John Menadue. Defence White Paper. US, China and Barracuda – class submarines.

Apr 26, 2016

Rather than acquiring military off-the-shelf (MOTS) submarines, the Australian government has committed us to the French submarine that will be built to Australian specifications. It will be a ‘unique’ build, non-nuclear and very expensive

The Defence Minister says that the Barracuda submarine will meet Australian Government ‘requirements for a submarine with considerable range and the capacity to remain undisturbed and undetected for extended periods’.

The government hopes that this submarine will be able to operate in the South China Sea without running unacceptable risks for the crews lives,

Notwithstanding that by the time these submarines are actually delivered these already ‘contested waters’ in the South China Sea will be much more dangerous for a conventional submarine..

In this way the government believes it will be helping the US resist China.

We are apparently going to do this as a US ally at a large additional cost whether or not the US needs or wants our support.

But is it in our interest to get involved militarily against China in the South China Sea?

Hugh White, in this blog on 9 March 2016, (Australia’s Defence White Paper and the China threat), says. 

‘The White paper promotes a vision of the “rules-based global order” as a seamless and indivisible whole that must be either preserved unaltered or surrendered in its entirety and it sends a clear message that Australia should be willing to join a war against China to preserve it unaltered. This is plainly wrong. … So what are the implications of the White Paper’s view of regional order for the Defence policy it presents? The blithe assumption at the White Paper’s heart is that we can preserve the current rules-based order without serious military confrontation, because China will back down in the face of our threats. … This may prove a big mistake. Over the next few decades Australia will face a new order in Asia in which the US will play a lesser role and may even play no substantial strategic role at all.’ (Hugh White is Professor of Strategic Studies and the Strategic Studies Centre at the ANU and formerly Deputy Secretary, Department of Defence) 

On the clash between China and the US in the Pacific, Geoff Miller in this blog on 31 March 2016 said:

We don’t know how the clash between these two great powers will be resolved. But I believe we can conclude that it is not a matter for or against freedom of trade, but rather a struggle for position between a superpower and its regional challenger, taking place near the challenger’s homeland. It’s not in our interest to become involved in such a clash, particularly militarily, and particularly when our relations with both contenders are both very good and very important.’ (Geoff Miller was formerly Australian Ambassador to Japan and Korea and Director-General of the Office of National Assessments.)

In this blog of 18 April 2016, Richard Woolcott said:

‘Western “rules” of world order are no longer accepted by the major countries as the basis of world order. … There is a danger that adversarial attitudes towards China based on mainly Japanese policies could become a self-fulfilling policy. The present debate on China seems mainly to assume that Australia has no choice but to support American primacy in Asia against what is perceived as a rising Chinese hegemony. This is a simplistic approach which has been challenged by Hawke, Keating, the late Malcolm Fraser and most of our former ambassadors to China as well as a number of academics.’ (Richard Woolcott was Australian Ambassador to Indonesia and the Philippines and Australian High Commissioner to Malaysia, Ghana and Singapore. He was Australian Ambassador to the UN and President of the UN Security Council. He was Secretary of DFAT from 1988 to 1992.)

It is clearly an assumption of the Defence White Paper that we need a ‘unique’ naval capability that can operate in ‘contested waters’ in the South China Sea and close to China. I don’t think there is much doubt that that is a mistaken and risky strategy as Hugh White, Geoff Miller and Richard Woolcott outline.

The Defence White Paper and Government also assume that the US would like our naval cooperation in the South China Sea. But that is far from clear.

In September 2014, a conference was organised by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI). entitled ‘Strategy -The Submarine Choice.’ The ASPI describes itself as ’an independent, non-partisan think tank that produces expert and timely advice for Australian strategic and defence leaders’. At that conference Benjamin Schreer a Senior Adviser for Defence Strategy at ASPI raised serious doubts about whether the Americans wanted us involved in the South China Sea. He said

‘Operationally, it is hard to see Australian submarines contributing to any critical Coalition objectives in the South China and East China seas. The underlying assumption for such a function is that the US would want Australian submarines to operate in this space, but it’s questionable that the US has ever had enough confidence in Australian submarines performing such high-risk operations. And it’s even more difficult to see any future utility in having Australian submarines hiding off Hainan to threaten Chinese vessels as they leave port or hunting down PLAN submarines in open water. Given the enormous stakes in a future crisis involving the US and China, it’d be prudent to assume that the US would want to preserve this critical role for its own undersea force in order to maintain a single line of command and control, especially escalation control. In other words, the US would be likely to regard Australian submarines as an operational liability, particularly since their small numbers would mean that they wouldn’t make a significant difference to the outcome of the conflict.’ (See link to this Conference and Schreer’s piece on pages 45-48. .Benjamin Schreer is presently Head of the Department of Security Studies and Criminology at Macquarie University.)

This assessment by Schreer is consistent with the advice I have received that the US will not cooperate in Australia acquiring nuclear powered submarines.

In their article in this blog on 16 April 2016 ‘A more efficient submarine solution’ Jon Stanford and Mike Keating said

If the government is determined to operate submarines in the South China Sea in support of the Americans, we should make it clear that Australia’s participation is contingent on the US allowing Australia to acquire nuclear submarines. On the other hand, if Australia cannot or will not acquire nuclear submarines, then it should abandon the ambition of projecting offensive power against a major adversary in far off contested waters. As ASPI has pointed out, there is no evidence that the US expects the ADF to undertake this role, which in reality is a great power role. Abandoning this force projection mission makes the capability requirement much more straightforward. Other roles include sea denial in the approaches to Australia, together with intelligence gathering and surveillance in our region. Indeed a smaller SSK (conventional submarine) readily available off the shelf is better suited than a large boat for these tasks.’ See link 

The Defence White Paper and a future role for Australian submarines seem based on two very dubious assumptions.

The first is that we should if necessary involve ourselves militarily in the contest between China and the US in the seas adjacent to China.

The second is that the US needs or wants us to operate submarines alongside it in the South China Sea.

We are likely to foolishly waste a lot of money on ‘unique’ submarines whose capacity to operate successfully in the South China Sea twelve years or more from now is also very questionable.

Footnote:   The media release on the submarines says that the decision is subject to commercial terms being agreed later. This is ominous. I would have thought the commercial terms were key matters that should be resolved up front. We have had too many examples of escalating defence costs.

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