In 50 years, Australia has never bought the best submarine for its needs

Oct 5, 2021
Australian Collins-class submarine HMAS Rankin
Image: US National Archives

As always, when it comes to submarines, the latest Australian deal has more to do with the Morrison government’s election strategy than national security.

Submarine politics were as much an Australian domestic political issue 50 years ago as now.

Much more a domestic one, then as now, than ever they were in some sort of strategic scale of international line-up. In 1987, the Collins-class submarines were soon to come in line to replace the Oberons, but, surprise, surprise, the acquisition had been badly mismanaged, and costs had blown out because getting the best submarine for Australia’s defence was subservient to the need to get jobs for South Australia, with the tempo of the program also a function of Australian domestic industry policy.

No one was very pure. A view that a Kim Beazley, minister for defence, developed for a time — that we should increase the order — was based more on his view about the electoral bang for the government’s buck than strategy.

Australia has never, in 50 years anyway, bought the best sub for our needs.

Whether under Labor or Liberal, purchases have been influenced by demand for local offsets — always virtually certain to add at least 50 per cent to the price, and to make the product at least 20 per cent louder, slower and less efficient than if it had been constructed by the tenderer at its own shipyards.

Politics has delayed purchase decisions, while allowing those who ultimately do make a decision, however bad, to claim that delay by the other side of politics left Australians exposed. That has never been true so far.

The business of deciding what is actually wanted has been confounded by state politics and their economies.

Tony Abbott’s instinct to buy Japanese subs owed more to his desire to do a cosy deal with Japan than getting a bargain.

Malcolm Turnbull was not pure, or putting his primary focus on the national security interest, when he went for a French bid. He has his point about Australia damaging its reputation as a good customer, and he may be right in thinking that whatever we get, the latest deal is not the best. But his deal was a bad one, and was already falling apart.

Defence acquisitions have long been made worse by the use of lobbyists, and the provision of good-old-boy jobs to former defence personnel to keep up contacts, by blow-outs on time and budget, and by the high expense of changing technology, including in integration with the systems of allies.

We need subs of range able to sink ships and block communications, most likely in the South China Sea. American submarines did more to win the war against Japan operating here in the 1940s, than all of the surface or land warfare of the time.

During long periods of peace, however, subs are mainly deployed lying close to the Chinese coast — a long way from Australia — and sucking up their communications. It is that additional role — as a team player, if not a very important one — in American great power activities that has so seriously increased the cost and size of whatever submarines, if any, we acquire, and raised the prospect of their being nuclear, so that they can stay indefinitely under the water, not very deep.

Britain and the US are not pre-occupied with our subs being nuclear, so much as our subs fitting seamlessly into an international deterrence operation. Such operations may ultimately prevent a war; but if there is to be one, it will not involve Australian subs adding much to the line of battle, nor bringing much to the party.

Our capacity, and our sovereign choices in using our subs for some regional purpose, would be compromised both as to operations and command.

The US retired quite a few of its nuclear submarines soon after the Cold War ended in 1989. Some of these were informally on offer to Australia, rather than rusting at Newport News (or Hampton Roads) in Virginia.

The idea was attractive to some advisers, if not the navy, which had not, in any event, been impressed after renting a few retired surface ships. It was also clear that Australia would have to contract in the staff, as well as the components, of the engine room.

None of these would ever be allowed to act contrary to the interests of the United States, as, as likely as not, the business of ensuring that this could not happen would mean that Americans could at any time take charge of or disable the sub. We do not know — and cannot take from the Australian politicians involved in the latest deals — that is not implicit in the latest deal.

But the sensible Australian will probably not overstrain herself pondering the higher economics of nuclear versus diesel-electric, range, payloads, or operational capabilities.

She should be paying attention instead to the need of the Morrison government for an issue with which it could win an election.

That is not the security of knowing that there will be a moment — in say 2065 — when China would not attack us because it would know that for a few years, some of its ship might be blown out of the water.

The issue is not security. It is fear. Fear of the other. The fear of the refugee, the other, the potential invader, the foreign ideology or religion, the people who might want to unsettle us.

When we are scared, we run closer to Mother Scott.

He cannot rely on the thanks of a grateful electorate for saving lives, and jobs, through the pandemic. It is not about a grand alliance — let alone with the major Asian (white and English speaking) imperial powers of the 19th century — to prevent China straining the leash.

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