No Minister

Australian Submarine Strategy

Richard Fernandez is one of the very interesting writers over on the PJ Media site, focusing on matters of foreign policy, military and science in general. He also writes for a number of other publications.

The recent announcement of the AUKUS partnership saw him reaching into the past to grab an article that he wrote in 2013 but never published, Strategy and Submarines. It takes a detailed look not just at what Australia wanted to do with submarines but what they might have to do, as well as the technology itself.

Once the purpose is determined, then the correct tools can be chosen for the job. Thus, every acquisition must be viewed in the context of “what is it for”. Unless the ends are defined, nothing can be said about the proposed means. Buying naval vessels is a means to an end. The determination of ends is usually called strategy.  Unfortunately, the goals of Australian naval strategy are sometimes presented as a laundry list.

He points out that the problem with laundry lists is you cannot tell which is most important. There’s also the fact that global security changed rapidly, as he shows with links to Defence White Papers from 1976 (India, China and Japan pose no future security issue), and 2000 where, in the wake of the collapse of the USSR things looked comfortable and it was possible to imagine that Australia could go it alone.

What to do now (2013):

The choice of ends has a very definite effect upon the means. To defend Australia against powerful opponents “without relying on help from the combat forces of any other country” logically implies the adoption of the naval strategy of the weaker power.

Which is how they ended up with Collins Class submarines and then the deal for the French DIesel-Electric boats. They’re quiet boats but smaller and slower than the American SSN’s, which puts them at odds with the supposed new goals of the Royal Australian Navy (RAN):

But the lack of a definite strategic choice has given the submarine requirements a Jekyll and Hyde character. On the one hand, the conventional Collins-class boats are the stereotypical weapon of the weaker power, the 21st century equivalent of the submarine and naval mine, combining the mobility of a World War II sub with the quietness of a hole in the ocean. On the other hand, many of the envisioned RAN missions implicitly require cooperation with the United States and hence governed by the strategy of the dominant power.

There’s some very interesting stuff on the history of mines and other such “weaker power” stuff, including the WWII aerial mining of Japan which “In terms of damage per unit of cost, surpassed strategic bombing and the United States submarine campaign.” It was called Operation Starvation, which potential horror should be contrasted against military invasions and atomic bombs.

There’s a lot of detailed analysis of Air Independent Propulsion (AIP) submarines which, as good as they can be, run into problems when they are detected, as well as other issues:

AIP units often generate only as much power as a family sedan so that even banks of four produce 300 kw compared to the 30,000 kw of a Virginia class SSN. With that small output, the subs are limited to creeping along at about 2 or 3 knots.

That may be of little consequence in European scenarios, where submarines must only transit a short way to station before turning off their diesels and activating the AIP. But slow speed and the small hull sizes of European off-the-shelf subs are a bane for countries like Australia and Israel, which must send their subs great distances in what are essentially modified European coastal submarines.

The detection scenario can’t be dismissed as technology improves. The article goes into some detail about robotic submarines (unmanned underwater vehicles or UUVs) ) and how advanced they had become even by 2011. Small, cheap and plentiful they present a strong potential threat to small, stealthy submarines that just sit around in shallow waters waiting for targets. UUVs also will be networked together to form a sensor net across oceans, rather like the static SOSUS net the US used in the Atlantic during the Cold War, except this one is mobile.

Some versions called an Autonomous Undersea Vehicles (AUV and also dubbed “gliders”) are specifically designed to track conventional, stealthy submarines.

Liberdade class flying wings are autonomous underwater gliders developed by the US Navy Office of Naval Research which use a blended wing body hullform to achieve hydrodynamic efficiency. It is an experimental class whose models were originally intended to track quiet diesel electric submarines in littoral waters, move at 1–3 knots and remain on station for up to six months.

You can see why the Aussies started to have second thoughts about their $93 billion French purchase, even aside from all the production problems. There’s also another aspect of the future to be considered:

Given the increasing number of complex computerised systems being operated by modern submarines, another important concept is a submarine’s ‘hotel load.’ As SSGs are limited by the power stored in their batteries (which can only be recharged by surfacing), they strictly ration power among their systems.

SSNs are capable of generating and sustaining a much greater power output while submerged due to their nuclear reactor. This power output allows SSNs to carry a greater number of far more powerful sensors and systems (which increase sensor range and awareness), greatly increasing the flexibility, stealth and usefulness of SSNs.

As he puts it himself, his old analysis actually indicates how Australia has made this decision now. Although he didn’t make that forecast he pointed out the strategic thinking needed to make the decision, and it looks the Aussies went through that same process.

We had deep and grave concerns that the capability being delivered by the Attack-class submarine was not going to meet our strategic interests and we had made very clear that we would be making a decision based on our strategic national interest. – Scott Morrison

Written by Tom Hunter

September 21, 2021 at 8:24 am

12 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Australia has always emphasized the First Principle of War viz. selection and maintenance of the aim. In my active years it was the Dibb Report and there have been many others. This latest seems to reflect that process. Contrast that with the RN’s recent acquisition of aircraft carriers and, indeed, China’s – you’d have to ask if this is just a hardware show pony. AUKUS is a game changer. Our Government now should do the same. Not just another White Paper but a bipartisan examination of the national interest. What do we want to achieve and how do we do it? The current Minister of Foreign Affairs seems distracted by relations with minor states in the Pacific. She clearly needs help, or even better, a new job.


    September 21, 2021 at 8:35 am

    • Selection OF the aim – sorry re the typo.


      September 21, 2021 at 2:30 pm

  2. And the idiot French withdrew their ambassadors!

    The contract was drawn up stages. Five, I think. It allowed Australia to withdraw from the contract at the end of any of those stages.

    NEVERbuy weapons from France. Not even a fucking shangai.


    September 21, 2021 at 11:08 am

    • An Exocet, on the other hand …

      France has won more wars than the USA. And the last two US losses were to a bunch of blokes on horses.

      Little Dorrit

      September 21, 2021 at 8:55 pm

  3. Cassandra … Australia enjoys an effective bi-partisan defence policy based on collective defence. NZL doesn’t except in the sense of spending the absolute minimum in order to appear we are doing our bit. It stops there. Labour, now unshackled from NZ First and wedded to doing nothing that will upset China, will allow the NZDF to wither on the vine aided and abetted every step of the way by the Greens. They will make the occasional ritual nod but it will be nod only. The state of the economy propped up by massive borrowing along with the need to maintain (and increase) social spending in order to keep the faith with their natural constituency and I predict we will see further constraints on defence spending.

    And while it pains me to say so I don’t think a National/ACT government would be too much different. Perhaps a nod nod at best. Words are cheap … I remember well that old TV advert fronted by Alan Martin from LV Martin & Sons … ‘Its the putting right that counts’.

    The Veteran

    September 21, 2021 at 3:46 pm

    • My conclusion also, which is why I was pulling Chris up a bit about his two posts, written like it was still 1987.

      With Labour-Green it’s ideology. With National-ACT it’ll be the constraints imposed by all the Covid-19 lockdown borrowing. Sure, I’d like to think the latter would adopt the same attitude towards the NZDF that Labour-Green do to their policies; it’s a core belief and it’s going to be done come hell or high water, including borrowing if we don’t think taxes can be increased.

      Sadly, I can’t recall National ever being so staunch when the critics gather to attack and talk of warships vs homeless or child poverty or old people dying or…

      In any case, a mate of mine in the NZDF has told me that the Navy’s issue is not ships but people. He just doesn’t see the young guys from varsity with tech skills coming in as he and his mates did. There’s quite the gap opening up as he and similarly aged comrades continue to work together to things done. When they do turn up at varsity engineering career events they don’t get much interest. It’s sad.

      If we did get four frigates he doubts we could keep them fully operational because of this.

      Tom Hunter

      September 21, 2021 at 4:03 pm

  4. The French design Australia chose was a Nuclear powered sub. Australia asked for it to be converted to diesel.
    Diesel subs are quiter than nuclear.
    Submarines are not an offensive weapon, they are defensive. They are deployed to protect surface craft. There is no point in having a fleet of submarines when you only have a few row boats on the surface.
    By the time the first of these vapourware subs arrives, the world will have moved to underwater drones, not manned tin cans.
    It would have been faster, cheaper, and better for business, to have bought Chinese boats.
    I fucking hate it when I send the Prime Minister out to buy vaccines and he comes home with Submarines.
    This clusterfuck continues the LNP’s obsession with buying military hardware that is not fit for purpose.

    F-111s cost vastly more than quoted, prone to fuel leaks and mechanical failures, and even though the RAAF operated them during conflicts in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq and East Timor they never saw active service. Retired in 2010, 10 years earlier than expected life cycle.
    In June this year, all Australia’s Howard-era MRH90 Taipan helicopters were grounded due to delays in getting spare parts from Europe.
    Rudd government planned for 8 new “Future Frigates” Fuck ups by Abbott, Turnbull and Morrison have delayed their launch until 2031.
    After Abbott dithered and rojered his CoS instead of governing, it was Turnbull’s turn to fuck up the contract for the Barracuda’s. The French couldn’t believe their luck, calling the contract” le contrat du siècle”; only once every 100 years does a customer come along as incompetent as Australia’s Coalition.
    Finally, last week, after wasting an estimated 3.5 billion dollars – all of it borrowed – Australia welched on the deal. The Morrison Government, if it stays in office, will now repeat the costly process, this time with an American or British shipbuilder. We don’t know which yet. We don’t know the cost. But then again, all Morrison is good at is announcements.

    I’ll leave the final word on LNP incompetence to a former Australian submariner, Senator Rex Patrick

    Every time the project team is asked a question, the situation worsens in some way. It’s either a cost increase, a schedule slippage or some Australian industry player missing out on a work opportunity.”

    Little Dorrit

    September 21, 2021 at 8:53 pm

    • Why do you bother?


      September 21, 2021 at 9:21 pm

    • Come on Dorrit. Time to move to NZ. Conservative Australia hates you. Come to the land of Wayne Mapp.

      Tom Hunter

      September 21, 2021 at 10:01 pm

  5. LD … better to keep your trap shut so people don’t think of you as an idiot rather than open it up for all to see that you are. ‘Diesel subs are quiter (sic) than nuclear’ … bollocks. ‘Submarines are not an offensive weapon’ … double bollocks. SSBN’s are designed to project power including under-water launched ballistic missiles; SSNs are hunter-killer submarines.

    I know it upsets you but the LNP and Labor are essentially as of one when it comes to defence policy. Indeed I note the temporary leader of your Labor Party welcomed the signing of AUKUS.

    The Veteran

    September 22, 2021 at 10:43 am

    • Vet

      Dorrit has given you an excellent example of why he no longer gets through my door.


      September 22, 2021 at 11:51 am

  6. I did love this….

    Tom Hunter

    September 22, 2021 at 4:21 pm

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: