Mark Beeson. Australia still hasn’t had the debate on why we even need new submarines.

Apr 19, 2016

Australia is about to make its biggest-ever investment in military hardware. Although we don’t know yet whether Germany, France or Japan will be awarded the contract to build our 12 new submarines, it is possible to make a few confident predictions.

What to expect

First, the actual cost of the submarines when completed will be much higher than the figure that is proposed now.

If cost were the only consideration, it would actually make more sense to let the successful bidder build them in their own country. But the construction is now seen as a de-facto industry policy for South Australia, a politically important state that has haemorrhaged manufacturing jobs of late.

There are good arguments for maintaining a manufacturing capacity in Australia – even on national security grounds. But given the cost blowouts in the construction and maintenance of the troubled Collins-class submarines, it’s not unreasonable to ask whether building submarines is really our collective strong suit.

Second, it’s a pretty safe bet that Japan will awarded the contract to build the submarines. This has nothing to do with the debates about the boats’ technical capacities, however. The principal reason Japan is likely to get the contract is that it will consolidate the relationship between America’s regional alliance partners and the collective effort to discourage Chinese aggression.

There may be much to be said for such efforts. Plainly, China has become more aggressive in its pursuit of highly implausible-looking territorial claims in the South China Sea. This is something Australians might collectively feel alarmed about.

But if Australia is trying to influence China’s behaviour, a sternly worded diplomatic note is likely to have as much effect and would be rather cheaper, too. The reality is that Australia can do very little to influence the outcome of the growing tensions in the South China Sea, with or without the new submarines.

The third point to make about the submarines is that they will almost certainly never be used in anger.

It is worth asking what the world would look like if we were ever in a situation where we did have to use them. The strategic – not to say economic – circumstances would be so apocalyptic that having the enduring capacity to destroy part of a notional enemy might be the least of our worries.

In reality, the subs are supposed to “deter” our notional foe. The idea is that simply by possessing these sorts of weapons, the likes of China will be discouraged from acting aggressively. But if China is not deterred by the prospect of nuclear annihilation at the hands of the US, why should we imagine that our 12 submarines would do the trick?

Will the subs deter other rising regional powers, such as Indonesia or Vietnam, from having hostile intentions toward us? It is quite possible that we may risk “invasion” from Indonesia – as we did from Vietnam many years ago – but this is likely to take the form of political, economic and environmental refugees in fishing boats, not the Indonesian army’s rather underwhelming might.

The submarines could certainly deter asylum seekers, but this could probably be achieved in more cost-effective ways. It might not do much for Australia’s rather battered international reputation either.

The flow-on effects

China rightly points out that, unlike the US and Australia, it has not been involved in a war worthy of the name since the 1970s, when it received a humiliating bloody nose at the hands of Vietnam.

Australia, however, has fought in Iraq (twice), Afghanistan and Syria in recent times.

Given Australia’s enthusiasm for foreign military adventures, no matter how remote the conflict, our neighbours may feel understandably alarmed at both the submarine purchase and the relative diminishing of their security as a consequence.

This is a classic “security dilemma” in which each side feels less secure because of the actions of the other. The all-too-predictable response is to increase spending on national defence in a futile effort to enhance security.

History suggests that arms races end badly. The first world war had complex causes, but the simultaneous ramping-up of national defence spending by the potential belligerents didn’t help. When war did break out, the modernised, more lethal weapons systems were put to astoundingly effective use.

The principal consequence of the inevitable but little-debated decision to acquire these boats is to contribute to a rapidly escalating regional arms race.

This would be a ruinously expensive, dangerous and ultimately futile exercise at the best of times. But in a part of the world where there are still much better uses for public money, despite remarkable improvements in economic development, such expenditures seem entirely unjustifiable.

At the very least, political leaders and strategic thinkers ought to be compelled to give a much more plausible and specific account of the new submarines’ real benefits and demonstrated deterrent effects.

Being secure is undoubtedly a desirable thing. Quite what it means and how it is best achieved ought not to be left entirely to the pointy-heads in the defence establishment, though.

Mark Beeson is Professor of International Politics, University of Western Australia. This article first appeared in The Conversation on 18 April 2016.

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