Tuesday 6th October, 2015 Australia/Sydney

Australian Conservative

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.

(Image: Bert Kelly Research Centre)

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.

6 ResponsesResponses RSS Feed

  1. Kym Stewart says:

    Interesting that you care about the policy and good to know that some people think about the way the defence budget invested.
    In terms of our real capabilty to have any impact should the trouble begin Australia is so too far behind the pace.
    The best we can ever hope for is that our American allies will come to our aid again. May God bless America.
    I feel that it is well over due for China to step up to the plate and start contributing to the stability of the world. China has been blessed with wealth and power that needs to be shared. Why should the Americans be expected to fund the defence of the free world largely by herself.

  2. Rick Fishbourne PONPCSM RAN (ret) says:

    As an old Oberon Class Submariner of the 70’s I agree with the good Dr’s appraisal, we need a minimum of 3 SSN’s but 5 would be better. Diesel Boats must remain long-range, and prob 7 would do the trick, for a total of 12 Boats. D.E. Submarines are vulnerable in lattorol waters, too shallow for snorting Boats, too eaisly detected. SSN’s are what we should be running exclusively by 2150 or so. We are a long way from anywhere at 15 knots or so, in a Diesel Boat, (and that’s on the roof, transiting) SSN’s dived at 25 knots much better.

  3. Evan Thomas says:

    A nuclear sub is the way to go, primarily because of its vastly superior range. We are along way from likely ports and other subjects of interest. Subs in peacetime are invaluable collectors of intelligence. Priorities would be to lease a US sub or a used boat from the US or maybe a UK Trident, currently about to be about to be replaced. We should never again risk our servicemen and women with second rate weapons systems.

  4. China is growing its influence (bullying) in South East Asia, Japan included. Malaysia and Phils Sultanates are warring around Sabah. There are extremism cooking in Indonesia (Bali). India VS Pakistan. etc etc. Where is Australia? Well, we are battling the so called boat people (business as usual for the people smugglers). Without proper security, the economy will collapse.

    • I forgot, here comes North Korea. They might have a dummy nukes, but consider them as clear, real and present danger.

  5. Family First looks like a better bet for conservative voters than the increasingly ‘liberal’ Abbott-led Coalition.

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