Thursday 20 Sep 2018 | 23:04 | SYDNEY
Thursday 20 Sep 2018 | 23:04 | SYDNEY

The subterranean submarine debate


Graeme Dobell

This post is part of the The military numbers game debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

23 April 2012 10:55

This post is part of the The military numbers game debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

Canberra's submarine dithering illustrates the point that sometimes a decision not to make a decision actually amounts to a decision.

The longer Government defers or dithers on the actual steps involved in building a new submarine in Australia, the less scope it has for making such a decision. As time passes, the window for building in Oz sinks while the option of buying off-the-shelf from overseas rises. Thus, making no decision means that, eventually, the passage of time will mean only one decision is possible. And it will not be the outcome currently promised or proclaimed.

Style this the 'subterranean subs debate'. It is subterranean in the sense that a lot of argument is going on, but the central issue – whether to build new subs in Oz – is not formally or officially in play. 

The Government has a White Paper that says 12 boats will be built and they will be built here. This is what is known as a P-O-L-I-C-Y. The point about policy is that usually governments are supposed to act to bring the plan to reality. The words in the 2009 White Paper are clear enough:

...the Government has decided to acquire 12 new Future Submarines, to be assembled in South Australia. This will be a major design and construction program spanning three decades, and will be Australia's largest ever single defence project. The Future Submarine will have greater range, longer endurance on patrol, and expanded capabilities compared to the current Collins class submarine.

Sounds exciting. And hard. Little wonder Cabinet is in no rush to focus the periscope on this extremely difficult topic: your head hurts getting across the detail, the costs involved tend towards the incomprehensible and the political return for all this effort is virtually nil.

The failure to do much of anything to realise our 'largest ever single defence project' is driving the subterranean subs debate to the surface. And, ever ready to help, step forward the always-reliable Andrew Davies and Mark Thomson with a concise rendering of how the submarine dither is now a deep dilemma — Australia is running out of time to design and build an entirely new sub.
Their ASPI report, 'Mind the Gap', centres on an 'inevitable' capability gap in the 2020s when Australia could find itself with no subs at all. A capability gap of that dimension gives any government a yawning credibility gap. So whatever the official policy might state about building 12 boats in South Australia, Canberra is looking at all sorts of ways to fill that gap. Davies and Thomson run through the options: 

  • Extend the life of the Collins class.
  • Buy off-the-shelf, thus sending to the bottom the grand aspirations of the White Paper but delivering smaller, 'relatively modern and reliable', boats.
  • Buy nuclear attack submarines from the US.

Just to demonstrate how complicated this argument is, compare the ASPI report with the Kokoda Paper that Brice Pacey produced in January. Looking at the same set of facts, Pacey decides that the only option is to go the full White Paper route and build a son-of-Collins in order to get the 'unique combination of range, endurance and stealth' Australia requires, because: 

  • No commercial off-the-shelf conventional submarine comes close to meeting Australia's needs.
  • Nuclear subs would add an extra 30-40% to the costs, even if Australia had a nuclear industry and the supporting infrastructure.

A cabinet that sees long-term planning as something that might happen beyond next year's election does not want to grapple with any of this. But the capability gap so clearly identified by Davies and Thomson will start to deliver political pain. Muddling through with the Collins class is bad enough; having no subs at all hits at credibility.

The pain is forcing a rethink of one of the basic divides of Australian defence procurement – we buy planes off-the-shelf but want to build our own ships, even if submarines 'pose an extraordinarily complex task'  that stretches 'at the margins of Australia's present scientific and technological capacity.' This judgment about how submarines are a pressure test for Australian capabilities was offered in 2009 by a rare breed of politician – one with an engineering background. Read Greg Combet's submarine speech from his short period as Defence Material Minister to see a fine discussion of the strategic argument, the industrial and design challenges, the construction headaches and the sustainment issues that Australia knows so well from both the Oberon and the Collins experiences. 

Perhaps Combet could give Cabinet a quick tutorial, and point out to his colleagues that the terms of the argument are still what they were back in '09, but time is passing. And a decision not to make a decision does, indeed, amount to a choice.

Photo by Flickr user MATEUS_27:24&25.