Ian Richards. Australia’s new submarine.

Nov 13, 2015

Jon Stanford’s article ‘Australia’s new submarine: what is its mission?’ is spot on.

The trouble with Defence planning and White Papers is that they all start off with what in my early days in the Navy was called a “Staff Requirement”.  This thing, this equipment or ship is what we “require”.  The first chapter of a Defence White Paper should be “How much money have we got”!

The bureaucratic Canberra attitude to money is that it just “comes”.  A very competent technical Admiral once said to me in my days as Deputy Chief “Ian, are you saying we can’t do this just because of money?”

The 2009 White Paper is off in dreamland.  Structuring Australia’s forces with the objective of the South China Sea as one of our possible areas of major Australia alone defence interest is just nonsense.  For example:

  • Day One.   The “major adversary” is trembling in its shelters!  An Australian conventional submarine is threatening us in the South China Sea!!  And it has conventional cruise missiles!!!
  • Day Two.   Scratch one Australian submarine.
  • Day Three.  Scratch Perth/Fremantle.

Planners who suggest the ADF is unilaterally going to attack a nuclear-armed adversary in Asia are away with the fairies.

There are some simple facts.

  1. Australia has never and will never in current lifetimes operate significant military forces beyond the Australian area other than in concert with other (almost certainly more powerful) nations. Examples are WW2 to Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria.
  2. Australian forces in Syria and the Red Sea are providing the tip of the arrow as political support.  The shaft and the bow belong to others – without them, the arrow tips would be useless.

Turning to intelligence gathering, I also agree entirely.  If you want to listen to any type of radio transmission, put the receiver into a ship (war or merchant), shore station, embassy or satellite.  The worst place is in a submarine.  If you want a clear picture of something, don’t enlist a blind man and put him in a dark room.

The intelligence-gathering feature of submarines appeals to The Hunt for Red October fans.  It has a lovely emotional tang about it.  So what is the “Australian contribution to the Five Power intelligence club” if an Australian conventional powered submarine sitting off Shanghai/Vladivostok (which will have been detected by the Chinese/Russians) can tell the US that an SSK (conventional submarine) has left harbour?  The Americans will know that because they saw it on satellite.  Or perhaps our submarine will be operating in the Eastern approaches to Singapore Strait – the South China Sea choke point – where submerged submarines can be seen from the air and sonar ranges are extreme.

Ian Richards AO was formerly Deputy Chief, Naval Staff when he retired as Rear Admiral in 1984.



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