Mind the capability gap: what happens if Collins class submarines retire before nuclear boats are ready?

“Every galah in the pet shop is talking about a capability gap”, former defence secretary Dennis Richardson memorably said.

Those “galahs” include defence experts, policymakers and industry, who are all fretting about whether Australia will be left vulnerable when the ageing Collins class submarines are retired.

The federal government is considering the defence strategic review and advice from the submarine taskforce on acquiring a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines, but there are concerns that they will not be in service in time for a seamless handover from the Collins class.

The defence minister, Richard Marles, has been sounding increasingly positive that there will be no such gap.

“I’m feeling confident about our ability to deal with this,” he told Guardian Australia in January, adding it would be part of “the optimal pathway” to be announced soon.

Marles said the government had asked the taskforce to examine “to the extent any capability gap arose how we would meet the capability gap”.

“The process has been very focused on that, and I’m confident I’ll have answers to it.”

While much of the focus is on submarines, though, experts say a multi-pronged approach could work.

Acquiring that fleet of at least eight nuclear-powered submarines is the first “pillar” of the Aukus partnership between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States, but the second pillar, which includes hypersonic weapons, artificial intelligence and underwater drones, will be needed in the short term.

It will be at least a decade before even the first submarine is delivered and some estimates even push the timeline out to 2050.

The prime minister, Anthony Albanese, is expected to meet with both the US president, Joe Biden, and the UK prime minister, Rishi Sunak, in the US in March, to announce the governments’ plans.

Marles has emphasised the “genuinely trilateral” nature of the Aukus agreement between the three countries, leading to speculation a new hybrid submarine to replace the ageing Colins class fleet will be built using elements of both the US and the UK’s boats.

The life of the Collins fleet will be stretched out as much as possible with life-of-type extensions, but the boats are still set to be retired by the end of the next decade.

Marles told the ABC late last year that the Labor government had “inherited” a situation where the first submarine would not be in the water until the 2040s.

“We need to be looking at how we can get that sooner,” he said.

The Royal Australian Navy’s HMAS Rankin conducts helicopter transfers during training. Photograph: Australian Defence Force/Getty Images

When former prime minister Scott Morrison announced he was scrapping the deal with France to build 12 boats in favour of the Aukus deal to build “at least” eight submarines in South Australia in 2021, he also announced plans to acquire various missiles, including hypersonic and precision strike guided missiles over the next decade.

On top of the missiles, there is a second pillar of Aukus that includes working with the UK and the UK on underwater drones, quantum technology, artificial intelligence and autonomous technology, advanced cyber capabilities, electronic warfare, and other innovations.

Those technologies are expected to help Australia in the context of increasing aggression from China while it waits for the submarines.

Earlier this year, US senators warned Biden not to sell Australia any submarines, arguing the US did not have the industrial capability to spare any, which dashed hopes of getting any of those submarines earlier.

Foreign policy and defence research fellow at the University of Sydney’s United States Studies Centre, Tom Corben, said that “wouldn’t be news” to policymakers in the US or Australia.

“When congressmen or senior leaders in the US say the shipbuilding base is maxed out, they’re not lying,” he said.

“It’s been like that for a number of years now.”

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He said Marles had made it clear the project would be trilateral, which suggests Australia will not rely on the US and that instead the work would be split between nations.

Corben said there could be “really creative solutions” found, but that it was important to remember the submarines are only one part of Aukus.

“They’re pillar one of two pillars,” he said.

While submarines are the “backbone” of the maritime force structure, Corben said he wouldn’t be surprised if the imminent announcement also contained more details on the second pillar.

“Marles has emphasised that Australia is particularly interested in any capability through pillar two that would arrive in the next five years,” he said.

“We’re in a bit of a dangerous window of time in terms of our collective ability to resist Chinese military incursion. The submarines won’t really help in that window, they’re more of a long-term [proposition].

“I wouldn’t be surprised if there is more detail on the other elements that are going to be required.”

In a statement last year, the White House said the Aukus partners had made “strong progress” on the advanced capabilities. Trials of autonomous vehicles are set to begin this year, it said, and trials of quantum technologies for position, navigation and timing, would happen over the next three years.

Work had already started on autonomous and artificial intelligence-enabled systems to improve the speed and precision of decision-making processes, while the three countries were also strengthening their defences against cyber-attacks, sharing information on electronic warfare, developing advanced hypersonic and counter-hypersonic capabilities.

The director of the Lowy Institute’s international security program, Sam Roggeveen, said there were other capabilities Australia could buy that could do “similar things” to submarines – such as sinking ships.

“One area we’re already getting into is mine warfare,” he said.

“But we’re also investing in anti-ship missiles that can be fired from the air and we’re even getting some land-based missile capability.”

HMAS Hobart, a Hobart class air warfare destroyer, moored at the Garden Island naval base in Sydney. Photograph: William West/AFP/Getty Images

Other options that have been floated include building entirely new air warfare destroyers equipped with more than 100 missile launching cells, in order to bolster firepower, or building an interim conventional submarine.

But Roggeveen warned that China’s anti-ship ballistic missiles made surface ships vulnerable.

And Marles has appeared to dismiss the idea of interim submarines.

“There are no plans for any conventional – conventionally powered interim submarine capability, as we move towards gaining the nuclear-powered submarine capability,” he said in January.

In a statement to parliament on 9 Febuary, Marles emphasised the importance of the second pillar.

“These capabilities will help us hold potential adversaries’ forces at risk, at a greater distance and increase the cost of aggression against Australia and its interests.”

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Tory Shepherd