Tuesday, April 15, 2014


Only one issue is galvanising Australia at the moment - Bob Carr. 

While it's understandable that people are fascinated by his diaries, perusing these for insights may not necessarily be the best way to prepare for the future. 

A Collins off Cockburn Sound - Defence Photo

That's why I attempted to link him to the new submarine in the Canberra Times. Degree of difficulty : 2. Degree of fun : 9. 

Sorry . . . 

Bob carr

I’ve known Bob Carr and enjoyed his company since we first went bushwalking together back in 1987. Everyone has an opinion on his latest epistle – is he taking the piss, or not? But it’s not the revelations about his desire for pure food or the delicately carved muscles of his abdomen that have shocked and dismayed me: it’s something far more significant that’s causing me to pause with my mouth agape in horror. Carr complains in-flight Opera videos lack sur-titles!


One doesn’t attend opera for the libretto. The words are simple crutches driving the scenes forward, filling in the gaps until the music resumes its vital and sublime role propelling the competing emotions to a dramatic conclusion. A person fluent in the compositions’ original language might appreciate the delicacies and nuance developing as the words relate to the music. But only ever at the margins and it’s impossible in translation. Attempting to convert the words to your own language is a distraction. It misses the point of opera: the music itself.

Which brings us, naturally and ineluctably, to the role of the new submarine in the defence of Australia. Our over-arching defence strategy is the opera with its swirl of music and turmoil of emotions. Then ask; how does the submarine fit into this? Subs have a role and, sure, it’s vital, as a part of military capability when everything glues together. But subs are simply one part (comparatively minor at that) to the total effect delivered by our spending on the military. It’s important not to forget this as the new White Paper’s being drafted.

We didn’t possess subs in World War Two. Perhaps we should have, because they would have significantly complicated Japan’s planning to invade. Instead it was left to our soldiers to stop the advance at Kokoda. The decision to re-acquire a force of submarines was made with the purchase of the “O” class from Britain in 19. Then Kim Beazley urged the Collins class boats on us and now we’ve got all the makings of our own, home-grown, military-industrial complex: an industry that’s attempting to twist the project for its own purposes and fine Navy officers in starched whites insisting we need a big boat to allow us to play in the central Pacific.

Let’s examine firstly the time-line, and secondly the need.

Decisions have been put-off for so long that now our Collins boats urgently require support to keep them operating to 2033. That’s almost twenty years in the future. Think back the same period of time. We had little idea, back in 1994, of the technical breakthroughs that would allow us to use the electronic spectrum in ways that were, even then, inconceivable. Back then, sending a submarine into Chinese waters seemed (apparently) sensible. Today this would represent the height of folly and stupidity. In those days the only way intelligence could be acquired was by sneaking and peaking. Today information can be gained in other ways.

Then there’s the cost. Industry pushes the requirement to build our own submarines so we can operate in the central Pacific. Yet by 2020 Indonesia’s economy will be bigger than ours; it’s difficult to imagine those new subs still performing worthwhile service in the middle of that ocean in 2050 – as proponents insist they will. None of this would matter if the project wasn’t so expensive, but it is. There are alternatives.

As alert readers will be aware, I’ve been banging on about the Swedish project to design a new, capable submarine that could be jointly designed. This sort of out-of-the-box solution seems far more plausible; unless, of course, the Submarine Party can convince every motorist to pay an increase in the fuel levy to fund a go-it-alone option. Only 1¢ per litre and who wouldn’t pay that? Well, quite a few people, actually.

Our economy is falling in proportion to those of our neighbours. We can no longer assume that the rules of the past will continue to function in the future. Previously, we could develop the capabilities we chose because our budget was big enough to allow us to remain on the cutting edge. Now simply keeping up is a struggle. That’s why we need to ask, what are the submarines are giving us that couldn’t be provided more cheaply, or more effectively, by some other means?

It’s difficult to imagine a problem for which a small unit of Special Forces, inserted by submarine, is the answer. Or what intelligence can only be collected by a vessel standing offshore another country. And there probably won’t be much left to defend by the time an enemy invasion fleet’s steaming to land on our shores. The film Das Boot demonstrated how easily shore infrastructure can be knocked out. Vessels can’t operate without it.

So let’s return to where we began. Without words you still have an opera – without the music you have nothing. Nobody will ever bother attending a play where the actors simply shout, “Figaro, Figaro, Figaro” at one another. Meaning isn’t created by the words; it’s all about the music.

That’s why our strategy needs to be informed by much more than the technical prowess of hardware. Particularly at a time when capability is changing so fast and the sureties of yesterday are changing so rapidly. Currently there’s no sure way of finding a submarine underwater and the properties of this medium are likely to complicate discovery for years to come. But imagine if something (like the evolution of sonar in World War Two) were suddenly to become available that rendered subs obsolete. It’s an awful lot of money to have in one basket.


  1. Here here Sir Nic ! Australia should not have another Collins Class folly. It simply makes neither strategic or budget sense.

  2. You are, Sir Sentinel, not merely perspicacious but wise and erudite as well . . .

  3. Write more, thats all I have to say. Literally, it seems as though you
    relied on the video to make your point. You
    obviously know what youre talking about, why waste your intelligence
    on just posting videos to your blog when you could be giving us something
    enlightening to read?

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