Monday 20 Aug 2018 | 12:49 | SYDNEY
Monday 20 Aug 2018 | 12:49 | SYDNEY

All aboard for the submarine debate


James Brown


20 January 2012 16:12

ASPI's analysts have compared the cost of the future submarine project to the planned National Broadband Network (NBN).

The NBN debate has been public and vociferous. The Government and Opposition's dueling policies are detailed and their champions conduct near-constant briefings to all who will listen. Twitter lights up every time there is a new development in the debate, every piece of new data is critically analysed, and every tech head in the country has an opinion on the project's merits. In the past 12 months the NBN was mentioned 2382 times in Australia's major newspapers.

By contrast, the future submarine project received only 24 mentions — and most of them in the past two weeks. Only a handful of Australians have opinions on the future submarine. There is no detailed Opposition submarine policy, the Prime Minister has never expounded the topic, and there's been no debate at the National Press Club on future submarines. Most importantly, no one can gauge the views of Australia's 14,000 naval professionals because they are gagged by a ban on any public discussion that might be controversial.

The future submarine debate has been conducted largely among a small group of defence professionals, and mostly in closed forums (the Submarine Institute of Australia has done some excellent work on the topic). Several strategic options have been dismissed far too quickly.

I'd like to see serious consideration of nuclear propulsion and suspect community attitudes on nuclear-powered submarines might no longer be based on 30-year-old nuclear politics. The nuclear leasing option advocated for Australia by Ross Babbage seems to be good enough for India, which will this year lease a nuclear submarine from Russia. A similar model might work for Australia.

There is also an argument that we shouldn't build submarines in Australia for the same reason we don't build passenger jets or cruise liners (and perhaps shortly, passenger cars). Recent problems with the construction of Air Warfare Destroyers and the conclusions of a recent parliamentary report into defence capital projects lend some weight to scepticism about the arguments for home-grown submarines.

I'm not swayed by the arguments of Paul Dibb and Richard Brabin Smith that the chosen future submarine force must be entirely self-reliant. Our present fleet of submarines wouldn't put to sea without US support, and as yesterday's Kokoda Report makes clear, a future submarine would be inconceivable without US Navy propeller expertise and hydrodynamic research facilities.

In short, I'm not yet convinced by any of the options on how to proceed with the future submarine, but I am concerned that by conducting such an important national policy debate behind closed doors we might be missing valuable contributions by Australians who don't have vested interests in either defence industry or strategic policy positions.

Photo courtesy of the Department of Defence.