MIKE SCRAFTON. Future Submarines and Future War

Feb 4, 2020

The SEA1000 Future Submarine project is back in the news following the ANOA report. Jon Stanford has demonstrated how badly this acquisition project is flawed. How government imagines the submarines will be employed remains imponderable.

Optimistically, the first submarine will enter service in 15 years and the last around 2050. Given the history of major Defence acquisitions, it’s unlikely this schedule will be met. The changes in war and geopolitics between now and then will have been dramatic. Think the difference in airpower between First and Second World Wars and the global map between 1918 and 1945.

Looking back a quarter of a century, the 1994 Defence White Paper cautiously thought a ‘promising area of investigation is the use of unmanned aerial vehicles for surveillance of land and maritime environments’. The proliferation of lethal military drones wasn’t contemplated. It anticipated planning to upgrade the Collins class sometime in the new century so the fleet would ‘remain effective in the face of developing technology and to take account of developments in conventional air-independent propulsion system’. As Jon notes, something Defence still hasn’t come to terms with. The potential for the ‘revolution in information technology’ seemed modest back then and confined to improving command and control. Big data, AI, hypersonics, and cyberwar had not entered the equation.

Looking forward to how a war might play out in East Asia and the South China Sea sometime beyond 2035, when the new submarines progressively come into service, prediction is even more difficult. Anticipating the technologies and capabilities that will be available to protagonists, or how tactics will evolve, or what discontinuity might have taken place in geopolitics in that time, is not possible.

At best, the credible scenarios seem to fall into two categories: the US withdraws from the Western Pacific/East Asia leaving Australia and the region confront China alone; or the US and its regional allies—Australia, Japan, and South Korea—take on China in a high intensity, decisive conflict for dominance of the region.

The nature of war in each scenario would be fundamentally different. Were Australia and the region to be abandoned, it would be a one-sided affair. The Chinese would deploy significant surface and subsurface maritime assets, no longer required to counter the Americans, to the Timor and Arafura Seas. That is, if they planned to defeat Australian forces in the approaches to the north. They would have other options. In that case, Australian submarines and ships probably would be kept in port. How much attrition could Australia wear?

On current trends the quantity and quality of China’s military capability would massively dwarf that which Australia could muster. Australia might be able to put up a heroic but futile effort in a first battle. There is no reason to believe that if the Chinese had sufficient motivation to undertake such a campaign they would come without the military force required to prevail. It is inconceivable there would be a David and Goliath, or Battle at Thermopylae, moment. Though that seems to be the plan.

The latter scenario, which Jon addressed, would see Australian submarines, or a submarine, and surface vessels joined with US forces off the East Coast of China. The course of such a war is far more difficult to imagine, and especially the contribution of the future submarines, if any are available for deployment before 2050. The most recent great power conflicts provide little guidance.

In Europe the First and Second World Wars  were primarily decided by land battles and bombing, although a major part was played by maritime assets. In the Asia Pacific theatre in the Second World War maritime forces played an even more direct key strategic role as the Allies Island hopped across the Pacific. But land forces in China and on the islands were integral to defeating Japan, as were nuclear weapons. As Hugh White has explained, we have very little idea of how a great power war would be fought today.

Extrapolating from the current situation, a war between China and the US would preclude significant land warfare. The resources required to facilitate a successful amphibious or airborne assault over the Chinese coast would be impractical to assemble and the losses incalculable. The initial battle would be fought with ships, submarines, planes, and missiles. Its outcome would determine the subsequent course of operations.

The ability to mobilise and direct national industrial and human resources for war would be enhanced by China’s centralised political and economic system. A blockade of the Malacca Straits might see the PLA occupy Southeast Asia in order to secure supply routes. China’s rear areas are deep and provide strategic resupply lines into Russia, Central Asia and the Middle East. Serious reversals in the South China Sea would be unlikely to decide the war. China’s land based capabilities are substantial. Recovery from a loss in the South China Sea would be more difficult for the US.

While this is all speculative, presumably the government would have explored at least some scenarios before launching on this expenditure of taxpayer funds. To convince ministers that these expensive assets would have a degree of utility that justifies the investment defence planners must have advised government how they would contribute to Australia’s defence in credible circumstances. How government weighed the crystal-balling of Defence planners, if there was any, remains a mystery.

As Jon pointed out, Australia will be unable to deploy submarines to East Asia until mid-2040s at the earliest. Even then their relative contribution will be trivial. They would be probably of even less value in a lone Australia versus China conflict.

What sort of war is all this investment going to be good for?

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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5 thoughts on “MIKE SCRAFTON. Future Submarines and Future War

  1. Australia’s taxpayers money might be better spent on developing a nuclear reactor suitable for not only civilian power use but for defence use in war ships and submarines.
    What reactor type meets this criteria. Ed Phiels’ MCSFR.
    This design uses modular construction suitable for manufacture in a government factory and is scalable from 50MWe for ship use to 2GWe for commercial use.
    Ed Phiel has had 30 years designing nuclear reactors for the US Navy submarines.

  2. Critical stuff, but not a dicky on mainstream media or in the press.
    Or from those Caped Crusaders for the People, Labor, or even the Greens unless they are just “silenced”.
    I suppose it explains why there has never been a comprehensive mass consumption analysis on the French subs, the best we get is Jon on a policy wonks web site.
    I suppose most folk wouldn’t “get” the esoterica, but even the village fool would “get” “shonk”.

  3. While Mike’s piece makes an important contribution to the debate, I don’t necessarily agree that “how government imagines the submarines will be employed remains imponderable”. The government intends that the new submarines will do exactly what the Collins class does now, that is undertake Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) operations in very close association with the US Navy in the South China Sea. The government places a very high value on the contribution of the RAN Submarine Force both to the Five Eyes network and ANZUS. Forget FONOPS on the surface of the South China Sea: these undersea operations are far more significant. With 12 submarines rather than six (but only after 2050), the RAN will be able to maintain one submarine on station all the time. In a situation where the US Navy now has a limited number of submarines while confronting a massive PLA Navy submarine construction program, the RAN submarines perform a valuable role — perhaps up to 25 per cent of available allied submarines when on station.

    The immediate problem for the RAN is that the game is changing. Our diesel submarines are not well equipped for dealing with the increasing number of nuclear powered submarines that are active in the SCS. Hence the desire to acquire a “nuclear submarine with diesel engines” — we need a covert patrol speed of 12-15 knots rather than 5-8 knots. This has led to the pump-jet idea, which may provide superior stealth at a higher speed but significantly inferior power consumption and an increasing need to snort, greatly increasing a submarine’s vulnerability to detection. Pump-jets are not used on other conventional submarines and are unlikely to survive land-based testing. This leads to the obvious question as to why we are buying the French submarine rather than the German, which offered a whole of life cost of $85bn compared to the $225bn (and climbing) cost of the Attack class while meeting the same capability criteria.

    The bigger question is what the Attack class would be used for if the US does go home, as Professor Hugh White suggests. The answer is that it could be a white elephant. It is too slow to operate with a surface task force or to patrol choke points and pursue high value targets. In either case — the US sticks around or goes home — we will need SSNs if submarines are to continue to lie at the heart of the ADF’s power projection capability. If we can’t get SSNs, we should have a good look at the B-21 bomber.

    1. A couple of points Jon.
      In 2050 are ISR operations in the South China Sea really still going to be best conducted by submarines? In thirty years will ISR technologies not have advanced well beyond the need for submarines? Already advances in unmanned vessels are making this capability look like its on the verge of obsolescence. In thirty years cyber capabilities and information security will make this form of ISR collection look totally redundant. This is a scandalous punt on the military technology situation not changing for three decades!
      Is it really conceivable that in thirty years time Chinese technology and capability will not have advanced to a point where the South China Sea-surface or subsurface-will be as transparent as a plane of glass. In any event, is placing submarines at risk in waters contiguous to China and within reach of increasingly sophisticated Chinese anti-submarine warfare capabilities the wisest and most cost-effective expenditure of Defence dollars. These platforms will be swimming in a Chinese pond and be highly vulnerable. What were the opportunity costs here. The scenario where Australia is left by it self would not prioritise submarines to eavesdrop thousands of kilometres away.
      Moreover, this thinking seems to posit that the current geopolitical situation will be unchanged in in thirty years and beyond. The Cold War only lasted four decades.

  4. Being a cynic on all matters involving this government, I believe the key consideration in planning these submarines would have been how many jobs can we promise in Christopher Pyne’s electorate. Any discussion on actual defence matters would have been secondary.

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