Sometimes important strategic issues and questions are made more intelligible and transparent when viewed from the perspectives not normally associated with national security and defence policies. Now is one of those times.
The history of Australian submarine operations during and since the Cold War is one of extraordinary accomplishments, many conducted clandestinely (because they were acts of espionage that threatened the national security of the target countries and, in certain contexts, could well have constituted acts of war), with exemplary professionalism, uncommon courage and initiative, and always in the face of extreme danger.
Often, if not always, these operations were seen as strategically necessary because of the intelligence they collected and technologically feasible because of the advantages which accrued to diesel-electric submarines over the nuclear-powered variants of the US Navy. The reputation gained by the Australian submarine service was, and remains, formidable, to say the least.
So much so is this the case that, when reading not just between the lines, but the lines themselves of the debate on the future submarine that it seems there has been a leakage – from history into a naval culture of legend, mythology and worldview – a dreamtime not rooted in historical contingency but ever-present – and thus a state of mind in which the past over-determines the present and the future.
The problem is that those days are past now, or at least passing at an accelerating rate, and in the past they must remain. Intelligence-gathering missions of the type conducted by the US Navy in the waters off Novaya Zemlya, or in the Barents Sea, the Sea of Okhotsk, and even within Vladivostok Harbour, and those which took Australian submarines into Shanghai’s waters are no more than gambles with the odds loaded in favour of the house.
In their place Australia might heed the “parable play” of the German dramatist, Bertolt Brecht, who knew a thing or two about identifying political developments and offered the following advice:
If we could learn to look instead of gawking
We’d see the horror in the face of farce,
If only we would act instead of talking,
We would not always end up on our arse.
Translation, if one is needed, listen, observe, and be open to the implications of disruptive realities and all possibilities that are consequent upon them. To do this is to engage in an exercise that will question not so much a future submarine project, but the future submarine project as currently defined, and for three reasons.
The first of these we might borrow from the is the second of two mottos that appear on the reverse of the Great Seal of the United States – Novus Ordo Seclorum, the New Order of the Ages.
We need to understand and take to heart and mind that we now live in a time of global, multi-dimensional, strategic crisis – that time of radical discontinuity known classically as the Interregnum, defined as one in which “the old is dying and the new cannot be born [and] a vast variety of morbid symptoms appear.”
Ostensibly, the period is transitional – hence the inferred proclamation of Justitium from Roman antiquity – in which, though the old laws are suspended, there is the anticipation that new and different laws will be proclaimed by the emergent order.
For Australia, the obvious realisation must be that the alliance it has used as both shield and prosthesis is, in fundamental ways, obsolete to the point of being dangerous. The political and strategic vectors of the United States are not, in simple terms, those of Australia’s nor, indeed, of most of the Western Alliance.
Two cases in point: China and Russia. Not to put too fine a point on it, the US sees them as enemies; for Australia, however, China and Russia are not yet enemies but are becoming enemies the more they are refracted through Washington’s lenses – an optical system with filters designed to enhance the field of view conducive to US interests.
The second reason to be open to the disruptive realities of our time is that the time for romantic notions of the US as western saviour is well and truly over (if, indeed, it was ever the reality its advocated claimed it to be). There is surely no body of more reliable sources on this subject than the raft of reports on the public record commissioned and authored by the US intelligence agencies themselves. Any distillation of their conclusions would include repeated admissions of not US economic and strategic decline but warnings that, in (say) a war with China, the US would be defeated. After Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq, Australia should take note.
And this brings us to the third reason of even more salience to the future submarine project: recent and authoritative US documents repudiate the need for the type of submarine and the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) operations it would undertake in waters far to Australia’s north.
For the Submarines for Australia lobby, what is worse is that the same documents offer no solace for these operations being undertaken by the type of nuclear-powered submarines which they advocate.
The most representative and concise source here is a recent, seemingly innocuous report produced under the aegis of the US Department of the Navy by its Task Force ASW (anti-submarine warfare). Specifically, under this rubric it addresses the Concept of Operations (CONOPS) for the 21st Century.
Reading and then re-reading this document in the context of the future submarine’s declared ISR role and, in war, its ASW role, the conclusion reached it that it is no longer obligation of those who oppose the acquisition of the future submarine to justify their case, but for those who advocate it to justify theirs in the light of what such reports and analyses bring to light.
To say the least, in the knowledge that China, by way of one example is building what is sometimes referred to as an ‘underwater great wall,’ submarine operations of the type traditionally undertaken within its sphere of immediate and core strategic interests are likely to be thwarted, perhaps even disastrously.
The range (quality and quantity) of counter-measures detailed by the CONOPS report, and found also in Off The Beach: Underwater Warfare in the 21st Century, an equally accessible report by the Nautilus Institute which points directly to the significantly increased vulnerability of manned submarines, period. Phrased differently, the increasing development and deployment of anti-submarine counter-measures in an also increasingly “cluttered and chaotic” operating environment which these reports foresee in the littorals of China and Russia is no place even for nuclear-powered boats that Submarines for Australia is proposing (and the Australian government is adamantly against), let alone the Shortfin Barracuda which it is intent of acquiring.
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.