JON STANFORD and JOHN MENADUE. The submarine confusion continues. Is the way being prepared for Australia to acquire nuclear submarines?

Aug 2, 2016


In an interesting development relating to Australia’s new submarine acquisition, Peter Jennings, Executive Director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), has written a piece in The Australian (7 June 2016) that is clearly at odds with the Institute’s previous public stance. Jennings says that while conventional power for Australia’s submarines has previously been an article of faith, “the capabilities required for our future submarine would in many ways be better performed by nuclear-powered boats”.

This may not be news to readers of Pearls and Irritations. In a series of articles earlier this year, before the decision on Australia’s submarine acquisition was made, Jon Stanford argued that the capabilities required for the future submarine, as set out in the White Paper, could only be performed efficiently and effectively (and much more safely) by a nuclear submarine. If Australia was not prepared to do the substantial work required to procure nuclear submarines, he argued, then we should significantly reduce our strategic ambitions for the submarine’s future role. Articles in Fairfax Media, by Jon Stanford and Mike Keating, also articulated this proposition. Jon Stanford and Michael Keating. A more efficient submarine solution.

Given the lack of depth in this area in Australia’s media, it would have been useful had ASPI provided some comment on this view. It is important to note that no players came out and challenged our proposition – not the Navy, not the Defence establishment and not ASPI. But nobody publicly supported it either.

Further, while not challenging us directly, ASPI’s Peter Jennings did provide strong support for the government’s choice of submarine at that time. In an article in The Australian after the decision had been announced, Jennings said:

“The truth about the submarine program is that a careful evaluation process conducted by experienced submariners led to a sensible outcome based on delivering what the navy actually needs. How boring is that?

Contrast that with much of the hysterical commentary following the announcement: the wrong boat was picked; we should have ‘gone nuclear’…”[1]

Although enjoying significant funding from Defence and defence industry, ASPI claims to be an independent think tank. Yet if it were truly independent and holds the views now expressed by Peter Jennings, then surely it should have been publicly challenging the parameters around the government’s choice of submarine throughout the process. It is not credible to suggest that a specialist agency like ASPI has only just realised that there was always a major disconnect between the capabilities required by Defence for the new submarine and the choice of conventional propulsion. So, in the course of the debate, why did ASPI so tenaciously keep its head below the parapet?

The second question is why ASPI has now changed its view. Providing that the tender process was fair dinkum, the decision to buy a French submarine for $50 billion as against a German boat for $20 billion always seemed peculiar. After all, not only was the TKMS bid much cheaper but the Germans (who have sold more conventional subs round the world than anybody else) had also promised to build the submarines in Adelaide for the same price as a German build and to introduce valuable digital technologies to Australian manufacturing. Yet the reason Defence gave for rejecting the TKMS bid was that they were worried about the German design producing excessive noise on a particular acoustic frequency that was important for intelligence gathering. TKMS could be forgiven for regarding this as questionable. First of all, Defence could have alerted them to the problem during the bidding process and given them the opportunity to fix it. Secondly, since the French submarine has not even been designed yet, how can Defence be confident it is superior in this and other respects?

What the French do offer and the Germans and Japanese do not, however, is access to highly sophisticated nuclear submarine technology. In this context, we note that the conventional Shortfin Barracuda submarine has not even been designed yet. If Australia were to acquire a nuclear submarine, the French Barracuda class would be a better fit for the RAN than either the much larger US Virginia class or UK Astute class, neither of which we may be able to acquire anyway because they embody sensitive US technology restricted by Congress. On the other hand, and noting how French government representatives are now spruiking a strategic relationship with Australia in the Asia Pacific, the partnership with France for the future submarine does provide the benefits of keeping Australia’s options open to acquire a nuclear boat.

If this interpretation is correct, without a nuclear industry Australia will need to begin very soon to create the infrastructure required to operate nuclear submarines in the late 2020s. First, however, this new policy direction will need to be communicated to the Australian community over the next few years. What better starter for the debate than a thought piece from ASPI during a caretaker period of government?

[1] Peter Jennings, “Vive Australia’s choice of a French submarine”, The Australian, 30 April 2016.


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