The deterrent value of submarines
16 Nov 2016|

Image courtesy of Flickr user Michael Coghlan.

I spoke on the subject of the deterrent value of submarines at the Submarine Institute of Australia annual conference yesterday. I was preaching to the choir with that crowd, but I’m often asked at public events why we’re planning on spending so much on submarines.

The full text of my talk is here but I had three main messages:

  1. Our planned submarine capability is sufficient to have a strong deterrent effect on other middle powers.
  2. Deterring a determined nuclear weapon power requires a nuclear weapon capability because a conventional response can only get you so far. If we think we need to deter China, we need the US around.
  3. If we’re serious about having a deterrent submarine force, we need to bring the timetable for construction and delivery of the future boats forward.

The first shouldn’t be controversial. Deterrence is the art of being able to credibly threaten a would-be adversary with more pain than gain. And one of the best ways to do that is with a weapon which is effective and hard to counter. A submarine’s stealth allows it to do just that, including threatening an adversary, even close to their own bases. A capable submarine arm could go a long way to preventing a near-peer from being able to make effective use of the ocean—which in turn should make them think twice about starting something.

Economic trends suggest that our region will continue to grow faster than we will. Regional military modernisation will erode our current capability and/or capacity advantages, and we won’t be able to count on winning a symmetric conflict. So we need to think about what we’d need in the way of asymmetric capabilities in order to be able to take it up to a capable near-peer adversary.

A skeptic might reasonably ask who that adversary could be, and I’ll admit that there’s no obvious contemporary threat. But, if for no other reason than geography, we’ll always have to watch developments to our immediate north. Australia and Indonesia nearly came to blows in the 1960s, and there were heightened tensions over East Timor in the 1970s and again in 1999. Indonesia is now in a happier place than defence planners could have credited 15 years ago, and it would take supreme incompetence on the part of both parties for us to come to blows again. But Defence planners have to be glass half empty types. Political trends aren’t always benign, and future developments could take us back to a place where our interests come into conflict.

Major powers present a very different calculus. And we’re really talking about China. I suppose we can’t entirely rule out a problem with Russia, but even they would have to push China aside further north to credibly threaten Australia’s direct interests. There’s no doubt that the rise of China presents Australia with its most serious strategic challenge for the first half of this century. Australia’s intelligence agencies reached the same conclusion, as reflected in successive defence white papers.

A credible deterrent to Chinese power must include enough conventional force to make the costs of conventional war unpalatable, and the backup of nuclear weapons to counter a nuclear threat. Having an ally in the region that has significant conventional and nuclear capabilities is the only affordable way for Australia to achieve that goal. Recent defence white papers reached the same conclusion: Australia’s best strategy is to encourage the US to strongly engage in the Asia–Pacific region, and the best way to do that is to be a more robust and capable ally.

A couple of forward deployed Australian submarines won’t deter a country that has a fleet of over 70 nuclear and conventional boats—and which hasn’t been deterred by the USN’s nuclear submarines (or by the threat of nuclear escalation). But by investing more in our own capability, we simultaneously add to total alliance power and take the argument about freeloading allies off the table in Washington. It’s notable that the incoming President has criticised Japan and South Korea as net takers of security, but has been much less inclined to criticise Australia.

I’ve convinced myself that more and better Australian submarines are a good idea. But there’s one aspect of our submarine plan that still vexes me: the timetable for delivery.

The 2016 White Paper says this:

‘…the growth of China’s national power, including its military modernisation, means China’s policies and actions will have a major impact on the stability of the Indo-Pacific to 2035.’

But the Navy will commission the first of Australia’s future submarines not long before that, and won’t have 12 until 15 years later.

Let’s get serious. A larger fleet of more capable submarines allows us to retire strategic risk. They’d provide us with a potent deterrent against middle powers. They’d help us be a capable and credible ally to the US, and thus lower the costs to the US of remaining deeply engaged in our region. But the major power balance in our region could change dramatically in the next 20 years. The dust could be settling just in time for our new boats to start arriving. The reason we’re being so lackadaisical about it isn’t strategic logic—it’s the politics of local builds. As Mark Thomson pointed out yesterday, industry policy is holding Australia’s strategic policy captive.