Tuesday, July 26, 2011


The biggest defence decision the country must make - the one that will define our forces over the next couple of decades - is what sort of submarine we should buy.

This summarises some of the arguments . . .


The government is about to make – or, more probably, postpone – the most important defence decision Australia has faced in the past half-century. It's impossible to overestimate the importance of this critical choice on the future shape of the country's defence.
The original concept, first unveiled in the 2009 Defence White Paper, envisaged a force of submarines as the essential hinge upon which our security would rest. Unfortunately, both at the time and subsequently, the real meaning of these submarines has been wreathed in secrecy because no one, least of all their advocates, will admit what they are actually for.
The reality is that the new submarines are designed to carry the ultimate deterrent. They’ll be SSG’s, guided missile submarines, not mere subs. Instead of simply intercepting any opponents fleet, their mission is to make prospective enemies think twice about attacking Australia, because they know we’ll have the capacity to hit back, hard, at their homeland. The subs’ possible presence offshore of any potential adversary creates a looming threat intended to cause them to think twice about their actions. This is a far greater deterrent than any number of defensive capabilities.
And that’s the real reason we require boats that are bigger than the cheaper, alternative, conventional European designs that we could buy off-the-shelf. How can we be certain? Just look at the technical specifications.
A submarine is like an envelope. If you want to expand one side, you need to stretch all the others to fit the new dimensions. It's not elastic. This means, for example, that if the submarine is going to be stable enough to launch a missile it's got to be a certain minimum size. This bigger vessel will have to remain on station for a long time, meaning it needs extra crew and storage. It will also require extra fuel to transit the long distances. Put these requirements together and pretty soon you've got a very large envelope; one that’s more like a package. Unsurprisingly, the cost grows exponentially as you keep adding features and unfortunately it’s not possible to shrink the number of hulls that are required. You need a certain weight of force to maintain a deterrent. Defence reckons it requires close to a dozen of these subs to do job. At the moment we can’t even crew four boats.
The advantage is, though, that a bigger submarine will be able to accomplish not just the mission you require it to achieve today, but it will also be adaptable enough to do other things in the future. It's expandable. It’s this capacity that makes it far, far more desirable than the alternative, a cheaper, smaller boat that would be an equally effective (and far cheaper) deterrent against invasion.
If we just wanted a submarine capable of defending the continent, we'd buy one of the plethora of cheap alternatives on the market. There's a lot of nonsense talked about how these have “limited range" and are somehow “unsuitable for our conditions”, but these aren't genuine objections. The real problem is that they are too small for the real mission for which they’re required – giving us a platform that can host missiles that will strike back at potential enemies in their homeland. Nevertheless, because no one is prepared to articulate this requirement for fear of sounding like a warmonger, the debate about what sort of submarine we should buy is being carried on in a delusional fantasy world divorced from reality.
Forget all the other reasons that are used to justify our supposed need for the vessels. We don't have to spend the billions of dollars that will be required for these boats, making this the most expensive defence equipment purchase ever. There are cheaper, or more effective methods of achieving all of the tasks for which our submarines are supposedly required rather than spending billions to build the subs ourselves – bar one. No one will ever admit, let alone talk about publicly, exactly what the submarines are for, but this is the only explanation of why the government is continuing to agonise over, rather than immediately scrapping the project.
It’s the key reason our relationship with China suddenly became remarkably strained the minute their analysts were briefed on the 2009 Paper.
The strategic rationale is self-evident. Currently, Australia shelters comfortably beneath the US nuclear umbrella. We do not face an existential threat simply because we can rely on Washington's guarantee of protection. If any nuclear power (read China) attempted to bully us we can be certain that the US would come to our rescue.
But times change and only a lazy strategist would assume that America’s interests will always converge with ours. The tectonic plates that represent the balance of power, both economic and military, are shifting beneath our feet. The world is changing. Add imponderables, such as climate change, into the mix and the real prospect is that in two decades time the implicit security guarantee that we rely on today could evaporate into the thin, dry, arid air of the future, leaving only a dusty taste in the mouth. Australia would lie open and exposed. It would be too late, far too late, to attempt to develop an independent force capable of protecting the country. The enormous lead-time required to develop and field this sort of military capability can’t be conjured up out of nowhere.
The trouble is the government’s being presented with an either/or approach. The reality is a compromise might be achievable, but the navy isn’t going to ‘blink’ first while it still dreams it may yet achieve it’s ambition of a 4000 tonne behemoth. The rival German version displaces just 1800 tonnes. This smaller, undetectable, vessel is currently being examined to see if it can be modified to carry cruise missiles . . . perhaps a compromise is achievable.
Defence choices are all about money. The government thinks it can put off making a decision and bank the money instead. But you don’t get anything for free. The enormous lead-time for designing the sub means the critical decisions need to be taken now. That means a ‘decision’ to phostphone the project would be the worst possible one, leaving the whole basis of our defence in limbo.

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