The 2016 Defence White paper asserts that Australia’s future acquisition of 12 French submarines costing around $50 billion is the largest defence procurement program in Australia’s history. The first vessel is to be delivered ‘in the early 2030s’, the twelfth in ‘the 2040s or 2050s’. They are said to be for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, not only in Australia’s maritime zones, but in our maritime approaches and further afield. They are to be ‘regionally superior, with a high degree of interoperability with the United States’.
No doubt the boffins in Defence put much expert thought into submarine selection, but given their enormous cost at a time of financial stringency, we groundlings are entitled to candid and detailed explanations about the choice of these vessels and the uses to which they will be put.
First, why French? Apart from its small fleet of nuclear-powered and armed ballistic missile submarines, France operates six attack submarines, currently being phased out and replaced by the Barracuda class boats also being chosen by Australia. But compared to the submarine industries in Japan and Germany, France’s is small and relatively inexperienced. Japan began its submarine industry in 1904 and its main factories at Mitsubishi and Kawasaki have designed and built a huge variety ever since. Both Japan and Germany made enormous technical strides in submarine design during World War Two when France was occupied by Germany. German submarine technology has an equally long history. Its Dolphin-class attack boats currently built by ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems and used by the German and Israeli navies are just as sophisticated as the Sōryūs.
One suspicion worth ventilating here: Direction des Construction Navales Services (DCNS) that makes Barracudas at Cherbourg, predominantly builds nuclear-propelled submarines. Is the Australian government, which favours an international spent fuel nuclear dump in South Australia, surreptitiously planning to widen Australia’s nuclear industry by dropping nuclear power plants into its Barracudas at some later stage of their development? How would Australian punters feel about that?
Second question: precisely how will our French boats be ‘regionally superior’? Compared to which other fleets? A cursory look at Jane’s Fighting Ships shows that a dozen Royal Australian Navy Barracudas won’t hold a candle in numbers to 15 Korean, 18 Japanese, an unknown number of Russian and nearly 60 Chinese diesel electric boats currently operating in the Western Pacific, let alone new ones constantly being built and added to these nations’ fleets.
What about local fleets? Indonesia has had a submarine force since 1960. Its current fleet comprises five attack submarines with five more being planned. Singapore has two Swedish Vastergotland boats with more on order. Malaysia has two French-built Scorpene class boats based at Kota Kinabalu. Thailand is planning to acquire two German boats. More potent than any of these, Vietnam plans to take delivery of six Russian Kilo-class submarines between 2013 and 2020. The Chinese have considerable experience with these boats, and will be very concerned if the Vietnamese manage to operate them competently.
These acquisitions do not represent a flat-out arms race, but add a sudden and significant new maritime sea-denial capability to littoral states in the South China Sea. Inevitably, these states will also acquire anti-submarine warfare counter measures, such as surface ships equipped with helicoptors, drones, sonars, mines and depth charges. The area will suddenly becomes a very crowded space indeed.
According to the 2016 Defence White Paper, the Australian government hopes to be able to operate its Barracudas in these contested waters ‘with a high degree of interoperability with the United States’. But, my third question: why should we be interoperable with the US alone? Our submarines won’t even be available for deployment for another decade and by then may not be regionally superior. And is interoperability what Washington wants? Radical thought though it may seem, wouldn’t it be more productive for us to operate our boats in cooperation with those of Vietnam, Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia? After all, their desire for a ‘rules based’ maritime environment is geographically more urgent than the perceived needs of a great power which is finding itself manoeuvred out of its customary position as top dog in the western Pacific.
A footnote on Japan’s failed bid to sell us Sōryū submarines. On 16 April 2016, the Japanese Ambassador hosted a reception in Sydney for crews of three MSDF ships which had just engaged in exercises with RAN ships. One of them was Hakuryu, a Sōryū submarine. Amid speeches and toasts, Australian and Japanese guests were aglow with goodwill and the optimistic expectation that the imminent announcement of Australia’s next submarines would be for Sōryūs. In his short speech, Harukyu’s skipper said this was the first visit by a Japanese submarine to Sydney since 1942. There were quiet smiles at his unintended solecism. A photograph of Hakuryu heading home through Sydney Heads the next day coincided with newspaper headlines that France, not Japan, had secured the bid. The poignancy of the situation was palpable, and those of us who have had a long association with Japan felt it. The bilateral relationship is strong enough to withstand the decision, but the healing will take some time.
Richard Broinowski is a former diplomat and Ambassador to Vietnam, Korea and Mexico. He is currently President of the Australian Institute of International Affairs in NSW.