Credit Where Credit Is Due – Aussie Sub Force Future
The debate over the future of Australia’s defense posture seemed settled with the 2009 White Paper. Australia would acquire a capable force of 100 F-35 stealth fighters, a small but capable AAW surface force able to interface seamlessly with USN battle groups, and a surprising twelve new submarines to continue the trend in Southeast Asia and Oceania of increasingly numerous and capable undersea forces. However, anointing a plan in a defense paper is a far cry from actually acquiring the capability sought, and the submarine program has many questions still to answer. Unfortunately it seems that as far as the government is concerned, there is no question that the future submarine force will be diesel-electric.
The problem with this is that diesel-electric subs are a poor fit for what Australia wants to do with them. This has not escaped the notice of independent researchers and analysts. I suggest everyone interested in such matters to read Simon Cowan’s report “The Future Submarine Project Should Raise Periscope For Another Look,” or at least read his summary at The Diplomat. It is an excellent review of the issue and cost estimates.
Which brings us to Australia’s decisions thus far. Reasonably speaking, we are done with the wars of industrial weight of the 20th century. In today’s fast-paced environment, you go to war with what you have. It takes years to build new warships, so having domestic building capacity is largely irrelevant to warfighting ability. Any big war in Oceania will be decided far more quickly than that. Nor would Australia fight a big war without the US, so arguments based on that are also irrelevant.
Ultimately, the only reasonable argument for an Australian submarine solution is as a make-work program that supports Australian industry with defense dollars. However, that doesn’t make a lot of sense – it is not as if the industrial capacity being supported in this case is vital to Australia once the trouble-plagued Collins class is retired, and defense funds should be focused on providing the best capability for the taxpayer dollar, not on corporate welfare. Acquiring a force of Virginia-class SSN’s is clearly the superior solution for Australia’s future defense posture, and would cost far less than a domestic solution.
Military procurement programs tend to range widely between success and failure; the Virginia class has been an example of success, with world-beating performance on time and on budget – and that on a decreasing budget, no less. This is an excellent program that Australia would do well to join. Particularly when the current plan is a new Collins class. If the Australian government wants to use defense money in a domestic make-work program, they can use the 10-20 billion (AUS) dollars they would save and put it in a dedicated make-work program. In the meantime, let those Aussie submariners enjoy having a superior submarine capability. It is a win-win, and Simon Cowan deserves credit for keeping the superior SSN solution in the discussion space.