Jon Stanford’s papers on the submarine project make an important contribution and deserve widespread circulation particularly among our decision makers. The replacement submarine decision has profound implications for all Australians. Its intention is to provide a deterrent to “potential adversaries”, but also to offer to the young members of our defence force weapons at least comparable with those they might face in opposition. To achieve this it is proposed we spend more on this project than we have ever spent before on military equipment.
The Stanford papers make a fair case that the present proposal will result in failure on all counts except the last one, expenditure. Exceeding predicted expenditure on military weapons appears to be one of our specialities. The project did not start well when a previous government arbitrarily determined that the nuclear option would not even be considered and the present government followed this view. Here was an example of bipartisan politics, but was it for better or worse? We will never know because the public who has to live with and pay for the decision has never heard the arguments put.
The section on time line in Paper 2 should itself have excluded any thought of building the submarines in Australia. In the best case scenario, if the first is built in 2020 and the next 11 follow at yearly intervals and they are projected to last 30 years, the last will not phase out until 2061 and, in the worst case scenario, 2065. The world will be a much different place by 2065 and we will have long since discarded diesel submarines at enormous write down cost. All this for party politics and short term jobs in South Australia now. It would shorten the time line considerably to rent recent diesel submarines or better still nuclear submarines. Don’t laugh at the rental option. India has been renting nuclear submarines from Russia for some time now, as a prelude to building them itself. Maybe the US would rent us, for a few years, nuclear submarines surplus from the cold war, until we could reassess the world political situation. There is historical precedent. Historically our navy frequently used second hand Royal Navy vessels.
My sympathy goes to the Government officials who are obliged to support the Government decision whatever it is. This can mean finding weasel words to justify the unbelievable. The Defence White Paper states that: “maintaining Australia’s technological edge and capability superiority over potential adversaries is an essential element of our strategic planning.” The claim is that because the diesel submarine is presently quieter than a nuclear submarine then it has, “capability superiority” in the region of the shallow waters of the south China Sea. Technological edge embraces more than avoiding detection. What about getting home safely? If or when our diesel submarine is detected off the China coast, the chances are that the crew will end up in a Chinese jail or worse. This is because upon detection it cannot move because, as Jon Stanford points out, it is too slow to escape and eventually it must come up for air. The parents of the crew members are not likely to thank our politicians when they discover the real risk to the crews and the irony is that the choice was not to save money, but to serve an ideology which cannot be supported by fact.
The best solution would be to place a hold on this project for a year while all the options are re-examined in an impartial way . Are our submarines there to back diplomacy and if so how serious a threat would diesel submarines offer? If they are to defend our shoreline, how is that defence impacted by the slow transit speed and the high rate of “indiscretion” of the diesel submarine? To those who will argue we must have a home grown product for independence, how much independence do we have now with much of the sophisticated technology of our present submarines, such as the critical command systems, borrowed from the US nuclear submarines?
Let’s turn our backs on those who want to rush in, the present politico- military situation in our region does not demand it.
Tony Wood, nuclear engineer 30 years experience on reactor operation and safety for Aust Atomic Energy Comm and ANSTO and some time on Molten Salt Thorium Reactor in US.