The French designed Attack Class submarine program has been aborted but a new procurement disaster now looms, writes independent senator for South Australia Rex Patrick.
What a joke. You’d laugh if it didn’t involve $100 billion of your money and our national security.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has launched Australia on a course for a defence procurement and strategic debacle of tremendous proportions.
He has compounded one massive failure by doubling up for an even bigger disaster.
The 2009 Defence White Paper showed that Australian defence planners were alive to China’s economic rise and naval expansion. In response, the Australian government announced an intention to increase the Royal Australian Navy’s submarine force from six to 12 boats.
We were supposed to have 12 regionally superior submarines, assembled in Australia, by 2039. The expanded submarine fleet was to be “large enough to maintain an effective operational presence, at long range, as well as protect other key ADF assets. Moreover, the expanded submarine force would be used as a strategic deterrent”.
So, with all that has happened and $2.3 billion of taxpayers money spent, and Australia’s strategic circumstances worsening, where will the current plans of the Morrison government have us in 2039?
The disastrous French designed Attack Class submarine program has been aborted. But a new procurement disaster now looms.
Navy recently fronted the Senate’s inquiry into Australia’s sovereign naval shipbuilding capability and painted an alarming picture.
The first of Scott Morrison’s proposed eight – not 12 – nuclear-powered submarines may be delivered in 2040. That’s only if a number of very difficult barriers can be overcome. This includes building up from scratch a large nuclear educated and skilled shipbuilding workforce, putting in place a nuclear safety regime, building the boats in Adelaide and supporting them as they go to sea – all without a civil nuclear industry.
This is a very high-risk program with no room for slippage or failure.
Already there are doubts as to the Adelaide build of the eight subs. The cancellation of the French submarine has put our submarine building industry in disarray and the sentiment of many bathtub admirals is that this element of Australia’s defence industry ought not to regroup because the boats will be built overseas.
The head of Capability Acquisition inside the Defence Department ‘liked’ a post on the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s blog entitled ‘Australia’s nuclear-powered submarines should be built in America’. On Friday, he told the Senate that this was a case of fat fingers – an accident (it would be a good thing for him to stay away from any red buttons).
Accidents aside, I simply don’t believe the claim of the Prime Minister that these eight new submarines will be built in Adelaide. The more one looks at this, the more it looks like a wag the dog moment. There’s a big announcement intended to generate much colour and movement, but when you look behind the curtain you can see it’s a pantomime, lacking real planning or strategy.
As we wait for the first nuclear submarine to arrive, almost certainly from an overseas shipyard in 2040, the first of our life extended Collins Class submarines will have had to have be retired. In 2039 we won't have 12 new submarines, we’ll have five ageing Collins boats that will be very difficult to maintain and a steel coffin in combat. It’s unbelievable.
The first nuclear boat won’t be operational until some time after 2040. The last built, assuming there are eight, may not be delivered until around 2061 – around the time Halley’s Comet returns.
And to add insult to national security injury, the new submarines will cost more than the French Attack submarines would have. The price will be well north of $100 billion.
All of that will be too late to deal with the developing situation to our north. We’ll be buying a very expensive parachute after the plane has already crashed.
We need a comprehensive rethink. We need a realistic plan, not a political charade.
Exercise Talisman Sabre this year saw two Chinese spy ships sailing off our waters watching our manoeuvres. The previous exercise had only one Chinese spy ship present.
In 2009, the Chinese Navy couldn’t deploy too far beyond the South China Sea. Now they have a regular presence in the Indian Ocean. Given their current rate of naval construction, they will soon have plenty of ships to operate across all of Australia’s trade routes including off our northern, eastern and western coasts. The Chinese Navy will be a permanent and substantial strategic presence on our doorstep.
Our strategic circumstances are changing quickly. We don’t need a $100 billion long-range nuclear-powered submarine fleet commencing in 2040. What we need for the defence of Australia is a reliable and capable fleet of military-off-the-shelf boats that are constructed here and delivered on a credible timeframe in the near to medium term.
For $20 billion we could start a build program that would see Adelaide welders fully occupied from 2025 onwards building the first of 20 highly capable German or Japanese designed boats.
We would get more boats, at much less cost and faster than Scott Morrison’s nuclear fantasy promises. And we would continue to build our sovereign Australian submarine construction and support capabilities.
Hopefully, when we get a good way through the 18 months nuclear powered submarine study that is underway, a new Prime Minister will kill the whole nuclear scheme off as the profound danger to national security that it is.
Never have I felt so concerned for Australia’s national security, our future submarine force and the Adelaide submarine workforce.
Senator Rex Patrick is an independent senator for South Australia and former Royal Australian Navy submariner.