Way back in the 1980s, then Defence Minister Kim Beasley gave birth to the greatest industrial White Elephant in the history of our nation – the establishment of the submarine construction facility in Adelaide,South Australia. So much has been written and said about the Collins Class submarine construction project that I do not need to elaborate upon it. Suffice it to say that it was succinctly described in the media as a “disaster”. It would be hard to find many who would disagree.
Politicians of both persuasions have since that time prostituted their principles in pursuit of their holy grail – VOTES. In this case, votes in South Australia. . The beauty of these kinds of long-term projects from a Minister’s perspective is that while they get the kudos from announcing the project and cutting a ribbon, they will be safely drawing their superannuation when the full horror of a disastrous acquisition begins to unfold.
As a result we are now embarked upon the second saga in this sorry tale. We are building three orphan Destroyers unique to Australia. As an alternative, we could have purchased three US built ARLEIGH BURKE class destroyers – considerably more capable ships – plus a hundred fully equipped regional hospitals for the same total project cost. The media reports that the first ship is way over budget and three years late. This augurs badly for the future of these ships – if construction delays resulted from unmanageable complexity – and why else?? – the lifetime logistic support will be a nightmare. . As Australian orphans we will have to provide a costly inventory of lifetime spares – rather than tap into the US stockpile if we had purchased the ARLEIGH BURKEs. The initial and annual costs of the Destroyer dedicated bureaucrats in the Defence Materiel Organisation will amount to a staggering figure.
A passing comment by an industry rep at a Sydney Trade Fair some years back perhaps says it all – “The propeller shafts were designed in Finland, manufactured in Holland and will be powered by what is known in the trade as ‘the bastard Caterpillar’, a US Caterpillar diesel modified by the Spaniards”. I cannot vouch for his accuracy, but I suspect the principle in his comment is correct. The first of class is already effectively three years old – the second and third will be five? six? years out of date on commissioning. Ten years after commissioning, how many of the companies providing installed equipment will still be manufacturing suitable spares?
The Government is now faced with a decision on the procurement of new submarines. For a moment, leave aside manufacturing or employment considerations and look only at the requirements for the defence of Australia.
A fundamental consideration must be – “Conventionally armed conventionally powered submarines have made no significant contribution to strategic imperatives or military operations in the past 70 years”.
At a Naval seminar some two or three years ago the Chief of Navy laid emphasis on the transition of the Navy to an amphibious capability greatly enhanced by the new CANBERRA class helicopter carriers. An overbalance of submarine capability does not fit into this theme.
Submarines are a major all-out- war weapon against a major foe. When our projected new submarines are torpedoing Indonesian, Chinese, Indian,Russian merchant ships and warships or our very expensive very advanced projected new submarines are firing missiles into Shanghai, or Djakarta or Delhi or Vladivostok our new submarines could be usefully employed. Short of such a scenario, our new submarines will be of little consequence.
That said, a case can be made for a small number of modest capability submarines in a balanced Australian Defence Force. A force of 12 submarines for Australia as proposed by the previous Government is nothing short of absurd.
Looking now at the manufacturing and employment considerations, surely we have demonstrated with the Collins Class and now the Air Warfare Destroyers that it is not possible for a small nation with limited requirements and limited high tech industrial infrastructure to build very advanced warships or submarines in tiny numbers other than at prohibitive cost and with production delays and lifetime logistic problems. Argentina, a country not too dissimilar to Australia, demonstrated abundantly in their disastrous submarine building programme why not to go there. “Building submarines” is of course a misnomer – we are not “building” submarines, but building a metal box . At least 95% of the contents will be made overseas – all the weapons and most of the systems and sub-systems will be foreign made. Bought in penny packets, the cost of “making” a motor car in this fashion would be huge – for a submarine, even more so. It is almost certainly less costly to buy a submarine complete off the shelf than to buy all the components to assemble it in Australia. The Australian “building” thus adds no value but huge cost to the equation.
If we were determined to build high tech high risk submarines in Australia, surely we would have chosen one of our industrially developed areas rather than a charming rural backwater that has a demonstrated incapacity to build merchant ships or even motor cars competitively.
There are so many arguments against this project. But the White Elephant is trumpeting to be fed, spurred on by its clamourous mahout, the South Australian Parliament.
The submarine Project is a serious menace to the wellbeing of Australia’s future taxpayers. It is for the Government to show its wisdom in deciding whether or not to continue with a project that will extract $20,000,000,000 or $30,000,000,000 from them with little improvement in the Nation’s defence. There are many other projects that would be more valuable, create more employment and justify such expenditure.
Ian Richards, AO, retired as Rear Admiral, Royal Australian Navy, in 1984. He variously commanded HMAS Perth, Stuart and Third Destroyer Squadron. He was Director of Naval Plans and Chief of Joint Operations, Defence. He was Deputy Chief, Naval Staff, when he retired as Rear Admiral.