26 Desember 2007
New conventional submarine more lethal than Collins class (photo : NavyGovAu)
AUSTRALIA will build the world's most lethal conventional submarine fleet, capable of carrying long-range cruise missiles and futuristic midget-subs, to combat an expected arms race in the region.
New Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon has ordered planning to begin on the next generation of submarines to replace the Royal Australian Navy's Collins-class fleet with the aim of gaining "first pass" approval for the design phase from cabinet's National Security Committee in 2011.
The 17-year project will be the largest, longest and most expensive defence acquisition since Federation, potentially costing up to $25 billion.
It comes at a time when regional navies such as Indonesia's, China's and India's are seeking to drastically expand their submarine fleets, potentially altering the balance of naval power in the region.
"There is widespread agreement that submarines provide a vital military capability for Australia," Mr Fitzgibbon told The Australian.
"The development of new submarines requires long-term planning and needs to progress quickly, and that's what I have asked for.
"Defence planners have examined two key studies this year - one by independent think tank the Kokoda Foundation - which have concluded that strategic shifts in the region will make submarines a more vital cog in Australia's defence than ever before.
Defence will study a wide range of futuristic options for the new submarines, which will be built in Adelaide and will replace the six Collins-class submarines when they are retired in 2025.
The new submarines will almost certainly be built by the builder of the Collins-class fleet, the Australian Submarine Corporation, once the government-owned ASC has been privatised.
"South Australia is the only credible location for the construction of Australia's next generation of submarine," Mr Fitzgibbon said.
The aim will be to create the world's most deadly conventional submarine fleet to allow Australia to maintain its strategic advantage over fast-growing rival navies in the region.
Although Defence has not yet ruled out the possibility of Australia acquiring nuclear-powered submarines, this option is considered highly unlikely on strategic, practical and political grounds.
Instead, defence planners will focus on producing a larger, quieter, faster and more deadly version of the existing six Collins-class submarines, which, after a troubled birth in the 1990s, have proved to be one of the country's most important defence assets.
It is not known how many of the new submarines will be built. Defence has confirmed that one of the options to be considered for the new submarine fleet will be small unmanned mini-subs that can be launched from the "mother" submarines.
"Technological developments such as unmanned vehicles would probably offer complementary capabilities to any future underwater warfare platform," a Defence spokesman said.
These unmanned mini-submarines, crammed with high-tech sensors, could travel remotely tens of kilometres away from the mother vessel to conduct surveillance, detect enemy submarines or carry an SAS team.
Another priority for the new submarines will be the new generation air-independent propulsion systems, which allow conventional submarines to stay underwater for longer periods, greatly increasing operational effectiveness. Defence says the new post-Collins submarines will have more flexible designs, allowing them to be quickly reconfigured for different types of missions, from intelligence gathering to strategic strikes.
The new submarines will be able to carry a greater variety of long-range weapons, possibly including long-range cruise missiles as well as short-range tactical land-strike missiles. They will also be configured to facilitate the secret transporting of SAS squads into regional hot spots.
In a study earlier this year, the Kokoda Foundation estimated that building, arming and supporting a new, fully modernised submarine fleet could cost between $20 billion and $25 billion, making it the largest defence project in Australia, dwarfing even the $15 billion Joint Strike Fighter project.
The Government hopes to complete its initial research into the options for the new submarines by 2011, when cabinet will give "first pass" consideration to the plan.
In 2014-15, the Government is due to give "second pass" consideration to the project, resulting in contracts and the eventual construction of the submarines, with sea trials tentatively scheduled for 2024.
The submarine-replacement project will be included in the next Defence Capability Plan.