In a move firmly in the category of better (ten years) late than never, Australia’s government has cancelled its French-led diesel submarine program in favour of a British-American nuclear design. Given the program’s high risks and rising costs, the Australian government did the right thing, although the French are determined to disagree.
Rather than admitting that it might have been a touch too much to raise the price tag for 12 submarines from $24 billion to (at least) $90 billion, France’s government decided to play the victim, accusing Australia of duplicity. With an awe-inspiring lack of self-awareness, the French ambassador claimed Australia had broken France’s trust as if Australia had not erroneously trusted the French-led consortium in the first place. The French government even decided to act surprised by events, as if the cancellation hadn’t been openly discussed for months.
Meanwhile, as British and American contractors were making space under their beds for the piles of dollar bills coming their way, China’s official mouthpieces were indulging in the very same insufferable threats and hypocrisy that caused the Australian government to buy more submarines in the first place. Beijing claimed that this handful of nuclear-powered submarines, which will not even exist for the better part of two decades, might make Australia worthy of a nuclear attack. Part of this threat was related to the possibility of Australian submarines carrying nuclear weapons, although such capabilities are identical for French-designed boats, the older Collins class too, or even Australia’s surface fleet. After all, any ship that can carry a Tomahawk cruise missile can carry a W80 (or similar) nuclear warhead.
Given Beijing’s concerns about such things, one wonders if China would be open to ceasing the massive expansion of its nuclear arsenal, along with its submarine force, which dwarfs that of Australia and will soon rival that of the USA. Better yet, perhaps Beijing’s concerns over arms races could induce China to cease militarising the South China Sea, abide by territorial norms, end sanctions against Australia, or cease threats to obliterate a certain neighbouring Chinese democracy. I won’t hold my breath on any of these.
Despite China’s standard claim that other countries have a “Cold War mentality,” it is China that never left the Cold War. The principal change in China’s ideology has been the slight shift from communism to fascism. China’s social credit system, media control, patriotic education, protectionist economy and military build-up have given China the social, military and economic capital required to conquer Taiwan and, if required, defeat American forces in East Asia. This is what they intend to do.
And it is into this contest of giants off the East Asian mainland that Australia’s submarines must go, quickly and without surfacing, and this is why they must be nuclear. For years, Australian strategists and politicians have spoken vaguely about threats to “regional stability” or entertained bizarre dreams of Australian defence independence. It was a vision of a local defence industry that caused the Australian government to choose a locally constructed version of a French-designed submarine in the first place. But Australia cannot independently defend itself in the mid-21st century without tripling the defence budget. Even this would be a temporary measure in light of Australia’s techno-industrial weakness, a state for which Chinese manufacturing policies are partly to blame.
Given China’s strengthening military forces and its foreign policy aims, Australian strategists have typically advocated one of two basic alternatives: (1) Australia can disengage from its traditional alliance systems with liberal-democratic states, thereby tacitly accepting a high degree of vulnerability from future aggressors; or (2) Australia can strengthen the existing East Asian alliance system and be prepared to deploy air and sea assets to the region if an ally is attacked. Under Chinese and American pressure to make a decision, Australia is gradually shuffling towards the latter option. It’s now a possibility that Australian submarines will one day hunt Chinese ships in the western Pacific, the South China Sea, or even the Taiwan Strait, although it will be a brave commander to take a submarine into the Strait in the next decade given the proximity of Chinese sensor buoys, mines, aircover, and underwater drones.
Indeed, innovations in military drones are going to make life difficult for all submarines in the near future. Long-endurance, autonomous aircraft equipped with image recognition, magnetometry and thermal sensors will detect the shapes of hulls in shallow water, as well as the different temperatures of displacement waves caused by submerged ships disturbing layers of water. These systems will not get tired, lazy or make the mistakes of human observers, and submarines have fragile hulls, easily pierced by a single shaped charge. Smart mines will be small and hard to spot, too, with the ability to drift long distances or be tethered, then attack with a high-speed burst. And all this is additional to the century-old practice of anti-submarine vessels detecting a torpedo launch, then focusing in on a search area to obliterate with depth charges.
In short, it is possible that large, conventionally armed, manned submarines will be obsolete by the time the first Australian submarine is ready for action. But here again, is why the nuclear-powered option is best. A nuclear submarine could be an essential delivery system for undersea drones with its long endurance, large capacity, and unlimited electrical power for charging batteries. Just as mines were both the enemy and the ordinance of a previous generation of submarines, so too might nuclear-powered submarines unleash a mini-fleet of drones for area control, area denial or reconnaissance and target designation.
Battery operated underwater drones will be extremely quiet without the noise of diesel or nuclear plants. Their main limitation is that they must either drift with the currents, recharge on the surface (with solar or ships), or see their batteries quickly depleted. But submarines offer a third option – as a transport system or even as a recharge station (if the non-trivial problems of underwater navigation and rendezvous without unacceptable electromagnetic emissions are solved).
Irrespective of the fate of the submarines themselves, these new weapons are emblematic of Australia’s strengthening military relationship with Britain and the USA. That relationship is now aimed squarely at China, and all pretences of other aims (such as anti-terrorism or “stability” operations) can be discarded or confined to secondary importance. The main question remaining is, will Australian forces be committed to checking an unprovoked Chinese assault against Taiwan, or will the government see fit to gamble on the continuation of a benign security environment.
Either way, Australia’s Defence Force can’t go it alone. Let’s hope it doesn’t need to try.