A recent leak from the forthcoming Defence White Paper suggests that the Rudd Government may commit to building 12 new submarines to replace the Royal Australian Navy’s current fleet of six Collins-class submarines.
Much like the planned purchase of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, this decision attracted a lot of attention, if only because of the eye-popping price tag: in excess of $25 billion, according to reports. The push for subs seems to reflect the work of a loose consensus of Canberra defence thinkers, including former submariner Peter Briggs, former Defence Minister and Opposition leader Kim Beazley and Coalition backbencher Dennis Jensen.
As the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s Andrew Davies argues, submarines are very useful weapons platforms. They can lurk undetected in the ocean, gather intelligence, carry special-forces teams as well as act as a deterrent to foreign navies and merchant shipping.
It is the last of these roles that submarines have typically been used for in warfare. Sinking civilian ships to try and strangle the enemy’s supply lines was the main tactic of Germany’s U-Boats and the United States Navy’s submarines. In the process, thousands of ships were sunk and hundreds of thousands of civilians lost their lives. Like strategic bombers, submarines are primarily offensive weapons, which is the reason they are being proposed as a long-term replacement for the strategic strike capability that Australia has lost with the retirement of our F-111 fleet. It is disingenuous to suggest Australia’s submarines would not pursue "unrestricted submarine warfare" if instructed by political masters.
But can the country afford or crew them? As Davies points out, the new submarines will be very expensive, probably costing as much as $2 billion a boat. Sourcing the appropriate cutting-edge technology will also be a problem, as Australia discovered when trying to integrate combat systems in the Collins-class boats. Further decisions will have to be made on things like the propulsion system, armaments, sonar technology and crew complement. And who will build these complex miracles of naval engineering? The builder of the Collins boats, Australian Submarine Corporation, was until recently up for sale, until the global downturn scuttled any chance of flogging it off in an open float.
The crew shortage has also had a lot of coverage. Australia’s submarines are chronically short of sailors; despite high pay and handsome bonuses, the shortage is so bad that apparently only three boats can currently be deployed. In time, this problem can be addressed by dedicated recruitment and training programs. But the fundamental reluctance of human beings to lock themselves up in a submersible metal tube for months at a time will never be solved; submarines are inherently paranoid and psychologically risky environments, as Wolfgang Peterson’s famous 1981 movie Das Boot graphically portrayed. How much worse would the crew shortage be if a Collins boat had actually sunk, as HMAS Dechaineux nearly did in 2003?
Why build expensive submarines? Defenders of the underwater predators claim submarines can do things that surface ships can’t. They can project power far from the Australian continent and they have an asymmetric advantage, in that one or two submarines can wreak havoc on an entire surface fleet. But there are many things that submarines can’t do. One of these is adequately patrol and protect Australia’s all-important sea-lines of communication – for this, surface ships like frigates and patrol boats are needed. Indeed, the biggest threat to world shipping currently is not submarines in Asian waters, but Somalia pirates off the Horn of Africa. Submarines are of little use in deterring pirates.
Debates about weapons platforms often draw inordinate amounts of interest, owing to the fascination that ships, tanks and planes exert on the minds of top brass, defence planners and military history nerds. But military power is determined by a far wider range of factors, including geography, economics and diplomacy. More intelligent followers of Australia’s defence spending should be concerned about what the plan for an expanded submarine fleet reveals: that is, an underlying bias towards continued investment in high-tech, high-intensity weapons systems.
As the piracy issue off Somalia forewarns, the most likely future threats facing Australia are not military at all, but rather economic, political and environmental in nature: threats posed by civil disorders, natural disasters and climate change for instance. Submarines and Joint Strike Fighters are among the least useful assets of the Australian Defence Force for disaster relief missions: what is required instead are more transport planes and army engineers, medics and field hospitals, as well as paramilitary and non-military assets like emergency service workers and public hospital beds.
Currently, as David Templeman and Anthony Bergin have argued, the Australian Defence Force doesn’t even consider disaster relief as part of its core business. This hasn’t stopped the ADF from being regularly deployed in domestic disaster operations, including the recent floods in North Queensland and bushfires in Victoria.
In the long-term, what Australia needs from the new Defence White Paper is a clear-headed assessment of the actual risks that Australia and Australians will face in the medium and long-term. Conventional war and international terrorism are certainly part of that. But climate change and its associated effects are undoubtedly much more important. After all, the invasion of Australia is only a contingency. The radical and irreversible warming of our continent is already a reality.
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