CRISPIN HULL: Australia doesn't need more submarines

By Crispin Hull

Published Tuesday 3 May 2016

WE ASKED the wrong question. We asked: should we get the French, the Germans or the Japanese to help us build new submarines? The fourth option and fifth options were not canvassed – for short-term political reasons.

The fourth and fifth options were: why build any submarines at all, and if we must have some submarines why not build nuclear-powered submarines with US help.

The best option would have been no submarines at all, for several related reasons. First, Australia spends far too much on defence. Secondly, they are not needed as part of a credible deterrence. Thirdly, submarines are rapidly becoming ineffective and obsolete.

Australia is the 12th highest spender on defence in the world. And all of the countries that spend more than us have cogent reasons for doing so. They have neighbouring menaces and do not have the protective barrier of ocean that we have.

Astonishingly, Australia has the fourth highest per capita defence spending in the world. Why are we so frightened or belligerent?

It is bizarre that South Korea, which borders a country bent on its destruction led by an unstable nuclear-determined lunatic, spends less per head on defence than Australia. These rankings come from the International Institute of Strategic Studies.

The three higher per capita spenders are Saudi Arabia, Israel and the United States.

Taiwan, which has China avowedly determined to take it over, spends less than half per capita on defence than Australia.

Let’s look at our three submarine contenders. Japan spends less than a third per head than Australia, and it has avowedly expansionist China just across the water. Germany spends less than a half and France a bit over two-thirds.

These rankings were for 2015 and take no account of Australia’s projected spending on the new submarines, the Joint Strike Fighter and other weapons that will come to about $195 billion by 2020-21, according to the Defence White Paper, but most likely a lot more given the history of cost-blow-outs on virtually every defence procurement.

Our present level of defence spending is unjustified given our comparative position. And our future spending is even more unjustified.

Canada, which has sensibly dropped that other big-weapons dud, the Joint Strike Fighter, spends per head just 40 per cent of what Australians do. They spend their money on better things.

Spending so much money – $50 billion plus maintenance – on submarines is very foolish.

We are locking ourselves long-term into a dud technology. And we will be contractually bound to go ahead, even if the US and Russia develop surface drones that can detect submarines anywhere on earth – which they are not far off doing.

The Collins Class technology became superseded before time. At the end of 2003 the Australian Submarine Corporation was awarded a $3.5 billion contract to maintain them for 25 years. It was throwing good money after bad and the same can be said for the latest $50 billion effort.

New technology is rapidly eroding the submarine’s main advantage – being hidden.

Submarines are virtually useless against air attack, especially by missiles. They are entirely useless for repelling or helping flotillas of unarmed refugees fleeing the effects of climate change.

They might be good against an armed sea invasion in the fanciful defence world of fear and belligerence. But air defence would achieve the deterrence just as well, so why waste the money on submarines? Because you don’t want to disappoint South Australian voters perhaps.

But if we really must have submarines, why not nuclear? Because there is a whole lot of political objection to it perhaps. Yet we might have to embrace nuclear power anyway as the lesser of two evils if we can’t get enough renewable energy to replace aging coal-fired power stations.

The US does not have one conventionally powered submarine. We are adding unnecessary cost to an already flawed submarine program by not going nuclear.

Another question is why the sudden need to double our submarine fleet from six Collins Class submarines to 12 new ones. It is not as if the coastline has doubled since 2003 when the last Collins was launched.

The submarine project can only be explained by politics. Labor and the unions always supported it provided they were to be built in Australia. The Hawke Government agreed that the Collins submarines would be built in Adelaide to shore up its political fortunes in South Australia. The Coalition was therefore locked in to South Australia for the new submarines because it could not afford to disappoint South Australia after withdrawing support for the car industry which has such a large presence in the state.

The defence force, of course, will go along with any weapons project the politicians are willing to hand them.

Meanwhile, the public displays marked apathy about defence matters, oblivious of the fact that every dollar wasted on a submarine is one less dollar for education, health or tax relief.

The most recent Australian Strategic Policy Institute survey on public opinion about defence and other issues done just before the 2007 election had only 2.7 per cent of people putting it first on importance rating and 2.7 putting it second among 14 issues. Health 20.5 and 16.5 rated top. Even terrorism was only 1.8 and 4.2.

Sure, such polls can be a bit misleading, but they do indicate some apathy about defence. We should take more interest in defence, not in the retired-officer-view of the world that we must have more of it. To the contrary, so that we know what our money is being wasted on so we can argue against it or argue that our national security demands that money be spent in better ways.

Our national security would be better protected with money spent on computer-science education to help deal with cyber attack and on more policing to deal with the threat of terrorism. We should give more foreign aid in our region and peace-keeping forces where necessary help national security.

And these things would create just as many if not more jobs than building submarines.

With any luck, it may be that as people start realising this they will get annoyed with the politicians who make these foolish decisions and vote accordingly thus counter-acting any pork-barrel effect the decision might have in South Australia.