The submarine choice
9 Apr 2014|

ASPI's executive director Peter Jennings opening ASPI International Conference 'The Submarine Choice'.

In the tight space of an ASPI blog post, I want to set out the approaches that I believe Government will need to apply to making the submarine choice. Think of them as Jennings’ ‘rules of thumb’— guide posts to help us get to the right decision.

The first rule of thumb is that Government’s consideration of the submarine choice should lead with strategy. We’re not living in the relatively benign world anticipated in the 2012 Asian Century White Paper. In Asia we see a worrying pattern of military strategic competition over disputed territories. North Korea is a continuing challenge. Regional security architecture is under-developed and defence spending across much of the region is climbing. Our wider region is by no means all down-side—indeed, opportunities for growth and cooperation remain strong. But this isn’t a time for retrenching significant defence capabilities.

Speaking in Adelaide recently, just before the state election, the Prime Minister stressed that he saw defence not as ‘some kind of job creation program’ but as ‘a defence of the nation program’. That runs counter to much of the public debate on the submarine choice. But it’s absolutely the right starting point.

The second rule of thumb is that Government should look hard at what roles and missions it wants the submarines to perform. The 2009 White Paper tended to ascribe every possible role to the Collins replacement, including strategic strike, anti-ship and ASW missions, intelligence collection, support for our special forces, and the gathering of battlespace data in support of operations. That list sounds fantastic—because it is. I see no recourse to this other than to take a disciplined approach to thinking through what Australia really needs in terms of capabilities. It’s hard to buy an F-22 on a Cessna budget.

The third rule of thumb is that Government should think about broad capabilities, not just platforms. The future submarine will be part of a broader force, and a broader alliance structure. Success in military operations goes to those who can integrate capabilities into a fighting unit. So, how will the submarine fit into a broader Australian warfighting concept? How will it work with a range of other sub-surface, surface and airborne systems and how will those adapt to changing technological conditions over the life of the capability?

The fourth rule of thumb is: Look at alternatives to deliver capability outcomes. I’d suggest that one of the outcomes of the 2009 white paper has been to keep us focused on twelve platforms. Looking at alternative options to deliver capability is an essential task. For example, there’s a need to think about strike options for the ADF that go beyond the future submarine capability. Perhaps there are other ways to deliver a stand-off strike capability worth pursuing.

The fifth rule of thumb is to ask about the alliance and regional implications. My view is that the US alliance is becoming more, not less important to Australia. A closer alliance creates both risks and opportunities for us. One risk is that the US will increasingly look to its allies to share more of the security burden. But the opportunities for Australia are also great. Apart from the well-understood benefits of access to technology, intelligence and training, there’s a not-inconsiderable benefit of linking American interests much more directly to our own in terms of the stability and security of Southeast Asia.

Moreover, there are regional and global partnership implications, as the Prime Minister’s visit to Japan has made clear. There’s an obvious potential for Australia to strengthen relations with Japan and with a number of European players. There’s an industry core to this, but also a broader strategic point—Australia can use the submarine choice to strengthen key bilateral ties.

The sixth rule of thumb is that healthy scepticism is a virtue. Some years ago I worked for a respected Secretary of Defence and he advised me that a safe course of action was never to believe the first piece of advice offered in relation to any policy issue. I came to appreciate the wisdom of those words. That’s not to attribute fault—imperfect first advice is just a product of the enormous complexity of the issues under consideration, the absence of clear and definitive information, and the low risk-appetite of governments when it comes to projects. Healthy scepticism helps. Some questions that come to mind include: What’s the real basis for the number twelve? Is SLOC protection really a modern requirement? What do our allies really expect? All useful questions to ask.

My second last rule of thumb is that it’s important to remember there’s a wider Defence Force. The scale of the submarine choice is so large that it has the potential to crowd out other necessary acquisitions. Submarines can’t be allowed to turn the ADF into a one-trick pony. Here I want to avoid recourse to the ‘balanced force’ argument. A force can be unbalanced if it meets a country’s particular needs—that’s why the Swiss don’t have a Navy. But Australia can’t afford to under-invest in critical land and air systems or, for that matter, in the surface fleet. Further new investment areas, for example in space and cyber, are emerging. A sustainable submarine choice is one that allows the rest of the ADF to develop as well.

My final rule of thumb is that Industry outcomes should be sustainable, long term and believable. It reveals no secrets to say that industry has high expectations of an approach from government that enables them to make long terms plans and to stick with them. Just as for Defence, the least useful situation for industry is one where there are rapid fluctuations in plans, year-on-year changes to spending profiles, and rapid redesigns of capability requirements.

Peter Jennings is executive director at ASPI. Image (c) ASPI 2014.