense concluded in 1999 that the Collins class was incapable of performing at the required level for military operations. It might be unfair to refer to the subs as a disaster, but significant problems with the propulsion and combat systems have not endeared the Collins class to the military, the government, or the public.

Unsurprisingly the Royal Australian Navy has been planning to replace the submarines since 2007, but like the Collins class itself, the process has been far from effective. The navy is planning on increasing the total sub force to 12 boats and introducing a new class in 2030. There are four different avenues the project could pursue: Buy a MOTS (military off the shelf) design, buy a MOTS then modify it, design an evolution of the Collins class, or design an entirely new submarine. Obviously it would be easiest to simply purchase a pre-existing design and hardest to create an entirely new submarine class. Regardless of the choice, the new sub program will be the most expensive ever undertaken by the Australian Defense Force (much like its predecessor). The issue is further complicated by the nuclear vs. diesel propulsion debate: America is willing to cheaply provide nuclear submarines, and they would be perfect for extended patrols throughout the Asia-Pacific.  However, the Australian government has so far rejected the nuclear option, citing anti-nuclear sentiment and the difficulty involved in servicing a nuclear vessel. Regardless, multiple civilian lobby groups in Australia continue to argue for Australia adopting nuclear submarines.


I would certainly recommend that Australia purchase a pre-existing tried and true design and modify it for Australian conditions. Submarines are not easy to perfect (as perhaps exemplified by the Collins class design itself) and Australia simply does not have the required practical or technical knowledge to build the quality of the vessel it wants or needs. It might be time to sacrifice a little national pride and use a tried and true design that works.