Australia’s decades-long battle to acquire a new French-designed attack submarine to replace its aging Collins class fleet bears all the hallmarks of a bureaucratic boondoggle.
The Attack-class submarine project, initially estimated to cost A$20 billion to A$25 billion (US$15.6 billion to US$19.5 billion at the current exchange rate), had by 2016 doubled to A$50 billion, and almost doubled again to A$90 billion by February last year.
Because of delays, the French-led Naval Group consortium would not begin cutting steel on the first submarine until 2024, which means the first vessel would not be operational until after 2030 — and the last of the fleet of 12 not until almost 2060.
Australia cannot afford to wait decades for new submarines. The threat from China has markedly increased since the project’s inception, a fact the Canberra government acknowledged in a recent defense review, which stated that China’s rapid and stealthy military buildup means that time is no longer on Australia’s side.
Following months of speculation, including indications from government sources that it might walk away from the deal, the Australian government on Monday confirmed it had reached an “agreement in principle” with Naval Group. However, it is only an agreement to sign the deal, and the project still has many powerful critics who believe it is too expensive and the submarines would be obsolete by the time they enter service.
The issue has become a scandal in Australia, the result of prevarication and bureaucratic inertia by multiple governments. It is a story all-too familiar to Taiwanese, who have watched impotently as multiple administrations squandered precious time and money, before the current government bit the bullet and launched an indigenous submarine program.
Known as the Haichang Project, the project is to build eight domestically produced submarines at an estimated cost of more than US$16 billion, with the first vessel scheduled for completion by 2025. Despite Taiwan’s lack of submarine-building experience, the program appears to be progressing well and construction of the first vessel is under way.
This raises the question of whether Taiwan might be able to tempt Australia to come on board its submarine program, should the French deal collapse. This is not as outlandish as it might seem for several reasons:
Canberra would not be able to turn to the US for assistance, since the US submarine industry is already operating at full capacity as it seeks to level the playing field with China, which has been churning out subs like sausages over the past decade and a half.
Despite the UK’s BAE Systems having a proven design with its Astute-class hunter-killer submarine, they are nuclear-powered and Australian law prohibits the operation of nuclear reactors.
Taiwan, on the other hand, is building essentially the same type of vessel that Australia is seeking: a modern, diesel-electric-powered attack submarine. While the specifications differ — Australia’s submarines would be larger, heavier and built to endure longer missions — it could be argued that the gravity of the threat from China necessitates some compromise on capability.
Spreading the cost of the program over a larger number of hulls would significantly reduce the unit cost of each boat, benefiting both nations. Taiwan would also benefit from Australia’s experience in submarine construction, and working together on a common submarine could provide a springboard for closer cooperation between the two nations’ navies.
Taiwan should extend an invitation to Australia to inspect its submarine program, and evaluate the design for suitability and adaptation to meet the Royal Australian Navy’s requirements. The icing on the cake is that Australia would be purchasing, not selling, military equipment from Taiwan — ensuring that Canberra was in complete compliance with Beijing’s precious “one China” policy, while strengthening military ties with a friendly neighbor.
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