MICHAEL McKINLEY. Arse-backwards: Questions which should have preceded the decision on the future submarine. Part 4 of 5

Apr 23, 2020

The enemification of China and Russia in US, and thus, alliance statements and documents on international security can now reasonably be described as an idée fixe: a persistent preoccupation which has become a delusional idea that dominates all proceedings and is demonstrably and firmly resistant to any attempt to modify it no matter the dangers – quite possibly fatal – which arise from persisting in it.

Resistance to change is a consequence of the Australia-US alliance: an unqualified belief in it, and adherence to its practices, are religious in nature and, where evidence proves unsettling, the turn is to faith of a fundamentalist nature.

Immediately sacrificed is any attempt to understand the legitimate concerns and rights of others who are disposed to seek their own security in ways which, on first principles, should be understood by the alliance since the lexicon of national security and defence is common to all languages in the strategic discourse.

So, first, where is the deep and comprehensive political-strategic analysis in the future submarine project, especially in relation to China? It could start with another, more specific question: is China, as a rising great power, or even as a huge nation state, entitled to defend itself?

To answer this, we have to leave aside that the regime is repugnant in many ways because strategic thinking at its best is a form of empathetic thinking and it behoves Australian strategic analysts and decision-makers to adopt this practice, particularly in a world in which, seen from the perspective of China’s planners, their country is threatened in a manner that any country in the Western alliance system would find intolerable and would seek to redress.

From Beijing the fear is that, should it come to war, the US wants the strategic privilege of sitting in relative safety in offshore bastions to attack it. Hence the US-allied “Fish Hook” ASW barrier in the West Pacific. And any reading of the voluminous literature published under the auspices of US government agencies on weapons acquisition and their rationalisations) and future war scenarios will confirm that the China has taken not only an obvious but a reasonable inference.

For that reason, it is building an ‘underwater Great Wall’ of anti-submarine warfare (ASW) sensors and weapons which, in the fullness of time, will extend from the first island chain to Japan to Taiwan to Indonesia. The recent Insight Economics report (at p. 38) even concedes that this was a logical reaction to the potential the US has at present to engage in the nuclear blackmail of China.

Second, would Australia have selected the Shortfin Barracuda to continue the current intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) operations in the threatening littorals of the North Pacific if it was aware that the US had decided concurrently that these operations are too risky for manned submarines (as they have and as outlined in Part 3)? And if Australian decision-makers were not aware, why weren’t they?

The answer clearly is no, and that raises three very disturbing supplementary question: What happens if an Australian submarine is detected and attacked or captured while on an ISR mission that is regarded as an act of aggression by (say) China or Russia? Will Australia have the necessary resources in place to provide assistance – which may well be a naval engagement? Will the allies come to its aid; indeed, would they even be in a position to do so in time?

Even if they could – and that is a highly dubious proposition – the documented precedents involving US submarines in such events during the Cold War very nearly led nearly to nuclear exchanges.

The riposte to these objections by government is silence, by Submarines for Australia (at p. 6 of the Insight Economics report) it is that risk will be minimised by the RAN acquiring drones – “autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs).” [In
this the RAN is not is not alone – it’s a tri-service enthusiasm].

At initial issue here is the fact that AUVs are predicated on the prior acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines, for which the government has no enthusiasm. But even if the government were of a different mind, and concurred with Submarines for Australia, there are issues attending unmanned autonomous weapons which are currently irresolvable.

While there is no denying that unmanned vehicles on land, sea, and in the air have enormous advantages, it is also the case that these advantages can be overwhelmed by decisions to use them adventurously and provocatively. Currently, their promiscuous use by the US, and the consequences thereof, provide warnings in this regard. Any decision to bestow autonomy on them would be an act of supreme strategic irresponsibility, abrogating national sovereignty, command, control, and accountability.

Nothing in the foregoing denies the relevance of submarines in the defence of Australia. The widely recognised hostile environment detailed in this and previous parts does not exist close to home, where the operational environment still favours a diesel-electric boat, though not necessarily the Shortfin Barracuda. Even then, the question is whether this advantage can be maintained, and for how long – important considerations given the lead time until the first replacement of the Collins Class is operational and then the envisaged 30-40 years life span of the future submarines themselves.

A survey of the literature on undersea warfare suggests that, for diesel-electrics, a case can be made for close regional roles and capability, but necessarily excluding some of those historically and currently undertaken. Within a reduced area of operations – which would still be huge – and within tasking profiles still undertaken, Australia’s submarine presence would, logically, increase with more boats on station.

A decision to proceed along these lines would require a third debate, one distinctly different to those which produced the Shortfin Barracuda decision and the Submarines for Australia proposals. Both, in the light of the already canvassed ASW developments, reduce to the absurd spectacle of two parties shouting solutions to a puzzle which no longer exists.

Michael McKinley is a member of the Emeritus Faculty, The Australian National University. Formerly he taught International Relations (Strategy, Diplomacy and International Conflict) at the University of Western Australia and the ANU.

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