Collision course: defence strategy must not ignore the lessons of history
Recently all of the political commentary has been focused on the Labor’s internal party squabbles. To an outside observer it would appear that we in Australia live in a world where wars never happen; where the lion lies down with the lamb; and man’s inhumanity to man is no more.
But the world is not like this. Australia needs a defence force which is capable of taking a major part in any hostilities which threaten our future. But virtually no one is arguing the case for our defence forces. The Gillard government savaged defence expenditure and the Opposition doesn’t seem to care. Like it or not, we need to be preparing the community for major increases in defence expenditure and for decisions as to where we should invest our scarce dollars in defence equipment.
There are currently arguments about the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) versus the Hornet. Now that drones are rapidly replacing manned aircraft, this debate seems rather like the arguments about sailing ships which made the Royal Navy supreme after the battle of Trafalgar but subsequently became obsolete with the development of steam powered battleships towards the end of the 19th century.
What is clear is that in today’s world, submarines have taken the place of wind-powered battle ships. Australia, if it is to remain a regional power of consequence between the South Pacific and Indian Oceans, must have a submarine fleet which will be taken seriously both by our allies and by potentially hostile nations.
Submarines are essential to our defence and security. Informed defence opinion tells us we need, as a minimum, three nuclear and six diesel-electric subs, and the cost would be nearly $15 billion. It is a sad reflection on the depth of defence policymaking that the ALP is officially committed to a “no-nuclear-subs” policy and the Liberals at present are also ruling out the nuclear option.
Australian National University professor Paul Dibb wrote recently “the US has indicated very firmly to us that it prefers Australia to have conventional submarines” and “whichever submarine we choose it will have US combat systems”.
But does it really have to be that way?
Last year it was suggested Australia was not pulling its weight in the defence area and was reverting to its old ways of relying on “great and powerful friends”. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a quick visit to our shores to discuss the matter.
In 1969, South Australian MP Bert Kelly was sacked as Minister for the Navy following the collision of HMAS Melbourne and USS Frank E Evans.
It appears Australia could once again be on a collision course with the US, this time over our defence strategy, particularly the JSF and submarines.
Last month Australia and Britain entered into a new defence treaty. This is a good move. The UK has begun a massive investment in new submarine construction and Australia should consider entering a joint venture with the UK to build our own (nuclear) submarines in the UK with the inclusion of Australian labour. The opportunity to lower cost, ensure the latest technology and build our domestic skills capacity so we could eventually build them ourselves would all be enhanced by a joint venture. This would benefit both Australia and the UK.
Further, given its strategic importance and role, it should be asked whether this proposed new submarine warfare capability should remain within the Royal Australian Navy or become a fourth Service in our defence force, the Royal Australian Submarine Corps, with direct access, as in the US, to the top levels of government.
The US might, privately, welcome Australia pursuing the UK nuclear submarine option. The US Congress might not support sharing nuclear submarine technology with Australia, but could be happy for us to have a nuclear submarine capability.
There have been occasions in the past where failure to recognise that changes in weapons technology had changed the nature of warfare. The lessons of the American Civil war were ignored by the military leaders of Western Europe. The consequences were played out on the Somme and the other killing fields of Flanders.
This was a tragedy of momentous proportions which changed the course of world history.
Australia must not make the same mistakes again.
Bob Day AO is Chairman of the Bert Kelly Research Centre.
NOTE: This opinion piece by Bob Day was updated on 17 July, 2013, to reflect last month’s Labor Party leadership change.