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Op-Ed: Addressing concerns about the future submarines from a general’s perspective

Op-Ed: Addressing concerns about the future submarines from a general’s perspective

When the new submarine was being proposed, the media often asked if 12 was the right number of submarines to buy. The answer I always gave was trite but correct: It depends on what you want to do with them, explains NSW senator Jim Molan.

When the new submarine was being proposed, the media often asked if 12 was the right number of submarines to buy. The answer I always gave was trite but correct: It depends on what you want to do with them, explains NSW senator Jim Molan.

The single biggest issue for the submarine is how does it fit into a national defence strategy? At the time there was no real national defence strategy to assist the answer – now there is.

The recently announced 2020 Strategic Update and Force Structure Plan assists in answering many of the questions about the Attack Class submarines: do we need them; why so big; how many; why conventional not nuclear; why not buy cheaper from overseas; are they vulnerable; when will we get them; what about the Collins; and why so expensive?


To summarise my position on the project as a whole, because of the war we may have to fight in the future and how we have decided to fight it, Australia needs submarines just as we need a range of surface ships and aircraft. We also need big submarines.

We need something in the order of 12; they are going to be conventional boats because nuclear is illegal in Australia and regardless, no one is going to lease or sell us nuclear boats. No one makes a conventional submarine big enough so we must build them as we built the Collins to meet our need, and there is a premium.

We are not taking the nuclear reactor out of a submarine and putting in a diesel engine – we are designing these boats from a basic French design, as we did with the Collins.

They would probably have been built in South Australia regardless of the fact the Defence Minister came from there. Of course, I would rather they be available sooner than the mid-2030s to the mid-2050s, but we do have an effective submarine force in the Collins and we must keep it effective.

No one can criticise the Attack Class for not being effective submarines because at this stage they are still being designed and are likely to be a capable boat.

“The French Submarine”, as many of its detractors insist on calling it, has now become political, and some of the commentary is shrill. But we all have the right to a view, and to express that view, especially on the cost of the project if nothing else, and I respect others’ views.

This is the people’s money and the people’s future security. It is important for the project that we see frequent engagement by ministers, military chiefs and politicians.

We need to show that we believe in it, but also a more open explanation of what is behind and what is happening in the project – in other words much more emphasis on informing the public rather than just rebuttal. In that spirit, I have stated where I stand.

The change in Australia’s defence strategy launched by the PM on 1 July was seismic and relevant to this issue. When considering any weapon system that has as much strategic, operational and tactical value as a submarine, and costs as much, it is wise to start with the overall strategy.

In essence, because of the change in our strategic environment, Australia now has a forward leaning defence strategy designed to shape the environment before conflict breaks out, to deter direct attacks on Australia, and if deterrence fails, to respond with force, another way of saying “win”.

The defence strategy says directly that “Australia is able and willing to deploy military power” to shape, deter and respond, which describes how we will fight the next war.

To implement what is essentially an operational concept, the government will allocate $270 billion over 10 years for equipment, with manpower and operating costs additional.

To have the widest range of options for military commanders and governments in fighting future wars, we need submarines and big ones. The distances in our region are enormous, so they need endurance.

People forget how big the distances in our region are, or even just the length of our coast. We are not Sweden, Singapore, Germany or Norway. The distance from our east coast to our west coast is the same as that from London to Istanbul, regardless of whether we might want to deploy submarines to north Asia, the Indian Ocean or the South Pacific.

Big submarines are necessary for long deployments regardless of where the deployment goes, because one of the greatest assets of a submarine is to be on patrol for a long time and to hide.

In these days of wide area surveillance, submarines are vulnerable around their bases. As well, bigger boats can carry a range of weapons in addition to torpedoes, such as modern self-deploying sea mines, perhaps missiles or even special forces.

Bigger submarines then have options that do not involve returning to base to change loads.

Strategically, the role of submarines is to deter conflict by contributing to the operational and tactical defeat of an enemy force. Deterrence has the best chance of being achieved if a significant number of boats with a range of weapons can be deployed at any one time. A potential aggressor is never sure of their number or their location.

Nothing off-the-shelf can do this for Australia; the US are not going to “lease” nuclear boats to us. Apart from any considerations of national sovereignty and security, they also see the danger in our shared strategic environment. Starting this year, they are building three nuclear submarines each year, the most expensive US submarine building program since WW2.

This program, a combination of Columbia class ballistic missile boats and Virginia class attack submarines, is already stretching the USA’s industrial capacity. We are on our own.

The number of boats needed by Australia is more difficult to quantify and twelve seemed arbitrary at the time, but not so much now within the current strategy.

The six Collins were intended to keep two operationally at sea most of the time which was world standard, and apparently now there are three Collins available for operational duties at any one time, another for training, one in light maintenance and one in deep maintenance, plus there is discussion of a life extension and upgrade.

Given the Attack Class submarines are unlikely to deliver operational capability until the mid- or late-2030s, the Collins will be around for a long time and then there will be a mix of Collins and Attacks.

The number of submarines needed to achieve deterrence for Australia in this new strategic environment will be well over six, probably at least nine, but 12 will be very good. Three to four submarines sustainably deployed is probably the strategic deterrent minimum and an operational one as well.

Some make the argument that the day of the submarine is over, that they can be found and destroyed now, and they are likely to be more vulnerable in the future.

Others of course make the point that nothing can survive in war on the surface of an ocean and so we should get rid of our surface ships. Everything in war is vulnerable to some extent, particularly mobile assets that operate in the atmosphere (aircraft and surface ships above the water) and fixed bases.

Advice is that research “does not suggest to me that the relative difficulty of detecting submarines underwater by comparison with units which have to operate in the atmosphere is going to diminish. There is a big difference between getting an indication of a boat in an area and then localising it – and a further difference between localising and achieving tracking quality sufficient to achieve a firing solution”.

So you might know a submarine is around, but being able to destroy it is not as easy as some are saying. The updated strategy identifies the need for land-based anti-shipping missiles and I support this, while acknowledging that they are not a substitute for highly mobile submarines, surface combatants or aircraft, they are in addition.

For land-based missiles to survive in modern war, they need to be continually mobile, given the effectiveness of wide area surveillance.

Some related criticism of the Attack Class is that we are taking the nuclear reactor out of the French boat and replacing it with a diesel. That is unfairly simplistic and not the case. The Attack Class will be based on a French hull design but even that will be changed to suit our needs.

This boat is being designed now as a new vessel, and there are no grounds to say at this stage that it will not be an effective submarine.

I will not enter the argument of whether the costs have increased. Contracting and the costs have become a political issue and the ministers involved will handle that, but I acknowledge that everything in defence is expensive. We have tried fighting wars with the cheapest option and it does not go well.

Jim Molan is a senator for NSW. He retired as a major general from the Australian Army in 2008.

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