Jon Stanford’s three-part series on the Turnbull government’s determination to spend $50 billion on big new submarines is a welcome contribution to understanding what’s at stake at a time of cuts elsewhere. The decision risks repeating the Hawke government’s disastrous mistake of rejecting a proven design in favour of the bespoke Collins class subs. Stanford’s depiction of the folly of trying to keep the decrepit Collins going until newly designed subs are ready is compelling. Contrary to the 2016 White Paper’s claim, there is no way Australia will have superior subs when it will still operate some of the Collins until around 2040.
This extraordinarily expensive mess would have been avoided if the Rudd government had committed in 2013 to high quality, medium sized, off-the-shelf subs from Europe instead of indulging in fantasies in his 2009 White Paper about Australian subs “tearing a limb” off the Chinese giant. Rudd wanted big subs that could fire cruise missiles into China — the only problem is they would have to make the slow journey back to their Fremantle base to reload before having another insignificant go.
No government has given convincing reasons why Australia needs much bigger subs than are currently available off-the shelf. Instead, they simply rely on assertions that big subs are necessary to achieve the navy’s specified unrefueled range of 19,000 km, Yet they eagerly buy fighter planes with a much smaller range than others available. The latest medium-sized German subs bought by Israel and Singapore are the most advanced conventionally power subs in world. They can go the19,000 km as could versions of France’s medium sized subs.
But big does not guarantee a longer range. The existing Japanese Soryu subs that Tony Abbott wants displace 4200 tones submerged, but can only go 12,000 km. Australia’s Oberons (the Collins’ predecessors) had a 19,000 km range yet were only a little over half the Soryu’s size, as are Israel’s German subs. A newly designed Soryu will have to be much bigger and costlier to achieve this range.
A particularly disturbing aspect of the government’s specifications for the new subs is they don’t need to have independent propulsion – the technology that lets them operate ultra-quietly in a target zone. The French and German contenders have no trouble including AIP in much smaller subs than the existing Soryu and still going the required range if needed. The current Soryu has AIP. Excluding it from newly designed, bigger Soryus would save some weight but at a potentially dangerous cost.
AIP can’t be used for an entire trip to and from an operational area. This is one reason some analysts argue AIP’s importance is overstated, but all modern subs have it. One powerful advantage is it increases the survival chances of a sub and its crew in wartime. Relying in future on using new lithium ion batteries that have to be charged by diesel engines will not make a sub quieter than one using AIP at a crucial stage, even though these batteries won’t have to be used as often as lead acid ones. The comparison may be too strong, but no one would suggest removing ejector seats from fighter jets to reduce weight.
China is relatively weak militarily and well contained. The combined strength of its potential adversaries in waters near China will be enough to counter Chinese subs, especially when they are supported by an extensive array of seabed sensors in the South and East China seas. There is no strategic requirement for Australia to operate subs in either of those seas – even though medium-sized ones could do so. Nor is there any longer a reason for our subs to go on dangerous missions trying to gather relatively minor intelligence around China when closer countries have developed the capacity to do so. Moreover, subs have little role in gathering intelligence these days that overhead platforms don’t do more effectively.
Stanford makes a plausible case that nuclear powered subs would be a better buy if “big” is what is really required. “Nukes” have some advantages, but are not particularly stealthy – when travelling at high speed they create a wake on the surface that can be detected from above. Better sensors and much faster data processing speeds mean that bigger subs, regardless of how they are powered, are becoming easier to detect and destroy. The future for subs lies in smaller, not bigger, ones, particularly drones.
Subs have a useful “sea denial” role in deterring a potential adversary from entering waters countries want to protect. Australia would enhance deterrence for itself and its allies by operating low-cost, medium-sized subs to its immediate north and in the east Indian Ocean. In these circumstances, there is no need for nuclear subs, as the are ill-suited to operating in the shallow archipelagic waters to our north.
In any event, it is absurd to spend $50 billion on the proposed big new subs when more versatile, highly capable combat aircraft cost a lot less.
Brian Toohey is a columnist with the Australian Financial Review specialising in policy, politics and the economy.