Submarines: Innovation Takes Longer and Costs More

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August 1, 2021: Australia has decided to spend over $4 billion to refurbish all six, instead of just three, of its current Collins class diesel-electric submarines to deal with delays in the construction of the twelve new Attack class boats. The Attack class are actually the new French Barracuda class SSNs (nuclear attack submarines) built without the nuclear reactor. These SSNs took longer than expected to enter service and that delayed equipping the Australian shipyard selected to use French SSN tech to build the non-nuclear “Shortfin Barracuda” design. As a result of the delays in France and Australia the cost of developing and building the Shortfin Barracudas in Australia has risen by over fifty percent. Extending the life of all six Collins class boats was seen as a cheaper and safer alternative than scrapping the innovative Shortfin Barracuda project and accepting the design that came in second in the competition to replace the Collins class. This would be the German 216 class boats, which are smaller and less effective, on paper, to the Shortfin Barracuda. The 216s can be delivered on time and at half the original cost of the Shortfin Barracuda and is still a possibility if the Shortfin Barracuda continues to encounter expensive delays.

The Collins class boats entered service between 1996 and 2003 and were expected to retire after 30 years of service. That long service life was attained by giving each Collins class boat one or more expensive refurbishments when the boats got older. By refurbishing all six Collins class boats one more time all will have a useful life of 37 years and retire between 2031 and 2041, giving the Attack class enough time to enter service to replace the six retiring Collins class subs. The first Attack class boat is expected to be in service by 2035.

In early 2016 Australia selected a French firm (DCNS) to build twelve new submarines. Australians preferred the French design because it was a larger boat than those offered by Germany and Japan. The French proposal was a diesel-electric version of their new Suffern (Barracuda) class SSNs. This non-nuclear “Shortfin Barracuda” design was about 20 percent smaller (in surface displacement) than the 4,700-ton nuclear powered Suffern but was otherwise very similar with a crew of about 60, four 533mm torpedo tubes and 24 torpedoes, missiles or mines.

A major selling point for the Barracuda was the proven silencing technology France had developed for their SSNs. This would now be added to an inherently quiet diesel-electric design. The Shortfin Barracudas are being built in Australia as the Attack class and cost about $2.4 billion each. This includes an AIP (Air Independent Propulsion) system that will allow these boats to operate submerged for two weeks at a time. French firms will only control about half of the construction budget, with much of the rest going to American firms that will provide the electronics and weapons. The RAN Attack will begin construction in 2022 and enter service in 2035.

In mid-2019 the first of six new French Barracuda class SSN's, the SNA Suffern, was launched. This first one officially entered service in late 2020 but will not be completely operational until sometime in 2021. All six will enter service by the late 2020s. Back in 2006, France decided to buy six new Barracuda class SSNs, for about $1.5 billion each. The 4,700-ton (surface displacement) boats are smaller than America's new 7,300-ton Virginia class subs (which cost about $2.8 billion each) and use different nuclear power plant and silencing technologies. The unique French tech works but since they develop it themselves, without relying on the use of American tech, like the British do, getting a new class of SSNs into service usually takes longer than expected.

Construction on the first Barracuda began in 2007 and it was supposed to be launched by 2012. That launch date was tentative and was delayed until 2019 because development of the Barracuda nuclear power plant began in 2003 and soon ran into problems. Problems with the power plant were no surprise because France, unlike Britain, did not license the American SSN power plant. This would make it more difficult to export French nuclear subs and so on. The French chose a different design that used commercial (not military) grade nuclear fuel. This meant French nuclear subs had to be refueled more often but this was made easier by building the hull with special large hatches that could be quickly opened once every 7-10 years for refueling then sealed again. France is the only nation using this type of ship power plant and has to handle development and maintenance procedures itself. With a small fleet of nuclear subs, this drives up the cost per sub. Britain, by licensing the American tech, gets the benefit of a much larger American nuke fleet and the larger budget for work on the power plants. Ever since the first Barracuda began construction, the delays have come from power plant problems. By 2012 it was believed that launch date could be 2017 but delays perfecting the power plant continued. The sub could not be launched until the power plant was completed and the hull made watertight

The Barracudas rely on a lot of automation and have a crew of sixty, plus berths for 12 passengers. These will usually be commandos and their gear will be stored in a pod attached to the sub’s sail. The Barracuda design emphasized silencing, making it more difficult to detect. The Barracuda's have four 533mm (21 inch) torpedo tubes, which can also be used to launch missiles, mines or torpedoes. Twenty weapons are carried, the mix of torpedoes, mines and missiles depends on the mission. French SSNs have two crews which each having the boat for three months. Enough food is carried to sustain the crew for 70 days. The nuclear power plant must be refueled every ten years. Two more Barracudas are currently under construction,

 


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