‘The best bi-plane in the sky’: Australia’s submarine ambitions revealed

At some point – not this year, probably not next, but certainly at some date between now and 2030 – a future government will finally, logically, and correctly abandon our attempt to build submarines.

Why? Just look at the project’s trajectory, starting with money. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute always insisted the submarine was going to cost far more than those early, wistful figures, conjured from the shallows. The submarine is a very hungry caterpillar, eating everything in sight. First billed as a $20b illion project, it rapidly exploded through $50 billion to $80 billion and is now closing on $100 billion, well before any proper drawings for the first boat. We’re still dealing in “concepts”. But there’s a good reason for this, the second problem – technical advances. The design team is working in an area where scientific knowledge is progressing rapidly, but not in a good way.

The chosen propulsion system, for example, uses already outdated lead-acid batteries. Brilliant analysis from Derek Woolner (who’s literally written the book on the earlier problems with our troubled Collins-class subs) helpfully points out in lucid, overwhelming technical detail four factors making it certain this submarine will be “obsolescent on delivery”. The submarine’s primary risk-reduction strategy is to ensure that it incorporates nothing that hasn’t already been to sea: the equivalent of ordering the best bi-plane in the sky in an age of jet aircraft.

The crucial issues are, however, military. More specifically, what can a submarine can do other capabilities can’t? What’s the opportunity cost of this enormously expensive boat?

In the past, answering these questions has been easy: we need subs to deter invasion. Until now, anyone attempting to land on this continent would have been forced to build a hugely capable navy simply to defeat our submarines. These days, however, a D-Day style landing on Bondi is neither plausible or likely.

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