Military & Aerospace

The Australian Submarine Landscape: Takeaways for the Indian Navy
Star Rating Loader Please wait...
Issue Vol. 36.4, Oct-Dec 2021 | Date : 21 Dec , 2021

Submarines are exceptionally complicated beasts to design, construct and operate. The technological complexities, operational challenges and sustenance demands multiply manifold when SSNs are added into the scenario. In all fairness, any nation attempting to transform from a buyers to a builder’s navy, has to endure the pains and trauma as they traverse the learning curve. It is, therefore, only prudent that others attempting to travel the same path, learn and avoid making the same set of mistakes.

In September 2021, the Australian government signed the AUKUS agreement with the UK and US. This may have been driven by the realisation that the contract with DCNS, France, for design and construction of 12 Short Fin Barracuda class ocean-going conventional submarines, may not address their strategic concern of containment of the Chinese in the Indo-Pacific. Notwithstanding its hitherto anti–nuclear stance as a nation, the Australian government decided to bite the bullet and cancelled their ongoing contract with DCNS.

The Australian submarine arm has three distinct phases: the induction of the indigenously-built Collins Class submarines, the now defunct, Australian- Naval Group contract for 12 Short Fin Barracuda Class submarines and the recently inked AUKUS agreement. It may be prudent to analyse the Australian experience and identify, both, good practices/concepts and avoidable pitfalls.

The Australian Submarine Landscape

The Collins Class

In 1987, the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) shortlisted the enlarged version of the Swedish Vastergotland class as a replacement for its Oberon Class submarines. Locally christened as the Collins Class, six of these boats were to be indigenously built, between 1990 and 2003, by the newly formed Australian Submarine Corporation, ASC, at an approximate cost of AUD $5.1 billion.

The Collins Class

The programme and the platforms have been subject to many accusations – of foul play, bias during design selection, faulty construction protocols, major capability deficiencies, technical and operational problems. It took the Australian DoD, ASC and the RAN, almost 20 years to achieve high availability and accepted levels of combat effectiveness. Initially expected to retire by 2026, these vessels are likely to remain in service well into the 2030s.

Short Fin Barracuda- The Collins Class Replacement

In 2015, the Australian DoD issued an invitation to TKMS (Germany), Naval Group (France) and Mitsubishi and Kawasaki (Japan) to submit their design concepts for ‘12 Ocean Going Diesel – Electric submarines to be built in Australia, under the Future Submarine Programme (FSP), Project SEA 1000, as replacements for the Collins Class. Primarily driven by their requirement for enhanced range, endurance and low indiscretion rates, the DCNS’s ‘Short Fin Barracuda’, a derivative of the Barracuda Class SSN, was shortlisted. The initial value of the project was AUD$50 billion, with a delivery time of 15 years.

The AUKUS Partnership and Cancelling the Naval Group Contract

In the face of growing delays, cost increase and more importantly, the changed geo-strategic situation in the SCS, on September 15, 2021, the governments of Australia, UK and US announced that the RAN would be cancelling the contract with Naval Group and embarking on a partnership, to ‘deliver a nuclear-powered submarine fleet to Australia’.

Takeaways for the Indian Navy (IN)

In their quest to evolve into ship building Navies, both IN and RAN have similar tribulations, experiences and aspirations. As democracies too, they are not dissimilar; sub-optimal political and bureaucratic grasp of matters military, a nascent MSME eco-system and near non-existent, defence-related R&D and academic support. Furthermore, our unique maritime roles/ commitments and hydrologies preclude induction of off-the-shelf underwater platforms. Finally, both navies are now looking at acquiring SSNs, rightly dubbed as the ‘most complex technological machine’. The SSNs operated by India are on lease from Russia and the indigenous Arihant Class are classified as SSBNs. Project 75 Alpha is the indigenous SSN programme, currently at its conceptual stage. It is, therefore, only natural that we learn from each other’s experiences, replicate the good practices and avoid the pitfalls.

Australia’s Collins Class Experience

At 3,500 tonne submerged displacement, the Collins class is the largest operational diesel – electric submarine in the world. Designed for long range – 1,200nm and endurance of 70 days, they have US weapons (Mk 48 Torpedoes and Harpoon anti -ship missiles), a US Combat Control System, and a French acoustic suite. They do not have land attack capabilities or any significant Special Forces delivery vehicle capability. The boats had major issues relating to sustainability, availability, maintainability as well as operational capability shortfalls. These included unreliable combat system, frequent propulsion machinery failures, high noise levels, high indiscretion rates, implying they have to snorkel to charge batteries for prolonged durations and manning issues leading to operational boats being tied up alongside. All these took nearly 20 years to resolve. There are, therefore, major lessons, to be learnt from the Collins programme.

Assessment of Need, Clarity on the Implementation Strategy and Unambiguous Core QRs

The policy paper on replacements for the WW 2 vintage Oberon Class, articulated two overarching suggestions; the majority, if not all, submarines be constructed in Australia and for this to be viable, the number of boats be increased beyond the six Oberon class. Accordingly, in 1981-1982, the Australian DoD approved the indigenous construction of ten Collins Class submarines though this was later revised to six platforms with the option to order two more. At the operational level, the RAN articulated four core QRs:–

    • The submarines were to be customised for operating conditions in the ‘Australia-Asian’ region.
    • They were to be equipped with an advanced combat system to ensure a long service life.
    • Appropriate and sustainable infrastructure was to be established in Australia to construct the boats and then provide maintenance and technical support for their operational lifespan.
    • The submarines were to be capable of peacetime and emergency operations, in addition to their hunter–killer roles.

There was, therefore, a clear and unambiguous assessment of need, clarity on implementation strategy and a well-articulated basic QR statement.

Combat Systems

As per the initial plan, US-based Rockwell was responsible for the delivery of the combat system. Rockwell, in turn, had partnered with Singer Librascope of US to write the software and Thomson CSF, of France to integrate the acoustic and non-acoustic sensor suites. Both the subcontractors, refused to release their intellectual property to Rockwell. Furthermore, even the initial system architecture requirements drawn up by the RAN were ‘beyond the technology of the day’ and ‘overtly ambitious and flawed’. Finally, the RAN decided to use customised mil-spec hardware in lieu of the cheaper commercially off-the -shelf hard and software. All this led to major cost and time over runs and the combat capabilities of the Collins boats was ‘at best equivalent to the Oberons’.

In early 2001, a decision was taken to develop a new combat system for the Collins class. Due to political and security issues, a decision was taken to jointly develop this with the US Navy. As a result, ‘Raytheon Australia’, indigenously developed the AN/BYG-1 combat system, which replaced the original Rockwell system. Later, this system became a standard for US submarines and was also fitted in their new Virginia class submarines.

Availability Issues and the Sustainability – Maintenance-Upgrade Philosophy

The Collins class experienced a wide range of problems during the early service life. To address these, major noise reduction techniques were incorporated to address hydrodynamic (due to movement through water) and machinery noise. The high levels of cavitation noise demanded a re-design of the original propeller by a US firm. Other major interventions included modifying the fuel system, redesigning shaft seals, replacing the diesel generators and hydro-dynamically streamlining the periscopes and other masts. All these changes/updates took nearly 20 years to implement. They, however, greatly enhanced the boats availability and operational capability.

The Sustainment and Maintenance of the submarines, their supply chain management and in-service rectification tasks, all are undertaken by the platform systems integrator, Australian Submarine Corporation, ASC Pvt. Ltd. ASC is also the design authority for the submarines, with the ability and mandate to assess, implement and document changes to the platform design. To address the challenges of low availability and other sustenance issues, the Australian Submarine Enterprise (ASE) consisting of the DoD, Raytheon Australia (the combat system integrator) and RAN was also established. This organisational framework (the ASC-ASE combine) greatly enhanced the submarine’s availability and sustenance. In 2011, an independent review found that the “ASC and Submarine Enterprise were achieving submarine sustainability and availability at or exceeding international benchmarks.”

SEA 1000 – The Collins Replacement Programme

In early 2015, the Australian DoD issued invitations to several foreign submarine manufacturers to submit ‘concepts of a submarine design’, for the Future Submarine Programme (Project SEA 1000), to replace the existing six Collins Class submarines. In December 2016, the Australian Government signed an AUD$ 40 billion contract with Naval Group, France for indigenous construction of 12 Short Fin Barracuda Submarines, a shortened version of the under construction French Barracuda Class SSNs. The contract was, however, terminated in September 2021, because of cost and time overruns and other geo-strategic and political reasons. However, it is worth analysing the short-lived project for three unique reasons and the takeaways it may have for the Indian Navy’s ongoing Project 75(I).

    • Tendering for an ‘invisible submarine’.
    • Competitive Evaluation Process (CEP) as against conventional Competitive Tendering.
    • Segregating the tendering and contract process of the combat system from the platform.

Tendering for an ‘Invisible Submarine’

Australia tendered for a submarine which matched the range and endurance of the existing Collins Class; but included Land Attack and Special Forces Delivery capability. DCNS offered the ‘Short Fin Barracuda’, a non- existent submarine, which was to be a down-sized Barracuda class SSN, under construction for the French Navy. The selection of the Short Fin Barracuda, came at an ‘eye watering cost’ and with unacceptably high technical risks. The price tag of $4.6 billion per boat was twice the cost offered by TKMS for their 3,600-tonne Type 216 and even more than the cost of the US Virginia Class at $3.6 billion. The cost of a regular SSK is around $1 billion a piece. Even a French Barracuda cost about $2.6 billion.

The technical risk primarily emerges from the fact that no one had ever converted a nuclear submarine to a conventional sub. Some doubted if such a conversion was even possible. The absence of an Air Independent Propulsion (AIP) system, considered a sine qua non in 21st century SSKs was also surprising. One seriously needs to evaluate this ‘Swiss knife’ approach to meeting all possible roles by a single submarine platform. Can conventional SSKs even undertake force projection roles at extended distances or are these roles of an SSN?

Competitive Evaluation Process and a Funded Project Definition Study

Australia adopted the Competitive Evaluation Process (CEP) to shortlist the final foreign partner. The purpose of the CEP was to ‘select the most suitable international partner to work with Australia to develop and deliver the Future Submarine’. It was not aimed at eliciting and assessing a full design for the submarine or identifying a firm cost and schedule data as these processes were to be undertaken under a Funded Study for ‘Project Definition Studies’. In April 2016, the Australian Government announced DCNS as the ‘successful International Partner for the design of the 12 Future Submarines, subject to further discussions on commercial matters’. By eliminating all competition before a detailed design had been produced, the RAN faced substantial risks: what if the eventual DCNS design is untenable on technical grounds or the price quoted by DCNS, now a monopolist, is unacceptable? Notwithstanding the cost and other risk issues, technically, DCNS was probably the best foreign partner option. An independent Australian government audit found the CEP to be fair and sound.

Separately Tendered Combat System

The Australian DOD segregated the tendering, evaluation and contract process of the combat system from the rest of the platform and its systems. This was similar to the approach followed for the Collins class, albeit much simpler, since the AN /BYG-1 fitted on Collins Class as part of its Continued Improvement Project was contemporary (2010 vintage) and already being produced by Raytheon Australia. Also, due to its modular architecture and distributed processing, new software revisions and hardware updates were easily incorporated. This approach has many advantages and addresses issues of confidentiality, weapons integration and major cost optimisation. It also contributes substantially towards enhancing indigenous submarine capabilities and local content.

The AUKUS Partnership

On September 15, 2021, the governments of Australia, UK and US announced that the RAN would be cancelling the contract with Naval Group and embarking on a partnership, to ‘deliver a nuclear-powered submarine fleet to Australia’. Under the AUKUS pact, the US and UK will share nuclear propulsion technology with Australia and assist in the indigenous construction of ‘eight nuclear-powered submarines armed with conventional weapons’. The basic design and key technologies are yet to be decided. The reasons for this strategic shift in Australian policy could be attributed to:–

    • The changed geo-strategic situation in the Indo-Pacific requires nuclear-powered submarines, which, unlike conventional SSKs, have the advantages of greater speed, ability to remain submerged for longer duration and a higher weapon carrying capacity.
    • French submarines reactors are fuelled by Low-Enriched Uranium (LEU) at less than six percent and have to be refuelled every ten years. In contrast, American and British submarines use nuclear reactors fuelled by Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) at 93 percent enrichment and, therefore, require no refuelling over their entire expected life.
    • The Future Submarine Programme has been criticised in Australia because of its cost and failure to place most of the work in Australia. The Australian investment of AUD$2.4 billion as on date, is a mere five percent of the current estimates of the final project cost of AUD$50 billion.

The AUKUS Partnership is too recent to draw any conclusions and there have been no formal announcements from any of the three signatories. Presently, it is just a statement of intent. All discussions and comments in the public domain are mere hearsay and individual opinions. Notwithstanding, it is possible to list out some possible scenarios and likely roadblocks.

    • The British Astute class are cheaper and require smaller crew as against the US Virginia Class, which are larger and expensive. Both the British and the US yards have their order books full and have no spare capacity. The Astute class has technical issues related to the reactor and have limited residual life. So the choice of platform is still unclear.
    • Australia is the technological ‘laggard’ among the trio. It has a limited industrial base and built its last submarine more than 20 years ago. It operates one power reactor, has one university with a nuclear engineering department and produces just five graduates annually. Australia’s spending on R&D lagged behind the average for wealthy economies. Its past two plans to build submarines fell apart before any were constructed.
    • Safeguards to protect the crew, local population and meet non-proliferation obligations would require substantial build up of indigenous nuclear safety expertise. Barrow-in-Furness, home to Britain’s submarine-building shipyard, has a population of 67,000. Adelaide, where Australia wants to build the nuclear submarines, is a city of 1.4 million.
    • The manpower requirement for at-sea operations, pier-side support and routine maintenance/sustenance of SSNs is several times more than conventional boats. The RAN has major manning issues even for their existing Collins class submarines. Recruiting, training, retaining and motivating uniformed personnel to serve onboard submarines and ashore, will continue to be a challenge for the RAN.
    • Britain is in the process of phasing out the PWR2 reactor that powers the Astute. The Astute is not designed to fit the next-generation reactor. The successor to the Astute is still on the drawing board and will be available to the RAN only after 12 to 15 years. Waiting for the next-generation UK attack submarine would mean an extended ‘capability gap’ for Australia.
    • The two American shipyards that make nuclear submarines are ramping up to meet the increasing demand to build the next generation Virginian SSNs and Columbia SSBNs. Working at 95 to 98 percent capacity, these yards may not be able to spare any resources for the new Australian programme.

With the limited inputs currently available, it may be premature to arrive at or even suggest a remotely workable model to implement and operationalise the AUKUS agreement. However, the Indian model to acquire maritime nuclear capability, does have certain similarities and can form the basis for Australia to evolve a do-able framework. The three core components of the Indian approach have been:–

    • To lease similar platforms to build operational and sustenance expertise.
    • To invest in a long term indigenous nuclear capacity building programme, consisting of both hard and soft infrastructure/expertise.
    • To cater for the long gestation periods associated with an indigenous nuclear submarine programme, existing platforms may require continuous up-grading/life extension. At times, acquisition of new assets may be unavoidable.

Takeaways for the Indian Navy (IN)

Analysis of the Australian submarine landscape throws up certain interesting nuances and lessons which have relevance to India’s programme. The important takeaways relevant to the IN are enumerated below.

Need Assessment and Implementation Strategy

In the late 1970s, when the IN was looking to replace their Foxtrot class submarines, it was decided to take two entirely distinct and divergent routes; the purchase of four ‘customised’ Type 209 SSK’s from West Germany and the ‘off-the-shelf’ purchase of eight Kilo Class submarines from Soviet Union/Russia, later increased to ten boats. Since the SSKs were constructed at Mazagaon Docks (MDL), Mumbai, it provided MDL with necessary construction skills and the ability to maintain, refit and upgrade the boats throughout their life-cycle. However, by limiting the procurement to four boats, the programme did not galvanise the indigenous industrial base.

The off-the-shelf procurement of the ten Kilo Class submarines did address IN’s operational requirement including providing sub-launched missile capability but did nothing to boost India’s ship-building industry. Furthermore, being off-the-shelf with no customisation, they came with their own environmental, habitability and operational limitations. Some of these were partially addressed but never entirely eliminated. Since Transfer of Technology (TOT) was non-existent, after three decades the boats need to go back to Russia for refits and upgrades.

The six Scorpene class submarines built at MDL under the Project 75, was again an off-the-shelf design, with no customisation and had no significant indigenous content or TOT. Being a virtual ‘single vendor procurement’ its commercial terms were strongly biased towards the seller. It was in fact a ‘distress purchase’, to urgently boost the IN’s dismal force levels. Only time will tell the degree of sustenance and upgrade support MDL has been ‘empowered’ to provide.

These pitfalls, however, appear to have been addressed in Project 75 (I); in terms of numbers, customisation, TOT, indigenous content and yard empowerment.

INS Chakra

Submarine Combat System

Their approach was to issue a separate tender for the combat system and establishing ‘Raytheon Australia’, and they now have a state-of-the-art combat system in the form of AN-BYS-1. It in home-grown, standard among all current platforms and is easily upgradeable for future programmes. India must seriously consider establishing a similar indigenous consortium for the development and manufacture of the combat system for Project 75 (I).

Availability and Sustainability Challenges

The Collins class submarine initially had major availability and sustenance issues. They identified all such issues and systematically went about resolving them. Though it took 20 years to fix most of the issues, today they not only have a more operationally deployable boat, but have also garnered invaluable experience in submarine design, development and operations. We, on the other hand, have not necessarily been forthright even in accepting that a ‘problem exists’ and, therefore, have not only failed to resolve them, but are also condemned to repeat our mistakes.

The Australian Submarine Corporation (ASC), the platform system integrator and the Australian Submarine Enterprise consisting of the DoD, RAN and Raytheon Australia, the combat system integrator, are responsible for all sustenance, maintenance and upgrade issue. This model has now matured and is working well for RAN. The Indian Navy too could study this and modify the existing model as required for improved platform availability and sustenance.

Tendering for an ‘Invisible Submarine and Ambiguous QRs

In the case of Collins and also its replacement programme, the RAN tendered for a non-existent, ‘invisible submarine’. While this may have had the advantage of future-proofing the submarine, it translated into an inflated price-tag. Similarly, ambiguous QRs, such as ‘Collin’s noise signature should be half of the Oberon Class’, meant nothing. The The IN too needs to be conscious of the pitfalls of unrealistic or unduly enhanced and ambiguous QRs for its submarine programmes. For example, in the RFP for Project 75(I), the requirement of having a ‘Sea Proven Fuel Cell AIP system’ if reworded as ‘Sea-proven AIP System’, would have given the IN a better choice of emerging technologies and a larger pool of OEMs to choose from.

Competitive Evaluation Process (CEP) vs the Competitive Tendering

The Indian system of TNC and PNC is primarily a Go-No-Go process to assess qualitative compliance of the various bidders. This is then followed by a near ‘auto selection’ of the cheapest bidder. It may, therefore, be prudent for the IN to evolve a hybrid system which lies somewhere between the pure Competitive Evaluation Process (CEP) which is followed by RAN and the primarily Competitive Tendering Process (TNC and the PNC system), as stipulated in our Defence Procurement Regulations (DPR). In the RAN model, the term ‘Strategic Partner’ implies that the foreign OEM that is shortlisted by the Defence Ministry and is responsible to choose the indigenous partner for construction, sustenance and upgrade of the boat through its lifecycle. In the Strategic Partnership (SP) model being followed for Project 75(I), the Yard selected to build the boats is termed as the ‘Strategic Partner’. It is then free to choose one of the foreign OEMs to partner with. While the ‘build process’ and QA/QC are the yard’s prerogative, the foreign OEM is responsible for performance guarantees of the platforms. Some OEMs have withdrawn from the tendering process of Project 75 (I) as they cannot guarantee the performance of the boats built under this SP model. This anomaly may need to be addressed.

The AUKUS Partnership

The AUKUS Partnership agreement of September 15, 2021, is too recent an event to draw any definite conclusions. Furthermore, there have been no formal announcements from any of the three signatories. Presently it is just a statement of intent. Notwithstanding, the IN can consider two important aspects of this project presently being deliberated on in the open domain.

    • American and British submarines use nuclear reactors fuelled by Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) at 93 percent enrichment and, therefore, require no refuelling over their entire expected life. All other navies, including the French and Indian, are known to utilise Low Enriched Uranium (LEU), at less than six percent enrichment. It is a political decision as to how the Indian government wants to address this.
    • The IN is starting to face problems in retaining submarine trained manpower, especially among personnel with design, construction and operation expertise on nuclear platforms. With our ambitious plan for a simultaneous SSBN and SSN production line, the IN needs to identify and address these HR issues.


Submarines are exceptionally complicated beasts to design, construct and operate. The technological complexities, operational challenges and sustenance demands multiply manifold when SSNs are added into the scenario. In all fairness, any nation attempting to transform from a buyers to a builder’s navy, has to endure the pains and trauma as they traverse the learning curve. It is, therefore, only prudent that others attempting to travel the same path, learn and avoid making the same set of mistakes.

Rate this Article
Star Rating Loader Please wait...
The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Cmde CP Srivastava

is a veteran submariner and the Director, Intellectual Resource and Consulting.

More by the same author

Post your Comment

2000characters left

4 thoughts on “The Australian Submarine Landscape: Takeaways for the Indian Navy

  1. Comparing the RAN and the IN is a dubious analytical exercise. Why? Because (1) the operational imperatives are different (2) the strategic conditions are different, and (3) the long-range strategic vision underwriting the fielding of these systems are markedly different.

    Further, from an Indian perspective relying on the ToT model is beneficial but only in the short term. To build strategic capability, this expertise MUST be homegrown. This is not the imperative of Australia and the RAN, which is content to rest under the shadow of the US security umbrella.

    India has three maritime battlespaces to account for; (1) its own backwaters i.e, it’s coastal waters on the western and the eastern seaboard (2) the wider expanse of the Indian Ocean spanning from the Gulf of Aden to the Straits of Malacca, and (3) the South China seas (which is an extremis condition). Further, India’s strategic maritime posture has to account for both offensive and defensive operations against a higher order strategic threat (the PRC/PLAN) and a secondary threat (Pakistan/PN). For this, India needs SSKs, SSNs, and SSBNs. It will also need to provide for offensively orienfed escort vessels to accompany it’s carrier battle groups. None of these are imperatives that the RAN has to account for.

    India’s leasing of the Chakra and later the Akula class boats was to develop a cadre of submariners who would be able to man and maintain the nuclear boats that are now slowly coming online. The nuclear power plant question has been and will be handled by BARC, which does have a significant bench strength (though more funding is necessary). The Naval Design Bureau, however, requires critical support.

    The key point is this: While analysing and “learning from” arrangements like the AUKUS agreement is important, nevertheless, India’s strategic imperatives cannot be cast and contextualized within such arrangements. That would undermine, indeed cripple, indian strategic prospects.

    • Thanks for your views. Yes, nations/navies have different strategic imperatives and national aspirations. The Indian SSN/ SSBN program is probably the only program RAN can study. As I mentioned, we have very little to learn from the AUKUS, they however may .
      Thanks again.

  2. Very good summary!
    Just one point
    The LEU vs HEU story is not a political issue only by far.
    It is an economical and N safety issue by relying on the N civilian programmes (if they exist ..which is not the case in Australia..)
    It is highly uneconomical to maintain an HEU capability once the “sufficient amount” for deterrence has been produced (about 500 potential devices in the case of France) unless you have an excess due to the disarmement treaties (US(UK) and Russia)
    The fuel change every 10 years , contrary to what is often said,is very positive.If done in an engineered automated safe way. It last at best a few weeks in a military harbour during one of the numerous maintenance period of any sub .The hatch is not an issue if properly engineered.Many US subs haves also hatches

    It allow to inspect the reactor inner parts every 10 years , a civilian safety requirement, and to benefit from the back end processes of the fuel cycle..recycling,dismantling, ultimate high activity storage..
    After all a N sub in a large city harbour such as Brest or Toulon is a N plant that should be credibly civilian inspected, and certified,for safety and for political acceptance..

    Contrast with HMS Vanguard, (PWR2),in dry dock since 2015..suffering from a minor cladding leak.. sealed for life..

More Comments Loader Loading Comments