In 2016, the Turnbull government agreed to purchase a dozen Shortfin Barracuda class submarines to replace Australia’s six ageing Collins class submarines1. The Collins class were launched between 1993 and 2001 and were commissioned into the Royal Australian Navy between July, 1996, and March, 20032. The Shortfin Barracuda beat Germany’s Type 216 and Japan’s Soryu class offerings, and it was Australia’s biggest ever defence procurement deal. The Shortfin Barracuda submarines for Australia are a diesel-electric derivative of the French Barracuda class nuclear attack submarine3.
The Japanese Soryu class diesel-electric attack stealth submarine is fitted with a new lithium-ion battery propulsion system and was initially considered to be both the Australian government’s and analysts’ favourite. However, it is suspected that one of the reasons the French design was chosen over the German and Japanese submarines, was the option to go nuclear if that ever became palatable in Australia3,4.
The $50 billion contract was awarded in early 2016 to French state-owned shipbuilder Naval Group (formerly DCNS), which agreed to build the submarines in Adelaide, commencing in 2022. The first of the new boats was supposed to be delivered in the early 2030s, with the final boat delivered in the 2050s1,5. However, it was not until early February 2019 that the Australian government and Naval Group signed a strategic partnership agreement (SPA) for the production of the 12 submarines. The signing of the SPA was preceded by a two-year wrangle over contract details. Negotiations for the SPA kicked off in 2017 and were initially expected to be signed by September 20186.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said at the time that the commitment to an Australian build would create a sustainable Australian naval shipbuilding industry and provide the certainty that industry requires to invest in innovation and technology and grow its workforce. He added: “This $50 billion investment will directly sustain around 1100 Australian jobs and a further 1700 Australian jobs through the supply chain”7.
Even in late 2018, there were reputed to be problems with the agreement. However, then Defence Minister Christopher Pyne dismissed these reports, saying “There is no delay to the program, or the schedule or the budget. He added: “The strategic partnering agreement is the second agreement that lasts for many decades into the future … it’s very important it be got right because it’s the long-term contract and therefore we are not rushing into signing it, but nor is it delayed. Negotiations by their very nature take time, and I’m very comfortable with the position we are in with the submarine contract. There’s a lot of very overheated conversation about the contract [but] I can tell you, it is going very well”1.
By March 2021, it was clear that the deal had virtually no chance of producing the 12 submarines, and leading commentators in France, Australia and elsewhere expected the contract to be abandoned. This came after numerous cost blowouts. France’s original tender documents had the cost about $25 billion. The initial agreement signed in late 2016 was for $50 billion. In February, 2020 it was estimated that the acquisition cost would be about $80 billion and sustainment costs (maintenance, manpower, training, arming etc.) could be as much as $145 billion. The initial planned delivery date has been pushed back to the 2040s8.
Now it has been abandoned, and has cost the Australian taxpayer more than $2.4 billion so far, and will now force the ageing Collins class submarines to have their service life extended far beyond when they were expected to be retired. Prime Minister Scott Morrison said: “If we were unable to access this technology to have a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines, then the Attack-class submarine is the best conventional submarine”9.
This is clearly a lie as the French design was based on the Barracuda nuclear submarine which had to be adapted to diesel-electric propulsion for the Australian contract. The other two designs considered, the German and Japanese, were both diesel-electric designs4. It should also be noted that the nuclear submarines will be more expensive than the diesel-electric boats we were going to get under the French deal9, so we are likely to get fewer of them.
The French debacle demonstrates multiple failures of the government. The most basic is accountability. Since negotiations with France began, Australia has had three prime ministers, three deputy PMs, three treasurers, five defence ministers and four ministers for defence industry. Of the 15 individuals to have held these portfolios, seven have left the Parliament8. Furthermore, it is unlikely that we will see any of these boats commissioned into the Australian Navy before the middle 2040s.
Perhaps the last government word should be left to the Defence Personnel Minister Andrew Gee, who said that the French submarines would have been technologically obsolete by the time they came into service, and that Australia should not mourn the demise of the deal. He added: “Future generations would not have thanked us for passing them down to them”.
Mr Gee said Australia should not mourn the loss of the deal9. Given that his government signed and backed the French deal enthusiastically up until very recently, despite what many commentators knew, and since he has been in federal parliament since 2016, he must be a bit of a slow learner.
So, why the huge theatrical production with Johnson and Biden to announce this? There are probably two proximal reasons: to get Christian Porter’s million dollar, blind trust donation off the front page, and more importantly, to set the scene for what the cynics call a ‘khaki election’; i.e. using the defence force as a campaign tool during the election.