Australia’s Submarine Debate: Shipyards and Seas

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Australia’s Submarine Debate: Shipyards and Seas

The debate often misses the regional context surrounding Australia’s submarine program.

Australia’s Submarine Debate: Shipyards and Seas

HMAS Rankin

Credit: Commonwealth of Australia, Department of Defence

What’s being left out of Australia’s submarine and naval security debate? The region those subs will be patrolling.

In terms of defense news, the submarine debate on who will build Australia’s new fleet, and where it will be built, has had some staying power. However, the mainstream debate has not really looked at changes in the region. Many countries in the Asia-Pacific are now pursuing their own submarine plans, and nuclear-capable submarines in the Indian Ocean are not far away. The South China Sea is a focus for new Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull but the recent drill with India hasn’t received a lot of attention in the Australian press. What else is happening in the region, and what might that mean for future submarine and naval plans.

China and South China Sea a Priority

Turnbull gave his first serious interview on September 21. He spoke about domestic and foreign policy. ISIS, of course, remains a threat. But Turnbull has also come out strongly against China “pushing the envelope” in the South China Sea and suggested it is pushing regional instability whilst also ensuring a greater U.S. presence in the area, something that would seem contrary to Chinese interests.

How will this affect Australia and what will Australia’s role be in one of the busiest and most contested waters? On this Turnbull was a little less clear: “Well our Defence Force has – and this is not a revelation … Our Defence Forces have to be able to play a role in a range of different potential conflict situations. But, you know, we’re not – we’re not seeking to, um, ah – I don’t want to – no-one – no-one, least of all the Australian Government, wants to exacerbate situations.”

Turnbull is right that China’s actions seems to be driving a greater U.S. presence and closer relations between it and certain nations. He name checked the closer Vietnam-U.S. relationship. According to this mid-2014 piece from IHS Jane’s territorial disputes in the Asia-Pacific and “continued concerns over China’s military development – are driving defence spending across the region. This has been characterised by some as an arms race, although it may be better viewed as a region-wide materiel upgrade propelled by resource competition, rising government revenues and declining markets elsewhere in the world.”

At the same time, both China and India are moving closer to having nuclear-capable submarines patrol the Indo-Pacific, and India and Australia are keen on naval exercises. Australia, in fact, wishes to participate in the Malabar exercises with India, the U.S. and Japan; Australia withdrew from those exercises in 2008.

The View in Australia, SEA 1000, etc.

China is a factor in many Australian plans, both economic and defense. China will also factor in the upcoming defense White Paper, which was delayed after former Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s shipbuilding announcement and may now make it out in October or November.

The Competitive Evaluation Process (CEP) between Japan, Germany and France and the issue over local build is front and center in the debate on the future submarine fleet. Sweden, which built the six Collins-class submarines the Royal Australian Navy currently operates, was ruled out early, to their and others’  surprise. Japan was picked earlier, for strategic and alliance reasons, but the up and downsides remain, on a purely technical level, complex. Australia, with its enormous coastline, has special needs and can’t simply chose an off-the-rack purchase, even if domestic politics was not such an important factor. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute has been running an excellent series on this on their Strategist blog, profiling the three nations and nearly every other aspect of the submarine process. The Kockums-built Collins-class were designed with Australian needs in mind, both the large coastline and a deterrence-based defense policy. Though sometimes maligned, they are among the quietest and least detectable subs in operation. The question won’t be decided this year and new Defense Minister Marise Payne has already said she won’t be drawn into debate at this stage.

The CEP is politically loaded, of course, and Tony Abbott’s announcements of a A$90 billion ($65.6 billion) naval ship and submarine build and 2000 jobs for South Australia early last month were called a first “election salvo.”  A paper from the Defence Minister said in February, “Submarines are the most complex, sensitive and expensive Defence capability acquisition a Government can make.” The go-or-no dogfighting capabilities of the F-35 pale in comparison to the complexities of a submarine fleet, especially one built for Australia’s unique needs. The winner of the CEP will have to build as much of the new fleet in Australia as possible, despite the poor report on the Air Warfare Destroyers and a lengthy report by RAND Corp commissioned by the Australian government earlier this year on the naval shipbuilding capabilities of the three main shipyards that suggested they were not quite competitive or effective enough.

One of the talking points of the Japanese Soryu-class, which former Abbott was earlier suggesting Australia should buy off-the-rack, was that it might have shored up something of a trilateral alliance between Australia, the U.S. and Japan. The U.S. was certainly happy with the Soryu idea. Aussies however, were not remotely happy with the idea of coming to the aid of Japan should any conflict with China arise. Ankit Panda has a more up-to-date analysis on what Malcolm Turnbull might mean for a Japanese sub-build.

The Missing Piece of the Debate

So far, so much the same ground covered. All this has been the view from Australia since last year. But the rest of the region is also engaged in its own submarine race. Politicians aren’t talking about that as much, outside of Turnbull’s South China Sea comments.

Vietnam has now taken possession of its six new Kilo-class Russian-made submarines, ordered in 2009. Vietnam also wants naval assistance from Washington, with President Truong Tan Sang saying during Ashton Carter’s June visit that he would like Washington to “provide all necessary assistance to Vietnam in raising the capacity of maritime law enforcement forces.”

Indonesia is now looking at Russian subs of its own, preferring when the budget allows it, to buy new and no longer second hand. More broadly, Indonesia wishes to increase its naval presence in the region. Thailand has been wanting submarine capability for a long time but has delayed purchase again after finally plumping for three Chinese-built subs. As Prashanth Parameswaran has noted, the Chinese option was unexpected, “given the significance of the purchase, the Thai military’s preference for Western equipment which was also on offer, and well-known suspicions about the reliability of submarines from Beijing….”

At the same time this worthwhile paper from the Lowy Institute has noted that China and India are moving to the test phase of their nuclear-armed submarines, which will patrol the Indo-Pacific, and discusses what that might mean for stability. China can apparently already put a nuclear-capable submarine out to sea with weapons. “Advocates of sea-based nuclear weapons see such fleets as providing stability because of their relative invulnerability to surprise attack… This was certainly the case during the Cold War. But what applied in the 20th century struggle between the West and the Soviet Union does not necessarily hold for the more complex strategic situation that is now evolving in Asia.” The security environment is changing rapidly, in other words.

The majority of Australia’s trade goes through an area already patrolled by half the world’s submarines, and with plans afoot for more in many nations this will increase.

Australia is concerned enough to have been involved in its first-ever war games with India, ones which had a submarine focus, which apparently unsettled the Chinese. Captain Sheldon Williams, defense advisor at the Australian High Commission in New Delhi told Bloomberg last month, that there is “potential for increased security tensions in the Indian Ocean.. We sit right in the confluence of the Indian and Pacific Oceans. We have a significant responsibility for its security. That’s how we’re looking at it now.” Australia and India both have a stake in Chinese nuclear-capable submarines in the Indian Ocean. Australia has also requested to join the Malabar Exercise between India, the U.S. and Japan, though actually pulled out in 2008 under Kevin Rudd.

These wider strategic moves do not always make it into public debate over the circumstances Australian submarines might face. What would closer ties or a “democratic security diamond” (as Shinzo Abe has said of the Japan-U.S.-India-Australia quadrilateral arrangement) mean? Would the pick of a customized Soryu be a good option for those reasons? What is Australia’s perception of these shifts in the security environment? Much may be cleared up once the White Paper finally arrives, but until then the debate will stick to shipyards and not seas.