Australia’s track record in announcing and then delivering prudent, cost-effective, sustainable, timely, and publicly-popular defence projects is generally not a matter of celebratory pride.

Indeed, often as not, the record of our expert military advisers, defence bureaucrats, and, of course, our grandstanding politicians has been woeful on any number of ‘big ticket’ items; these include attack helicopters, jet fighters, tanks and armoured vehicles, various naval vessels and assortments of expensive battlefield electronic systems.

The latest apparent ‘billion-dollar-oops!’ stuff-up has been widely aired in the media in this country and abroad following the decision of the Morrison government to terminate the planned $90 billion deal with the French for the construction of 12 conventional diesel-powered attack submarines in Australia to replace the six aging 3,100 tonnes Collins-class boats.

It was apparently shocks all round when the French were advised that the new sub deal was off.

A fresh deal involving Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States to produce just eight nuclear-powered, state-of-the-art, big (between 7,500 and 10,000 tonnes) fleet attack submarines became the new proposition.

The dummy-spits were not limited to the French; certain retired Australian prime ministers waded in to castigate the government, some timorous columnists and commentators feared that China (which is busy rapidly expanding its arsenal of nuclear attack submarines and ballistic missile boats) would be grievously offended and it would be quite understandable if China would seek to further punish the aggressive and unreasonable people of Australia.

So, where do we stand?

The French are miffed.

China is miffed anew, regional Pacific leaders are fearing an arms-race and two billion Australian dollars have gone down the tube.

The new, larger, nuclear-powered subs will still cost as much as $90 billion – or more!

Has Prime Minister Morrison made an unfortunate overnight decision simply to turn public attention away from the COVID crisis to more electorally-worthwhile drum-banging and sabre rattling? The answer is no!

Thoughtful observers of matters naval and military have already noted that the proposed fleet of 12 French conventional subs may be less-than ideal for our national defence stance in the coming two decades.

The proposed nuclear-powered attack boats from either the UK or the US – the British ‘Astute’ Class boat (7,500 tonnes) or the US ‘Virginia’ Class attack sub (10,000 tonnes) – represent much bigger and better ‘bangs for the buck’ than the conventional types that were on order.

Both the American and British submarines have been developed from proven, high-tech origins and contain world-leading abilities in terms of technical and operational abilities.

These include sonar and weapons systems, range and endurance, in-shore and deep water capabilities, and high-level stealth ability.

The US and UK submarines have demonstrated in exercises against each other that both are extremely capable when the pressure is on.

It is interesting to note that the ‘Astute’ Class (six submarines, one in construction) and the ‘Virginia’ Class (19 active submarines) are the products of established naval ship building concerns.

In fact, the American company General Dynamics Electric Boat played an instrumental role in fine-tuning the CAD program of the ‘Astute’ project of BAE Systems while the propulsion system of the ‘Astute’ Class is driven by a Rolls Royce PWR2 reactor.

It should also be noted that in the process of developing and refining both the British and the American submarines there were a number of delays, setbacks and cost overruns before the successful variants emerged to perform well for both navies.

In other words, even though there may be many design hoops and project alternations ahead for an Australian variant of either type, much has been learned that will not have to be re-learned in what still will be a very complex and costly undertaking.

It is unlikely in the extreme that the Morrison government made an ‘overnight’ decision to axe the contract with French.

It is a matter of stark reality that the decision to seek a far more capable, nuclear-powered submarine makes important military and strategic sense.

It is also a matter of stark reality that the new project will still cost Australia a bundle!

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