March 4, 2015

Damn the torpedoes … full speed ahead!

By Claire Corbett
Damn the torpedoes … full speed ahead!
The government’s approach to the Future Submarine project is all at sea

There are two ways of dealing with a decision that seems too difficult, such as the one we face with Australia’s Future Submarine project. The previous federal Labor government chose the first way, which was to do nothing for many years. Prime Minister Tony Abbott favours the second approach, which is to be reckless. Abbott’s pushing of a deal with Japan to supply Australia’s Future Submarine smacks of the kind of decision-making fatigue displayed by someone who agonises for half an hour in the morning over which shirt to wear and then buys an expensive car in the afternoon because of its many cup-holders.

Defence and strategy experts are watching the process, or lack of process, with alarm and anger. “The most obvious competitor [among submarine builders] had to be done away with – Sweden,” a senior ex-submariner told me. Cue Tony Abbott’s ostensibly out-of-the-blue attack last week on the Swedes’ sub-building capacity. But my contact claimed, “The Swedish option is the obvious low-risk one because they are the only ones who have designed and built a conventional submarine nearest to meeting our current requirements.”

Despite the outdated view that the Collins-class subs, built in Australia with Swedish sub builder Kockums (now taken over by SAAB), are expensive failures, they are in fact now highly capable machines. Many experts believe evolving a new design based on them would be the lowest risk and most cost-effective approach. This is because it would use the well-understood design philosophies, engineering, and the modular construction technique (now copied by the US) which spread work around Australia. Another advantage is that the navy could use already established operating and maintenance procedures. As part of a smooth transition, new equipment could even be tested at sea on existing Collins subs.

A cost of excluding Sweden as a builder that has not been publicly discussed is that all the technical lessons learned and improvements made on Collins submarines will not be available to Japan, Germany or France, for example, if any of these nations are given the contract to build our new subs. This is because of restrictions on intellectual property ownership. All that knowledge and sensitive Australian and Swedish technical data will be thrown away.

Also, without an Australian prime contractor putting in a bid to build in Australia, overseas contenders will be able to put up the price of an Australian build thus placing a premium on it with impunity. This will then fulfil Defence’s claims that an Australian build will cost more.

The public and the parliament are being misled, my contact concluded.

Hugh White also seems appalled by the lack of process, writing in the Sydney Morning Herald, “There is simply no precedent in Australia for a defence decision of such importance to be made so irresponsibly.”

The difficulty with so obviously favouring a deal with Japan is that we don’t know enough about Soryu-class subs to make an informed comparison with other designs. “They won’t be revealing any details of their boat. Not to anyone,” notes Canberra journalist Nicholas Stuart, before going on to outline the real motivation behind the push for the Japanese option: the Americans want the deal as part of shoring up regional alliances to contain China. “It isn’t a decision about either getting the best boat for our navy or work for South Australians,” Stuart continues, “there are far bigger forces in play.”

Waving an enormous wad of cash around ahead of a major defence purchase while letting it be known there is only one serious contender, even though their boat is veiled in mystery and they’ve never exported defence tech before – well, there’s not much likely to go wrong with that approach, is there?

Then there was the remarkable performance by Chief of Navy, Vice Admiral Tim Barrett, and Mr Warren King, CEO of the Defence Materiel Organisation (DMO) on 26 February before the Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee. Between them, the head of the DMO and the Chief of Navy could not answer a simple question from Senator Nick Xenophon about US weapons being installed on German-designed subs. Xenophon’s question was designed to challenge some of the misinformation bandied about in parliament about the relative merits of different sub builders.

It’s hard to account for such a lack of interest in the details of one of the most expensive defence purchases in Australian history. Unless Nicholas Stuart is right: all that matters is what the US wants. Can the navy think it has no need to make a strategic case for new submarines nor even ensure we get the best boats for our bucks?

I made a request to the navy to illuminate its future strategy for submarines, including an example of a credible threat scenario. The reply stated that submarines are “high-end warfare machines with strategic qualities”, that submarines are stealthy and would “complicate any effort to undermine Australia’s interests”.

It’s true that submarines are heavy-duty strategic and offensive weapons. All navies would like to have some but the process of acquiring them needs to be driven by what we want them to do. “Believe it or not,” Hugh White concluded in his SMH piece, “that question has never been seriously answered.”

It is up to the government to argue that the money we spend on subs would not be better spent elsewhere. This government is quick to promise money to the sharp end of defence – “high-end warfare machines” – but seems less keen on funding our strategic frontline, such as foreign policy. It is widely recognised that the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has been chronically underfunded for years.

Even within the context of defence spending, the government and the navy need to make the case for why possible future threats that might be countered by submarines are more critical than existing gaps. Even Greg Sheridan noted the government’s failure to “project a rationale for the subs themselves”. One such gap is the navy’s neglect of the Southern Ocean, where real threats to conservation and Australian sovereignty loom. During the 2001–06 tenure of Defence Minister Robert Hill, the navy tackled poachers, for example, but now seems content to leave patrolling these dangerous waters to Sea Shepherd.

Questions to consider in the light of rapidly changing technology include: what will the role of unmanned underwater vehicles in surveillance and reconnaissance be and how might that affect the use of and even the number of submarines we deploy? How will we ensure that the subs we buy are fully upgradable over their lives, well into the middle of this century? That seems a particular risk with Soryu-class subs, which are already considered out of date. Any advance in technology that diminishes a submarine’s stealth will seriously compromise its strategic value.

A government willing to rush a submarine acquisition with a universally condemned lack of process is in no position to answer any of these questions, and does not seem interested in even asking them.

In response to my other questions to the navy, including whether our submarine-acquisition process is being driven by what the US wants, I received this:

The Government’s decisions on Defence capability priorities will be reflected in the 2015 Defence White Paper and associated public Defence Capability Plan.

While the process of developing this White Paper included a round of community and expert consultations, the push for Soryu subs has been emanating from the Prime Minister’s Office. There’s no evidence so far of that political process being informed by the development of the White Paper. By the time we get a look at the White Paper, will there still be time to make an informed and sensible decision?


Claire Corbett

Claire Corbett is a journalist and the author of When We Have Wings. Her new novel, Watch Over Me, was recently published by Allen & Unwin.



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