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HEADLINE = Sink or swim: Australia needs a Russian submarine fix

INTRO = Stealthy and super silent, Russian submarines also have global
endurance requirements clearly spelled out in Australias Defence White Paper.
After the Collins fiasco, Canberra needs to make a paradigm shift in its
submarine strategy.

Australias submarine fleet is in troubled waters. Plagued by reliability problems


almost from the moment they hit the water in 1996, the six locally built Collins
class boats are down to their last few gasps. However, modern replacements are
a long way off because the countrys political and military leadership cant
decide what exactly they want.
The decision making limbo can be partly explained by Australias lack of
experience with high-octane military hardware. The country also doesnt have
the cash to pay for the up to $36 billion replacement bill, which is expected to
double or triple when you factor in lifetime operational costs.
But the more immediate reason is the country is exploring too many options from
too many countries. It is talking to Japan while also keeping Germany, France and
a highly reluctant America as options.
Plan A was to go for Japans Soryu class submarine. However, with the ouster of
former Prime Minister Tony Abott, who was backing the Japanese boat, the
Australian defence establishment is watching which way new Premier Malcom
Turnbull will swing East or West.
Australias wish list
Australias 2013 Defence White Paper lays out rather steep requirements for the
countrys future submarine. The key requirement is that it must be able to
undertake strategic missions where the stealth and other operating
characteristics of highly capable advanced submarines would be crucial. The
boats need to be able to undertake prolonged covert patrols over the full
distance of our strategic approaches and in operational areas. They require low
signatures across all spectrums, including at higher speeds, the paper says.
And it adds: The future submarine will have greater range, longer endurance on
patrol, and expanded capabilities compared to the current Collins class
submarine. It will also be equipped with very secure real-time
communications...
Russian stealth Down Under
Currently, the only submarines in the world that meet this requirement are made
in Russia. Moscows latest Novorossiysk submarine also known as the Black
Hole is characterised by advanced stealth technology. Boasting cutting edge
diesel-electric propulsion, this super silent submarine is virtually undetectable
when submerged, which explains the nickname.

Even the US Navy which claims it tracks Russian subs 24/7 cannot detect the
Black Holes. These submarines can freely approach the coastlines of the United
States without fear of being detected.
In the nuclear powered class, Russia has the Akula, which it has leased to India.
In 2012, an Akula class vessel armed with long-range land attack missiles sailed
around the Gulf of Mexico for several weeks without being detected.
Range requirements
Russian subs are also known for their extended range, frequently sailing
intercontinental distances from their bases in the Arctic. This capability is in stark
contrast to that of the European submarines, which are designed to patrol
shallow waters or at most the North Atlantic. Australia, with its vast maritime
boundaries, requires an undersea force that can patrol both its western and
eastern seaboards, with little to no down time.
As well as range, attack submarines need teeth. Russian vessels are equipped
with the worlds fastest and deadliest land attack cruise missiles and anti-ship
weaponry. The Granit missile, for instance, can travel 625 km, which will allow
the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) to attack targets from well outside the range of
its opponents. The Akulas are armed with the potent Klub anti-ship and land
attack cruise missile having a stupendous 2500 km range.
Spread your bets
The Collins saga should be a warning to Australia against the hazards of relying
on a single vendor. The submarines experienced a number of engineering
problems, proving to be a nightmare for the RAN. They required a number of
costly fixes, which meant the Collins class wasnt fully operational until 2004 a
full eight years after launch.
According to Andrew Davies and Mark Thomson of the Australian Strategic Policy
Institute, even with many engineering fixes in place, the Collins class still lacked
a working combat system and its diesel engines were highly unreliable. In a
report titled 'Mind the Gap: Getting Serious About Submarines, they point out
that remediation of the defects cost well over $1.6 billion.
And yet the troubles continue. Davies and Thomson explain: The diesel engines
on the Collins class suffer from ongoing reliability and availability problems,
exacerbated by a shortage of spares. At the heart of the problems is the decision
to fit engines that were originally designed for purposes other than their
application in the Collins class. Experience has shown that the 18-cylinder
engines are prone to excessive vibration and uncommonly frequent component
failures.
Clearly, stealth a requirement of the White Paper is not a virtue of the Collins
class submarines.

With the benefit of hindsight, Australia should hedge such risks by opting for
more than one vendor. The White Paper recommends a 12-vessel fleet.
Realistically, Australia can find the resources for six. Whatever the number, it
should split the order between, say, Russia and Japan or a European vendor.
What about the US? Australias hopes for an American bailout are misplaced
because the US does not make diesel electric submarines any more. Even if
Australia tweaks its requirements and opts for a nuclear powered sub, it cant
expect any help from the US. This is because the US is busy replacing its own
outdated fleet plus it doesnt trust nuclear technology with any of its allies
except Britain. In fact, the Americans have been asking Canberra to go for the
Soryu with a view to drive Japan and Australia closer, perhaps as a ploy to isolate
China.
Since Russian subs are the stealthiest and also have the longest range, they
meet the primary criteria of the Defence White Paper. Divvying the order
between Russia and Japan/Europe will ensure that problems with one type will
not send the entire fleet into dry dock.
Marine diplomacy
The current environment in the Asia-Pacific is stable with the likelihood of
trouble. This is mostly to do with the US-China rivalry in the region. With a
significant number of Asian countries including rival Indonesia, Vietnam and
Thailand beefing up their militaries, in particular their submarine fleets,
Australias paranoia has increased manifold. In this backdrop, Canberra should
build bridges with Russia rather than antagonise it.
Under the recklessly belligerent Abbott, Australia had adopted a policy of open
hostility against Russia. Australia needs to let go of its Cold War thinking and look
at Russia as an enabler of regional security. Russian submarines will be the glue
that will tie both countries in a sort of naval embrace, ensuring that Australia will
have a powerful ally in the Pacific.
Act fast, or sink
As the clock ticks away on the Collins, Australia doesnt have the luxury of
mulling endlessly. As its neighbours acquire Russian, French and German
submarines, it needs to act before its submarine wing becomes the collateral
casualty of neglect.
According to Davies and Thomson, If design work on the future submarine were
to be instigated today, a Collins-like timeline would see the first boat finish its
sea trials and enter operational service in 2027, and the sixth in 2033.
Thats the best case scenario. The worst case is that there will be years when
Australia would have no submarines at all. In such a scenario, Australias plans
for a fleet that is regionally dominant, superior and also affordable will sink to
the bottom of the Pacific.