DEFENCE: by John MillerNews Weekly
Australia's defence priorities
, October 1, 2011
The late Hon. Sir James Killen MP in the 1970s once famously said that Australia could not defend Bondi Beach from invasion on a Sunday afternoon.
Defence is, or ought to be, a priority for Australia, with its comparatively small population inhabiting a vast continent.
Over the past decade, Australia has been committed to its alliance with the United States in two theatres of war, namely Iraq and Afghanistan. Neither conflict is particularly popular with the public, but Australia’s involvement has not generated the same opposition as did the Vietnam War, for which we should be truly thankful.
My interest in defence is allied to my former career in intelligence. The two go hand-in-hand. My greatest concern today is that there is no general agreement on the form and substance of Australian defence.
I correspond with a number of American service personnel, mostly retired, and they have good things to say about Australian forces in the field, especially in Afghanistan where they fight at night and behind enemy lines.
The Australian recently published an exclusive front-page story by Mark Dodd, entitled “Coalition to tear up Labor’s defence blueprint” (September 20, 2011). Commenting on Labor’s 2009 Defence White Paper, Coalition defence spokesman, Senator the Hon. David Johnston (Liberal, WA), announced that a future Abbott Government “would quickly commission a new white paper and restore transparency to the department whose annual $26 billion budget is notorious for production delays, cost overruns and waste”.
A major problem for Australian defence concerns submarines, specifically the Collins-class variety. I knew several submariners who had sailed in the Oberon-class ones and refused to board the new boats (as submarines are known by convention).
The long drawn-out saga of the selection of Collins-class submarines and the extensive problems with operations have been well documented in the media and in News Weekly (see Ken Aldred’s report on August 20, 2011). As recently as mid-September, only one of these submarines was said to be operational, which raises serious questions about the rest.
Cameron Stewart, correspondent for The Australian, has produced a number of articles on Collins-class submarines which have nearly gone to the bottom. There is no doubt that Australia made a grave error in deciding to produce its own submarines, especially when the design was adapted from those produced by the Swedish company, Kockums.
These boats are built for coastal work, especially in deep fjords, and have a restricted range. The Australian adaptation was to provide longer-range capabilities for interdiction roles.
Labor’s solution is to procure or build 12 replacements for the hapless Collins-class submarines.
Common sense dictates that if you want good operational submarines, you draw on the best knowledge in the world, and that happens to be in Germany and the U.S. However, modern German submarines are used essentially for coastal patrols and shallow seas, and the U.S. only produces nuclear-powered boats.
The ugly truth is that both sides of Australian politics have been plagued by cowardice when it comes to acquiring submarines. With a coastline as long as the U.S. (not counting Alaska), Australia needs long-range patrol submarines, and for logistic and strategic reasons that means nuclear-power.
I can already hear the screams from the left and the Greens at the very thought of nuclear-propelled submarines. The battle was lost years ago, back in the 1980s, when the physician and anti-nuclear campaigner Dr Helen Caldicott and her followers managed to convince far too many people that nuclear power was unsafe at any price.
I remember reading a Greenpeace publication about accidents on nuclear vessels and was struck by the trivial categories used. Even falling downstairs was counted as an accident.
The U.S. Navy has lost two nuclear submarines since Admiral Hiram Rickover introduced nuclear-powered submarines to the fleet, phasing out diesel-electric boats. On April 9, 1963, the USS Thresher, an attack-class submarine (which differs from the big ICBM-carrying “boomers”), was lost during deep-diving tests off Cape Cod, imploding between 400 and 600 metres. On June 5, 1968, the USS Scorpion suffered the same fate in the mid-Atlantic.
Given worldwide hysteria about nuclear power, the U.S. located both wrecks and confirmed that the reactors had automatically shut down. Since then, nearly half a century of routine monitoring of the wrecks by the renowned Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute has provided no evidence of radiation.
HMS Astute, first of a new class of British nuclear-powered submarines, reputedly has a reactor the size of a domestic garbage-bin and its life is that of the vessel. In theory, this class could circumnavigate the globe without resurfacing, provided there were ample food supplies available.
Our debate has not been helped by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s advocacy of smaller European submarines, with less range and capability. This would only saddle Australia with another generation of smaller, cheaper and ultimately unsuitable submarines.
Another serious defence matter concerns the RAAF and Australia’s decision to purchase the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter from the U.S.
However, delays in R&D and differing requirements from various branches of the U.S. forces, along with cost blow-outs, have prompted concern about whether the aircraft will ever enter service. The Coalition proposes to boost purchase of the F/A-18F Super Hornets and re-configure the existing 12 aircraft of that make to the status of EA-18G electronic warfare platforms. Senator Johnston has also committed the Coalition to buying 15 Global Hawks — high-altitude, long-range unmanned aircraft.
Australia today is virtually unprotected in a fluid and potentially dangerous area of the world. The need to attract, train and retain first-class personnel is vital but, without a thorough defence review, the situation is parlous.
John Miller is a former senior intelligence officer.