HANS J. OHFF. Nukes, the strategic advantage or otherwise.

In a reply to Paul Dibb’s and Richard Brabin-Smith’s piece ‘Australia’s management of strategic risk in the new era’, Hugh White observes :  ‘…so much of the investments we’re now committing to in massive warship programs make no sense. [The] ADF that could defend Australia independently from China would be very different from the ADF today, and the country and economy that could sustain such a force on protracted operations would be very different too.’  Australia’s learned defence planners and strategist know that the corollary of a decline in US global supremacy is the continuing rapid rise of China and a more adventurist Russia. The Trump Administration’s demand for an increase in US nuclear strike capability will not reverse this trend. 

For the US to reply to Bejing’s and Moscow’s hegemonic ambitions, or Pyongyang’s aggressive rhetoric, with tactical and strategic nuclear weapons would be catastrophic. An attempt to contain or obliterate another superpower and its satellites with nuclear arms would destroy Mother Earth as we know her.

Australia cannot maintain economic growth and prosperity without China. There is a slight chance this may prove to be a Faustian pact. But, provided that we are honest and transparent with our powerful neighbours, the China relationship will remain a blessing. The time of senseless wars has hopefully past. Détente and global interdependence, not a re-emerging Cold War, or worse still military conflict, will underpin Australia’s good fortune into the future.

Australia is a middle power endowed with enormous natural resources. Our government and defence force must protect our continent against rogue-state aggression. It can only defend against a bellicose China through close economic ties, mutual cultural understanding and, most importantly, measured, consistent and ongoing diplomatic engagement. The ghost of Neville Chamberlain (1938 Munich Agreement) should not frighten Australia. Australia should, however, contemplate armadas of nuclear powered and armed submarines with trepidation.

The value to the RAN of extremely quiet, long-range submarines with extended underwater endurance has been understood since the rebirth of the Australian Submarine Service in 1963. To watch and listen to the PLA-Navy’s manoeuvres is good and prudent strategy. To do so effectively would best be achieved in conjunction with the JMSDF. With the assistance of Japan – alternatively Sweden, France or Germany – Australia can design and build successfully a future submarine class at an affordable cost and in an acceptable time frame.  Canberra’s requirement for 12 blue-water diesel-electric submarines that are referenced from the unproven French BARRACUDA nuclear attack submarine blueprints should be reassessed. Apart from the diminishing effectiveness of a very large (>5000 tons displacement) conventional-powered submarine, the RAN is struggling to crew six COLLINS-class boats. It will be more than problematic for the Australian Navy to find, train and retain the more than 1000 submariners required for a squadron of 12 boats.

The development of the future submarine class as demanded by Australia’s defence planners and as proposed by DCNS – now NAVAL Group – will not realise the RAN dream of a diesel-electric attack submarine (SSK) with superior regional underwater capability, and it will not give Australia an edge in surveillance and ASW capabilities. A nuclear-powered attack submarine (SSN) force envisaged by an ever-increasing number of Australian defence analysts and armchair experts will set the country on a collision course with the ‎PLA-Navy without providing Australia a military advantage in self-defence. The acquisition by Australia of nuclear-powered attack submarines would be an expensive folly in financial, strategic, military and political terms. Hopefully, modern Australia is too smart to allow Canberra to invest in a squadron of SSNs, followed perhaps by a nuclear-armed Ballistic Missile Submarine class.

Apart from deploying ultra-quiet long-range diesel-electric submarines, Australia’s defence planners would be well advised to redirect a portion of the submarine funding to the development of large (60 to 100 tons displacement) unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs). The efficacy of the United States Submarine Force in the West Pacific does not depend on a nascent Australian nuclear- powered submarine capability. However, a US-Australia-Japan trilateral defence relationship would be strengthened with the availability and deployment of highly advanced naval UUVs.

In his book The China Choice: why we should share power, Hugh White also argues that ‘ultimately the US must accept China as an equal partner – and share power with her in Asia’.  That proposition would be the best, most secure and most prudent outcome for Australia and the region at large.

Hans J Ohff is former CEO of the Australian Submarine Corp. and Research Fellow at the University of Adelaide

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3 Responses to HANS J. OHFF. Nukes, the strategic advantage or otherwise.

  1. Andrew Glikson says:

    The statement “a decline in US global supremacy is the continuing rapid rise of China and a more adventurist Russia” makes little sense in a world where each of these powers can obliterate most of the world using nuclear weapons.
    “The splitting of the atom has changed everything save man’s way of thinking, and so we drift into unparalleled catastrophes” (Albert Einstein)

  2. Christopher Skinner says:

    G’day Dr Ohff, you have invoked several very big issues in this short but pithy post, and I am obliged to provide a rebuttal, at least in part.

    Nuclear weapons may be apocalyptic but they are here and there is no sign of any serious progress to disarm those countries with such weapons, and even talk of other countries acquiring them, for example in north Asia.

    With regard to Australia’s acquisition of submarines, you would know better than most that any change in plan now would delay the program no matter what acquisition strategy was adopted. We must proceed flat out as there is already some doubt as to maintaining the force structure through extending the Collins class.

    Thirdly your proposal to switch from manned submarines to unmanned underwater vehicles [UUV], even large and/or long range UUVs, disregards the advice of submarine operations experts that full replacement is not feasible due to the lack of continuous command, control and communications with any submarine vehicle. A UUV to be useful must be both trusted and autonomous {so-called trusted autonomous systems [TAS]) and to design a trusted, autonomous UUV to fulfil all the possible roles and responses of a manned submarine is still beyond the wit of man.

    Finally I draw your attention to the article ‘The artificial arms race: China seeks AI military edge’ in the Australian Financial Review of 29th November, which says, inter alia: ‘The PLA anticipates that the advent of AI could fundamentally change the nature of warfare.’ The article describes how China is rapidly catching the USA in Artificial Intelligence capability, but there is still much further Research and Development to be undertaken. Australia cannot afford to mark time while that effort proceeds, and must continue to build capabilities for what can be predicted and then to adapt these programs as the future unfolds.

    • Hans J Ohff says:

      Chris, yes, the application of nuclear weapons is apocalyptic, nuclear power and nuclear medicine is not. But we cannot accept for Australia to be pulverised – cooked – in a nuclear war. Will six or 12 nuclear-powered submarines prevent the inevitable? And will 12 very large diesel-electric subs enhance Australia’s security. I suggest not. We would want to see our powerful neighbours on our side of the balance sheet without losing the good-will and therefore support of our traditional allies – particularly the US. Australia should support the USN with meaningful capabilities, not ‘with my submarine is big also and it is much more expensive than yours.

      I’m not relying on my limited assessment of the three CEP SEA 1000 contenders’ proposals when criticising the decision of the govt to select a new submarine class for the RAN that is based in part on a BARRACUDA SSN blue-print. I have sought opinions/advice from naval architects, submarine engineers, and submarine COs (retired and serving): A 5000t diesel-electric submarine will be less effective than a smaller diesel-electric submarine!

      Yes! I do believe that we should abandon the current program and start afresh. Afresh with a program that will generate quicker results cheaper and, most importantly, provide the RAN with greater – smarter – all-round capabilities.

      I have sought advice on a pump-jet v. submarine propeller. Under optimal conditions, i.e., an accurately manufactured and always clean submarine propeller will be quieter and more efficient – less energy consuming – in a range of 0.1 to 16 knots compared to a ‘perfect’ pump-jet. The ‘revolutionary French propulsion’system will – I believe – not change this equation. The SEA 1000 directorate disagrees with this assessment. I dare argue that the experts in NAVAL Group will side with the propeller proponents for diesel-electric subs. But the French will – understandably – adhere to their client’s wishes. And charge accordingly.
      (It reminds me a bit of the COA insistence to install three Hedemoras Diesels rather than four MTUs ‎on the Collins class).

      I’ve also looked into the induction and discharge mast issues. The CO’s major concerns of detection during snorting will increase with the increased size of the sub, not to mention that it will be more ‘visible’ in all spectra of deployment.

      As to UUVs, they will form an ever-increasing part in underwater defence ‎capabilities. I’ve not argued for the replacement of crewed subs. Not yet anyway.
      H

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