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

Nov 29, 2017

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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