Long wait for new submarines
Australia could be left without a single submarine for crucial years of the Asia-Pacific century - an era of naval tensions between global powers to be played out in Australia's backyard - according to a new study.
The paper, by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, examines the future of Australia's six Collins-class submarines, and the plan to replace them by 2030 with a dozen advanced vessels.
But three years after the plan was announced, the paper's authors state the government has delayed the decision about the new submarines for so long that the entire timeline is now looking shaky.
''The picture is not encouraging,'' write the ASPI analysts Andrew Davies and Mark Thomson.
''If current plans are adhered to, a capability gap is inevitable some time in the late 2020s, and a period [in the early 2030s] of no submarine capability at all is possible.''
In 2009, the government released Force2030, a strategic document that outlined plans for reshaping the defence force to deal with the challenges of the Asia-Pacific century, when tensions between countries such as India, China and the US are expected to lead to possibly violent confrontations in the Pacific.
An important part of the white paper was to replace the Collins with a dozen new and more advanced submarines. The choices were to build a new and ''super'' Collins or acquire either an off-the-shelf European model or a US Virginia-class nuclear-powered version.
With no firm decision yet made, the ASPI paper posits that Australia could be faced with a ''catastrophic'' situation involving the phase-out of the Collins and the phase-in of the new submarines.
Based on Defence Department estimates of the time required to acquire the new submarines, they have found that Australia could be left with, at most, two submarines for the decade from 2027.
Even worse, at its most extreme the schedule could mean Australia not a having a single available submarine between 2031 and 2033.
''Defence's upper estimate is nothing short of catastrophic,'' the pair write. ''Australian submarine capability would essentially be run down and then restarted.''
It was the rushing into operation of the Collins to avoid a gap between the retirement of their predecessor, the Oberon class, that resulted in some of their design flaws, and the ASPI suggests the new submarines could suffer a similar problem.
They also note continuing problems with Collins maintenance which raise questions about sustainability over the next two decades.