JON STANFORD. A Response to Michael McKinley on Future Submarines

In a series of five pieces in Pearls and Irritations last week, Dr Michael McKinley cites the recent report by Submarines for Australia at some length. While I acknowledge some of Dr McKinley’s concerns about our approach, it is not clear to me what he is proposing in its place. But insofar as I understand his criticisms I will respond to them in three areas below.

  1. Value of ANZUS

Dr McKinley appears to doubt the value of the American alliance. To be sure, we may question whether or not we sometimes pay too a high a premium for the insurance policy provided by ANZUS and perhaps should seek to clarify the fine print. But the benefits to Australia in two critical areas are high.

First, we spend a lot less on defence that would be the case in the absence of ANZUS – currently about two per cent of GDP – whereas we may need to spend at least double that if the alliance could no longer be relied upon. As Paul Dibb has stated, “We now face the prospect—for the first time since the Second World War—of a potential major power adversary, with whom we do not share fundamental values, operating in our neighbourhood and capable of threatening us with high-intensity conflict”. While Dr McKinley appears to discount this potential threat, the report by Submarines for Australia most emphatically does not.

Secondly, given our relatively small population, Australia’s defence policy has always relied on the capacity to deploy technologically superior assets in the region. Australia has the ability to acquire advanced American defence technologies to an extent equal only to the UK and perhaps Israel. Without such access to advanced US military platforms and systems in an increasingly dangerous strategic environment, Australia could become more vulnerable to attack.

If Professor Hugh White is right, Australia may well have to learn to live without the security blanket offered by ANZUS. It is interesting that a former Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, wrote recently that Australia “cannot assume that our security will be perpetually, or unconditionally, underwritten by the United States”. While we clearly need to prepare for this eventuality, in our view it is not one we should regard with any particular relish.

  1. Operations in the South China Sea

Dr McKinley spends much time focussing on RAN submarines’ operations in the South China Sea. First of all, we do not agree with him, relying on a CONOPS report, that the Americans are on the point of abandoning covert operations there. The most recent statement of intent by the commander of the US Submarine Force stated that his submarines will:

  • “Conduct undetected operations such as strategic deterrent patrols, intelligence collection, Special Operations Forces support, non-provocative transits, and repositioning
  • Penetrate adversary defensive perimeters to deny safe haven, reduce defences, and exploit opportunities created by being inside their fence line.”

The US has established a complex and costly infrastructure to pursue this task, including satellites; maritime patrol aircraft; surface platforms with civilian crews as well as destroyers deploying towed array sonar systems and helicopters; and nuclear submarines, which are in increasingly short supply in the US Navy. The Australian contribution, recently formalised in a theatre anti-submarine warfare (ASW) protocol, is an important one, particularly at a time when American resources, which are stretched, will be focussed on locating the PLA Navy’s new ballistic missile submarines.

In accordance with contemporary naval doctrine, Australian submarines are optimised for ASW. With submarines still devilishly difficult to detect and (according to the experts) likely to remain so at least in the commons of the open ocean, the best place to undertake ASW operations is around an adversary’s base irrespective of the identity of the adversary. Even if you don’t agree with the strategy, this at least partly explains why RAN submarines operate far from home in the northern hemisphere.

Yet we strongly believe that the proposed French Attack class future submarine will not be fit for purpose in this role. First of all, it will suffer from unacceptably low productivity. Even with 12 submarines dedicated to operations up threat, because of a conventional submarine’s low speed and the very long transits, generally, only one submarine will be on station at any time. With a projected whole of life cost of $225 billion in out-turned dollars, this could be the world’s worst defence investment in terms of pay-off.

In addition, a substantial increase in the PLA’s ASW capability will make life difficult for all submarines in the future but more dangerous for conventional boats. Their need to snort from time to time makes them more liable to be detected, while their relatively low speed makes it much more difficult for them to escape if they are. In addition, the acoustic advantage long enjoyed by diesel-electric submarines is now less significant, as the noise signature of nuclear-powered boats has been greatly reduced.

  1. The choice of technology

Having found that conventionally powered submarines will not be fit for purpose in undertaking high-intensity operations in the South China Sea by the 2030s, the Submarines for Australia report argued that if the government wishes to continue to undertake these operations it would need to acquire nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs).

The two major advantages provided by nuclear power are that the submarines never need to ‘snort’ near the surface when detection becomes much more probable, and they have a sustainable speed perhaps triple that of a conventional boat. The latter is particularly important in terms of the operations undertaken by RAN submarines because it more than halves transit times and also gives the submarine a much greater chance of avoiding destruction if detected.

A major problem with the Attack class is that while it is unsuitable for covert operations in a high-intensity theatre, there is little else for which it would be fit for purpose either. An alternative ‘choke point’ strategy faces a number of challenges, among them whether the incursion of a hostile fleet to attack or even invade Australia is a likely scenario. The logistics alone make such an eventuality uncertain, while modern missiles and stealth bombers mean there are alternative ways to mount an attack on Australia.

But once again geography remains a major challenge – there are a lot of choke points in the archipelago and, apart from being mainly in Indonesian territorial waters, they are all a long way away. It is over 3,000 km from Fremantle to the Sunda Strait. SSNs would be far more effective in this role and would have the capability to pursue a hostile fleet at high speed, which a conventional submarine would not. There is also a range of other missions suitable for SSNs, both to our west, as Dr McKinley mentions, and beyond the archipelago to our north. But to procure, say, 24 conventional submarines at high cost and have them patrolling constantly around the archipelago with a role akin to waiting for Godot, seems to me to be an unattractive approach for a platform designed as an offensive weapon and one that would be unlikely to attract recruits.

Finally, Dr McKinley refers to autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs). Their potential benefits are high for a range of missions, including ASW, but a comprehensive doctrine has yet to be developed. At least at this stage, you wouldn’t launch one from Darwin and send it up to the PLA Navy base at Hainan Island. An AUV needs a mother submarine and that submarine would be much more effective in the role if it were nuclear powered. This would give it the speed to accommodate changes in the mission in real-time as well as the ability to move in and out of high-risk locations very quickly.

Jon Stanford was the lead author of the Submarines for Australia report, launched at the National Press Club by Professor Hugh White on 11 March 2020.

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In a former life, Jon Stanford was a Division Head in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. Currently, as a Director of Insight Economics, he is undertaking significant research on Australia’s future submarine project, generously supported by Gary Johnston, owner of the Submarines for Australia website.

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