Jon Stanford. French submarines and the East and South China Seas. – why?

May 5, 2016

A response to Richard Broinowski. 

While the government might emphasise the roles for the new submarine that may be regarded as defensive – “intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance” – Richard Broinowski ignores perhaps the most important role, namely power projection in the East and South China Seas.

This role was perhaps most graphically illustrated the Rudd government’s 2009 White Paper, which first made the case for 12 powerful new submarines. Rather extraordinarily, that White Paper mooted the possibility of unilateral action by Australia against a ‘major adversary’:

“But we do assume that, except in the case of nuclear attack, Australia has to provide for its own local defence needs without relying on the combat forces of other countries. The Government considered such contingencies because although they are unlikely, they are not so remote as to be beyond contemplation. …In such circumstances, in order to defend ourselves we might also have to selectively project military power beyond the primary operational environment described in this White Paper, for instance in maritime Southeast Asia.” (Page 65)

Lest there be any doubt, the 2009 White Paper (Page 59) suggested that “we will use strategic strike if we have to”. (Page 59) It stated that:

“The Government places a priority on broadening our strategic strike options, which will occur through the acquisition of maritime-based land-attack cruise missiles. These missiles will be fitted to the AWD, Future Frigate and Future Submarine. …The incorporation of a land-attack cruise missile capability will be integral to the design and construction of the Future Frigate and Future Submarine.” (Pages 70 and 81.)

Although the 2016 White Paper dropped all references to strategic strike, this does not mean that the aspiration has been discarded. Certainly, the requirement for 12 powerful, long range submarines has not changed since 2009. This is not the first time that Australia’s defence strategy has required the acquisition of a unique military platform. In 1963, the Menzies government ordered a special version of the American F-111 aircraft with the range extended so as to allow it to reach Jakarta.

In any case, it seems clear that one of the reasons that Australia requires a unique conventional submarine is so that the RAN could undertake operations that most navies would leave to nuclear submarines, namely power projection against a ‘major adversary’ in contested waters far from home. For example, Rear Admiral Ray Griggs, former Chief of Navy (2011-14), defined the most significant operational task for the future submarine as “sinking hostile ships and submarines” and said that the area of most interest is the South China Sea. [1] Also, the new submarine will have the ability to launch either American or French cruise missiles through its torpedo tubes.

It is difficult to build a logical strategic case for the acquisition of twelve large submarines with a very long range unless this power projection role plays a central part. Yet, as Australian Strategic Policy Institute has pointed out, it is not clear that the Americans would welcome Australian submarines playing such a role in the case of a conflict in which we were part of a US-led coalition. We can only hope that any Australian aspirations to take on a ‘major adversary’ unilaterally have, like a former sabre-rattling American general, “simply faded away”.

[1] Peter Layton (2015), “Australia’s next submarine – will it be the Soryu”, Defence Today, Vol 11, No 4, page 8.

Share and Enjoy !


Receive articles straight to your Inbox

How often?

Thank you for subscribing!