Australian submarine madness and the phoney China threat

Nov 4, 2022
Kanagawa, Japan - May 03, 2022:Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force JS Taigei (SS-513), Taigei-class submarine.

Nobody knows what military threats to Australia from China or anyone else will exist in 2050. In these circumstances, it is folly to commit to spending over $200 billion on acquiring eight US designed nuclear attack submarines to deploy in support of the US on the China coast.

This is particularly extravagant when modern conventionally powered submarines are much cheaper and far harder to detect. Nuclear submarines are noisy because they rely on a reactor to power a steam engine with cooling pumps, turbines, reduction gears and steam in the pipes. They also expel hot water that can be detected, as can the wake on the surface when travelling at high speeds.

Modern battery powered submarines, which Australia perversely has no plans to get, maintain near silent operation with what’s called air independent propulsion (AIP) supplied by a hydrogen fuel cell in Singapore’s German submarines, a Sterling engine favoured by the Swedes or in the case of the latest Japanese submarines, by advanced batteries with long endurance.

These submarines have the great advantage of making the crew far safer than noisy nuclear ones while leaving funds over for much needed improvements in Australian’s health, education, and social security systems as well as for tackling climate change.

Yet the Albanese government has a 350 strong task force in Defence planning the big changes needed to build nuclear powered submarines in Adelaide. In contrast, a prize-winning essay published in the US Naval Institute’s magazine Proceedings in June 2018 said the US Navy would do well to consider acquiring “some quiet, inexpensive and highly capable diesel-electric submarines. It said, “The ability of AIP was demonstrated in 2005, when HMS Gotland, a Swedish AIP submarine, ‘sank’ many U.S nuclear fast-attack subs, destroyers, frigates, cruisers, and even the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier in joint exercises”. However, the Australian Navy somehow sees a great advantage in getting US nuclear attack subs such as the Virginia Class that were sunk in the exercise.

One of the US’s most highly regarded defence analysts, Winslow Wheeler, recently pointed out that these subs have been available only 15 times in 33 years for their six-monthly deployments. This suggests fewer than two of Australia’s eight nuclear submarines would be operationally available, on average, each year. According to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, the cost of eight would be $171 billion after inflation. More recent estimates are over $200 billion.

Australia could build ten of the latest German submarines operated by Singapore for about $10 billion. They also have an outstanding maintenance record, as well as being well suited to the shallow waters in Australia’s region. A similar figure could apply to the latest Swedish ones, but they may not be so readily available. Japan’s new Taigei class would cost roughly the same to buy, but more to operate its bigger crew. The Japanese government would be reluctant to build it in other than in its own shipyards.

These figures suggest that the job of defending Australia could be performed for a reasonable cost, particularly if greater use were made of modern, low-cost, drones. The trend for low-cost drones to become more useful is only likely to grow by 2050 when Australia might be getting its first operational nuclear submarine.

At some stage, a reality check needs to apply to the barrage of claims about increased Chinese aggression or the China threat. The last major war involving China was in Korea in 1950. China argues its rapid arms build-up reflects how it’s surrounded by potential enemies, including the US, which has been in many more aggressive wars and spends much more on its military.

The Pentagon 2021 annual report to Congress on China acknowledged it had withdrawn six land claims to settle border disputes with neighbours. Contrary to the common assumption that it is ready to invade Taiwan, the Pentagon said “There is no indication it is significantly expanding its force of tank landing ships and landing craft – suggesting a traditional large-scale direct beach assault operation requiring extensive lift remains aspirational”.

China could settle some of the extreme territorial sea claims that were originally made by the Communist Party’s political opponent, the Nationalist Party, before 1949. Taiwan also makes these claims. Although abrasive, nobody has been killed. By 2050 the US, with Australia tagging along, may have extended its well-established history of killing people by engaging in international aggression in violation of the rules. Alternatively, in 2050 China could engage in its first major war since 1950 by attempting to invade Australia, except no one no one has suggested any plausible motive.

Although Australian nuclear submarines will not be available, many Australian pundits see a need to go to Taiwan’s aid if secret intelligence analysis says China is about to attack it. Following the illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003 based on concocted intelligence, the Challis chair of international law at Sydney University, Ben Saul, said it’s important to ask if a war over Taiwan would be legal. He wrote in the Lowy Institute’s The Interpreter, “The conventional legal answer favours China. Only a state has the right to use military force in self-defence against an armed attack by another state – and to ask other states to help it to defend itself.”

The Australian Foreign Affairs department says Taiwan is not a state. Saul adds, “In a world with a plurality of different political systems, states are not permitted to use force simply to protect democracy or ‘freedom’ abroad. The US backed Taiwan even when it was a military dictatorship until the 1990s; its defence has never really been about freedom.”

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