MIKE SCRAFTON. Capability gaps: mean dogs and submarines

A flurry of submarine related commentaryhas followed a new Insight Economics report, Australia’s future submarine: do we need a plan B? Its arguments for submarine capability, and for a Collins 2.0 class to fill in until the Attack class enter service, lean very heavily on a rather fuzzy concept; the capability gap.

At the National Press Club and in print, Hugh White and Peter Jennings have debated the report’s recommendations. While White and Jennings take opposing stances on the report, they take the ‘filling the capability gap’ argument, proffered by Insight, as a given. White refers to a ’shortfall’ in submarines and Jennings to a ‘gap filler’.

Optimistically, the Attack class submarines would gradually enter service between the late 2030s and the early 2050s. The Collins class fleet reaches its design life between 2026 and 2034. Oops! A capability gap! Insight Economics claims, ‘[t]his implies a very substantial capability gap’. But, in fact what will occur is a platform gap. The prospect of no effective submarine service for 10 to 15 years.

Capability is a concept of impressive elasticity in defence policy. In the strategic basis papers between 1946 and 1976, capability was employed in a broad national strategic sense; as in defence capability, operational capability, independent capability, military capability, expansion capability and a limited war capability. The Defence White Papers since 1987 generally referred to capability in terms of specific roles the ADF needed to perform, often indicating the particular service(s) that would undertake the role—Army, Navy or Air Force—and the platform or platforms needed.

In 1987, the capabilities to undertake ‘surveillance and patrol operations in our maritime resources zone’, to ‘protect shipping in coastal waters and in our focal areas and ports’, and to conduct ‘air defence within our maritime areas and northern approaches’ were among the priorities. The 20 P-3C Orion long range maritime patrol aircraft were part of the solution to the first priority, a new class of inshore minehunters the second, and the F/A-18 Hornets, then replacing the Mirages in the Tactical Fighter Force (TTF), would undertake the third role.

These force structure solutions were credible only because of the level of regional military capabilities. The conceptual ladder from strategic assessment, to operational role, to tactical equipment, was relatively transparent and clear; connecting a national strategic defence capability need to the platforms and weapons intended to produce an effect on the battlefield.

An analogy will be helpful at this point.

Say a man living in a rough neighbourhood has concerns about his safety. He might consider acquiring the capability to enhance his security. After assessing the behaviour, reputation and size of his neighbours, and determining none of them have dogs, he gets a mean dog. That dog has filled a strategic, operational, and tactical capability gap. It has provided him with a means of dissuading any hostile neighbour from attacking him and, if one did, also a way of defending himself.

Some neighbours then feel threatened themselves and acquire a dog or two each, some even bigger and meaner than the man’s dog. Then he has a capability gap again and gets another, maybe bigger dog to redress the new security environment. One of his dogs might run away creating yet another capability gap which he has to fill to secure himself again. Such is the security dilemma.

Then a new bigger, richer neighbour with a pack of big, mean dogs arrives in the neighbourhood. The man no longer has a capability gap. He will not be able to afford to buy and keep as many dogs, or as a mean a pack of dogs, as the new neighbour. His situation has changed, the neighbourhood has changed, and the means of securing his safety must change. The idea of a capability gap becomes redundant. Increasing his dog capability will not solve his security problem now. It even might be seen as provocative and invite an unwanted response from the new neighbour.

Perhaps flowers, chocolates and an invitation to tea would be a better avenue!

Australia’s underwater dogs, the submarines, which in past times offered a considerable deterrent to unfriendly neighbours and a potent regional capability if hostilities broke out, now confront a neighbour with bigger, meaner, and cleverer dogs and a lot more of them.

Outdated terms-of-art are spread through defence policy unchallenged. They are so common, and have acquired such authority, that the need to define or explicate them is deemed unnecessary. They shut down arguments. However, terms like capability gap carry unexamined assumptions from a time when submarines, P3C-Orions, and minehunters were effective.

The Insight Economics proposal is complex. But put simply, to fill the supposed submarine capability gap it proposes that, in addition to extending their operational life, a two-year design exercise should be undertaken for an upgrade to the fleet—a Collins 2.0. This design would then be ‘competed’ with the French Attack class design with the intention of either finding the cheapest option or introducing competitive pressure into the Attack class procurement process.

If acquiring cost-effective submarines and putting some discipline and risk management into the procurement process are the objectives, Insight Economics’ criticisms are sound and its analysis is attractive. If submarines are what is wanted.

Putting aside the eye-watering dollar amounts in this project, it seems odd to expect submarines to fill a capability gap in thirty plus years. The US Navy and China’s PLAN are already pushing ahead with unmanned underwater vessels to carry out the very roles identified for the new submarines in the 2016 White paper: anti-submarine warfare; anti-surface warfare; and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.

The Insight Economics report highlights the submarine project’s numerous serious failings and it’s hard to understand why government sticks with it. Certainly, filling a capability gap isn’t sufficient justification.

China already has many big mean dogs and is getting more. Australia need to recognise that if that’s the threat, a blue heeler won’t help.

Mike Scrafton was a Deputy Secretary in the Victorian Department of Sustainability and Environment, senior Defence executive, CEO of a state statutory body, and chief of staff and ministerial adviser to the minister for defence.


Mike Scrafton was a Deputy Secretary in the Victorian Department of Sustainability and Environment, senior Defence executive, CEO of a state statutory body, and chief of staff and ministerial adviser to the minister for defence.

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4 Responses to MIKE SCRAFTON. Capability gaps: mean dogs and submarines

  1. Avatar Michael Flynn says:

    A debate in Parliament in Canberra on buying submarines and alternatives is long over due. We all want to be safe but here silence is lethal. Our history could help us to ask why there was no debate on the capacity of the Royal Navy and Singapore to keep us safe. I have the report of the Royal Commission on the bombing of Darwin and my concern is that we have not learned. We have substituted the US for the UK and keep hoping…

  2. Avatar David Maxwell Gray says:

    In his careful language, Mike Scrafton thinks it “is odd” to expect submarines to fill a capability gap in thirty plus years. I would put it more strongly: it is mind-numbingly dumb on the part of our politicians, most now former (for instance the Prime Minister and Defence Minister of the day) to have committed to the Attack class submarines at the scale and for the amounts they did. Did not their advisers know that there are other better options for Australia’s future defence than submarines whether of the Attack class or other classes including nuclear submarines? Or did the politicians deliberately ignore advice?

    According to the Library of Congress research report linked in Mike Scrafton’s article: “The FY 2020 budget request diversifies and expands sea power strike capacity through procurement of offensively armed Unmanned Surface Vessels (USVs). The USV investment, paired with increased investment in long-range maritime munitions, represents a paradigm shift towards a more balanced, distributed, lethal, survivable, and cost-imposing naval force that will better exploit adversary weaknesses and project power into contested environments.”

    It is clear from that report that naval planners in the USA have long been arguing that a move away from the manned submarines, which the Attack submarines broadly comprise albeit they are not SSN’s, is strategically advisable in the future. Surely our defence planners at some levels of the defence bureaucracy knew about this? Why they were not listened to?

    For the amounts now committed, Australia could have developed its own industry and intellectual property in unmanned underwater vehicles for our nation’s defence whether for surveillance and/or strike purposes. Defence of our enormous coastline and adjacent waters needs large numbers of such vehicles forming a high-technology network of surveillance, hard to knock out and constituting a local front line against attack. Such an approach would also provide evidence of far more legitimate intention to China and others that we are interested in defending our nation, rather than undertaking aggressive adventures in concert with the USA. The benefit of having at least part of our defence hardware as Australian technology and intellectual property also cannot be understated. We are now, in Corona virus times, seeing how the absence of a sound national industry policy has us hostage to very long supply lines for all sorts of critical things.

  3. Avatar Philip Bond says:

    “The US Navy and China’s PLAN are already pushing ahead with unmanned underwater vessels to carry out the very roles identified for the new submarines in the 2016 White paper: anti-submarine warfare; anti-surface warfare; and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.”

    Why then, are we spending money on yesterdays technology?

  4. Avatar Bruce Cameron says:

    “Capability is a concept of impressive elasticity in defence policy.”
    There is a danger here of losing sight of what the required ‘capability’ actually is, ie. the ability to fulfil contingency plans for the Defence of Australia. If we have too little capability, the consequence is obvious; if we have too great a capability, we are denying resources that could be better used in other areas.
    A well known dog analogy was once used in relation to the Second Indochina War. It was found to have been very misleading …

    “Sir Robert Thompson, an acknowledged British authority on counter-insurgency warfare who served as an adviser to the South Vietnamese Government, argued:
    Getting government forces into the same element as the insurgent is rather like trying to deal with a tomcat in an alley. It is no good inserting a large, fierce dog. The dog may not find the tomcat; if it does, the tomcat will escape up a tree … the answer is to put in a fiercer tomcat. The two cannot fail to meet … [and] the weaker will be eliminated.
    This, of course, is an oversimplification. The defending tomcat, if it is smart, will make use of defences which will wear down the other tomcat. Furthermore, the defending cat is likely to call for reinforcements. A case can be made for an emphasis on specially trained and equipped, highly mobile infantry, in the first stage of revolutionary warfare when the guerrillas are endeavouring to develop their infrastructure. The challenge is to realise when this phase has passed, to be conscious of the options available, and to restructure forces appropriately. In hindsight, the nature of the enemy forces involved in the Battle of Long Tan in August 1966 should have made it clear that the time for the deployment of an enhanced armoured capability, including tanks, had arrived”

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