Sea, air and land updates

Image courtesy of Department of Defence

Sea State

Tensions in the South China Sea continue to escalate, with around 100 Chinese ships detected in Malaysian waters near the Luconia Shoals on 24 March. In response, Malaysia sent its Maritime Enforcement Agency and navy to monitor the area, and Malaysia’s Minister for National Security, Shahidan Kassim, said it may take legal action if the ships enter Malaysia’s EEZ. China’s foreign ministry spokesman, Hong Lei, said in a regular briefing that he ‘did not understand the details’ of the matter, but wanted to point out that it was currently fishing season in the South China Sea. For some interesting background reading, The National Interest takes a look at the evolving role of Chinese coastguards here.

One of the USN’s most enduring naval mysteries has finally been solved, with a USN tugboat missing since 1921 discovered sunk off the coast of San Francisco. According to a statement released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the US Navy on 23 March, the wreck of USS Conestoga was found about 50km west of San Francisco. The boat, the last USN ship to be lost without a trace during peacetime, left San Francisco on 25 March 1921, and was bound for American Samoa—via Hawaii—with 56 officers and sailors on board, when it disappeared in bad weather. The Telegraph has a video of the wreckage here.

Flight Path

In this week’s look at the F-35 program, Pentagon officials have committed to an extensive schedule of airshows this year to try and boost the JSF’s public image and improve public perceptions. Lieutenant General Chris Bogdan, F-35 program manager, said that the events are an attempt to close the perception gap between public takes on the program and reality. We look forward to some cool airshow videos in the future. Also, be sure to check out this article from Real Clear Defense which examines domestic budgetary constraints that might affect the future of Australia’s JSF program.

Two recent articles have taken an interesting look at the impact of money on air force programs. National Defense magazine looks at how money is shaping the modernisation of the USAF, particularly when balancing the maintenance of legacy fleets and the development of new aircraft. And over at War is Boring, James Stevenson has argued why he thinks the secrecy surrounding the B-21 program might hinder future funding by looking at how the less-classified Advanced Tactical Fighter program won-out over the ‘black’ A-12 Avenger II project.

Rapid Fire

US troops will soon be stationed in the Philippines for the first time in 25 years. Facilitated under the 2014 defence agreement between the two countries, four airbases and one army camp will be made available to the American military. The Philippines is currently embroiled in a territorial dispute with China over the South China Sea, and the strategic positioning of US forces in the country is indicative of recent Philippine efforts to strengthen their claims.

With the 2016 Nuclear Security Summit beginning on 31 March in Washington DC, the North Korean military has once again engaged in more sabre rattling, with their propaganda machine releasing a video showing the destruction of the US capital by a nuclear attack. For those interested in following the progress of North Korea’s aggressive and erratic behaviour, the Council on Foreign Relations has created a global conflict tracker which regularly updates the North Korea Crisis.

And finally, the computer gaming company Wargaming has rescued and refurbished one of only six WWII Australian-built tanks left in existence—the Australian Cruiser Mark 1 ‘Sentinel’. The company, which is responsible for the online multiplayer game World of Tanks, originally discovered the tank in 2006 and is currently displaying the relic at the Australian Armour and Artillery Museum.


SAL feature: the life and times of the Collins-class submarine (part 2)

Last week, we delved into the history of RAN’s Collins-class submarine, looking back at the project’s conception, its troubled construction phase, the McIntosh-Prescott Report and the fast-track program to bring the submarines up to operational standards. This week, we’ll look at the bad publicity and political controversies of the project, availability issues and the Coles Review, the outlook for the Collins class and the future submarines project.

Bad publicity has followed the Collins throughout its life. Negative press began in 1994, during the tumultuous construction stage, and reached what chroniclers of the Collins project Peter Yule and Derek Woolner describe as a state of ‘almost hysteria’ by the time of the election in March 1996. The ‘dud subs’ label was originally used by a group of officers in RAN’s surface fleet, and later used by the Coalition to attack then-Opposition leader Kim Beazley. In 1998, a newspaper headline describing the Collins as ‘noisy as a rock concert’ cited the findings of a leaked secret US navy report. The story haunted the Collins-class through the next decade, despite officials denying that the phrase had ever appeared in an official report.

Availability issues continued to plague the class in the early 2000s. As a result, the Coles Review was announced by the Federal Government in August 2011. The Phase 1 Report detailed a number of interim recommendations about how to address ‘long-standing and entrenched difficulties’ with the Collins-class, and the final report found that organisational and management issues were rife in the program. It offered a number of recommendations to address those issues which were taken on board, and as reported by Andrew Davies and Mark Thomson in May 2015, improvements to meet those benchmarks have been made.

When the program was established in 1982, the submarines were expected to have an operational life of around 30 years. It was clear by the mid-2000s however, that the acquisition process for a replacement would likely take much longer. In December 2007, the government announced that planning for the Collins-class replacement had commenced. Last month’s launch of the 2016 Defence White Paper confirmed the acquisition of 12 submarines for entry into service from the early 2030s. In order to see the Collins-class meet the challenge of sustaining submarine operations and superiority over growing naval forces in the Asia–Pacific, the government announced a periodic refit which will see the submarines receive upgraded communication and sensor capabilities.

It should be noted that despite the controversies, the Collins-class are excellent submarines. They’ve exceeded expectations in a number of areas, including contracted speed, low-speed underwater endurance, manoeuvrability and the performance of the ships control system. From all accounts, they’ve performed well in war games with the US, and have been able to patrol long distances throughout the Asia–Pacific.