|Sounds far fetched but could be done and expanding the size of the FEG could actually help fix the crewing issues by providing a greater critical mass of personnel to improve manning options on and off the subs.
Patrick Walters | October 18, 2008
KEVIN Rudd understands one big thing about Australia's future defence: in an age of strategic discord and restless change in Asia, our navy must grow and deliver more strategic weight in the nation's defence. In the Prime Minister's view, this should dictate a larger and more powerful submarine fleet.
By 2030, according to many of our top defence experts, evolving regional security trends will mean Australia's relative military power will have declined significantly.
In their view, a new generation of more powerful submarines represents the best strategic investment Australia can make to guarantee our long-term security.
Rudd has recently become the political champion of a bigger underwater force as the mainstay of a maritime defence system that will eventually include highly capable air-war destroyers as well as the new F-35 joint strikefighter.
Rudd sees a larger submarine force as part of an essential maritime shield able to protect Australia's "sea-lines of communication" in a more volatile region. By 2030 East Asia will include some formidable regional naval powers led by China.
China's future maritime capability is the principal concern; long-range forecasts show that in two decades its navy will be equipped with powerful nuclear-armed submarines as well as a formidable surface fleet capable of operating at a long range from the Chinese mainland.
Our new larger conventional submarines will be extremely versatile, not just as strike platforms but in other specialised roles including intelligence gathering, special forces operations and anti-submarine warfare.
But realising the prime ministerial vision for a larger submarine arm is a different matter altogether. Not least because, as events of the past week have rammed home, hard financial choices will have to be made in the Department of Defence during the coming years.
The Rudd Government has pledged to maintain a 3 per cent annual real increase in the Defence Department budget. Going to a bigger submarine fleet from 2020 will dictate a lift in defence spending or the cancellation or postponement of some key defence equipment buys.
The Royal Australian Navy has six Collins-class boats and an expansion to nine or even 12 next-generation vessels will increase pressure on an already overstretched defence-equipment budget. The lead times for such a complex project are long and Australia's leading submarine experts warn that the Defence Department must accelerate planning if a new class of boats is destined to enter service in the mid-2020s.
Well before the finer details of a next-generation build are settled, the Government will have to make threshold choices on where the balance of investment will lie in our maritime defences between surface warships, submarines, and air power.
For the PM and his key ministers, including Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon, this aspect of our long-term defence force structure is looming as a critical leadership test.
One issue under consideration by defence is whether to accelerate the new submarine project to allow a new class of boats to enter service about 2020.
Hugh White, Australian National University professor of strategic studies and Lowy Institute visiting fellow, has been a strong proponent of a considerably larger submarine force.
"The key question is will we have enough to give us the strategic weight we need. In order to do that, we need a substantial increase in the size of the fleet," he says.
"What we need to do is start getting more submarines before the present Collins class starts to leave service. At the moment there is not money in the defence budget to do that.
"I think the most effective thing would be to build six submarines by 2025 before the Collins (is) replaced so that the six replacements become submarines seven to 12. But that would require a very quick decision."
A host of complex issues still remain to be sorted out before Australian industry can plan with confidence on the new class of submarine to replace the six Collins boats built in the 1990s.
More than three years after the Howard government announced its intention to sell the wholly government-owned ASC, builder of the Collins submarine, its future status remains in limbo. Within the next few weeks Finance Minister Lindsay Tanner will announce long-awaited details of a projected sale of ASC by the end of 2009.
The sale conditions are expected to include a mandatory requirement for at least 80per cent Australian ownership as well as the possible retention of a golden share by the Government.
But before ASC can be sold, the Government must determine a road map to protect and enhance ASC's existing assets, includi