In a reproach to all reason the Red Queen in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland famously demanded verdict first, evidence later. In an evolutionary turn, the decision to acquire the Shortfin Barracuda for the Royal Australian Navy has taken the Carrollian principle one step further: evidence of a strategic-operational nature which had a direct bearing on the final decision was dispensed with.
There is a common habit of mind on display in both the official pronouncements attempting to justify the selection of the Shortfin Barracuda and, surprisingly, the reports produced by Insight Economics courtesy of Gary Johnson’s commendable patronage of Submarines for Australia (which advocates different variants of submarines entirely).
Specifically, that habit is for the desired outcome – the continuation into mid-century and beyond of the RAN’s submarine operations which the Collins Class boats have undertaken – to be elevated to the status of necessity despite the preponderance of evidence indicating that such a conclusion is unwarranted.
Indeed, the prospect is that the boat already chosen, and, it should be emphasised, those which feature in the Insight Economics reports will be not only expensive but also lacking in credibility and prone to obsolescence.
Carroll would’ve undoubtedly approved: he was concerned with acts of the imagination, partially deaf, and was primarily interested in producing works of fiction – all of which, especially in combination – are corrosive of logic systems.
This is not to deny the need for a type of submarine to be a main instrument of national defence. As J.O. Langtry and Des Ball reminded those interested in this question over thirty years ago, there is an element of geographical determinism about it: Australia – the largest island continent in the world, with no contiguous border states, a land mass greater than the continental United States hosting a population of 26 million and a coastline of nearly 30,000 kilometres, is also the most isolated continent.
Geographically Australia is part of Asia: Broome, in Western Australia, is approximately equidistant from the national capital, Canberra and Bangkok and Manila; it is actually closer to three ASEAN capital (Jakarta, Singapore, and Kuala Lumpur) than it is to Canberra.
In sum, Australia’s geographic location alone presents national security planning challenges which are unique and make imperative the need for appropriate naval forces which will perforce include a submarine service which prioritises a vast region which does not have to include the furthermost areas contemplated by SEA 1000. And, if the recent Insight Economics report is accurate, just one boat on station – and it will take half of its deployment time to get there.
In which case, two questions: given Australia’s proximity to the already vast geographical sweep of Southeast Asia noted above, the need to have a presence in parts of the Eastern Indian Ocean, and something approaching the inverse square law of on-station deployment beyond (say) the southern boundary of the South China Sea, surely the outer reaches of the Australian approaches are not the Taiwan Straits?
To emphasise, the waters west of Australia must be a priority. The Indian Navy, in time, will require watching in the light of its proprietorial claims over them. Not surprisingly, it seems to have a symbiotic relationship with the extreme nationalist character of the BJP government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In early April this year, for example, the Chief of the Indian Navy asserted his service’s war preparedness because elements of China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy had transited to and from the Indian Ocean: according to Admiral Karambir Singh, the entire Indian Ocean is “our [India’s] region” and operating their requires prior notification to the Indian authorities.
Indeed, why flout the wisdom and sense of perspective of the 19th Century American President, statesman, diplomat, and lawyer, John Quincy Adams, who was adamant that the United States would serve its security interests best by not going abroad “in search of monsters to destroy”?
Accordingly, a sense of perspective would have demanded a question which could be phrased thus: within a regime of national sovereignty requiring maximum command and control, what submarine, and what tasks will best serve the national defence in a strategic, political, and technological environment which is bringing changes which make acutely vulnerable the diesel-electric variant of submarines in particular, but all submarines in general?
But perspective has been discarded and, along with it, a becoming strategic modesty as regards the public record of the contribution that Australian submarines make. Given that the number of boats on station at any one time is no more than 2, and given also that the US has its own assets – and almost certainly far more of them – undertaking similar tasks, over longer periods of deployment, the inference is that, at best, the RAN provides at best a valuable but nevertheless niche service?
Essentially, the question which dominated the choice of the future submarine approximates to this: what does the RAN need by way of a replacement to continue, and even expand upon, the tasks currently allocated to the current Collins Class submarines – several of them undertaken by way of an obligation to serve primarily US interests – when they are no longer fit for purpose?
Reflecting on these facts, might Australian decision-makers, for just this once, consider that there are limits to even an unbridled strategic imagination fuelled by the ridiculous pugilistic dream in the offices on Russell Hill of Australia “punching above its weight.”
To do so would require reacquainting themselves with a reality that is hostile to both the government’s choice of conventionally powered Shortfin Barracudas and, just as significantly, the nuclear propelled versions favoured by Submarines for Australia – an argument that will follow in Part 3.
For the present, a sense of place should be front and centre of the discussion on ambition. As the historian David McIntyre wrote of another foolish deployment decision some sixty years ago, even Disraeli, who said that the “key of India” was Constantinople, never claimed that the outer defences of the Straits of Dover stretched to the Gulf of Tonkin.
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.