The Australian Government is courting disaster with its approach to this country’s largest-ever defense program, the purchase of new submarines. The government seems determined to spend over $30 billion designing and building in Australia 12 new submarines that will almost certainly have serious flaws, will be delivered late, will be unnecessarily expensive and will be inadequate for our defense needs.
How could the government get itself into such a bad position? Some key decision-makers have failed to appreciate that Australia now faces a much more demanding security future. As the Pentagon’s recently released annual report on China’s military development makes clear, Beijing’s surveillance, missile, air and naval developments are transforming the strategic balance in the Western Pacific. Indeed, by 2025 China’s military power will be predominant in parts of our region.
There’s also a need to take account of China’s much more aggressive recent military operations, especially in disputed areas of the South and East China Seas. Australian security planners should do everything in their power to negotiate peaceful resolutions of these issues. They would, however, be naive to neglect strong investment in defense capabilities that can deter coercion against us in the 2025-2050 timeframe.
Advanced submarines offer special strategic leverage in the more demanding security environment that’s in store. The best submarines are highly survivable in intense military operations and have the potential to force the leadership of even a major power to pause and think carefully before attacking Australia or our key interests. They are one of only two or three military capabilities that carry this game-changing leverage. So, while Australia will always need some surface warships, armored vehicles and transport aircraft, the truth is that advanced submarines offer unique strategic advantages for us in the troubled times ahead.
All this means we need to get the new submarine program right and do so quickly. Australia has three main submarine options. The government currently favors designing and building our own unique, rather large, diesel-electric submarines, essentially a Collins Mk 2. Second, we could purchase much smaller diesel-electric submarines that are currently in production in Europe. Third, we could purchase or lease from “hot” production lines advanced nuclear-propelled submarines from the United States or Britain.
Designing and building a Collins Mk2 would probably eventually deliver a class of the largest diesel-electric submarines in the world. However, given that the government has yet to launch even preliminary design work, the first of these boats couldn’t be delivered until at least 2028 and more likely 2035-2040. Because they would be a completely new design, they would inevitably experience technical problems, would probably possess some unreliable systems and we should expect them to have relatively low availability. As these Australian-designed boats would be “orphans,” they would also be expensive to maintain and update.