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article imageOp-Ed: Australia's new subs — News, not news, and embarrassing babble

By Paul Wallis     Jan 14, 2020 in Technology
Sydney - Australian submarines typically get into the news for a variety of reasons, some credible and some not so credible. Our very expensive but very interesting new French-made submarines are getting their share of flak already.
The new Attack class submarines have been controversial from day one. They are scheduled to come into service in 2030, and by that time they will probably have more press coverage, informed, purely speculative and otherwise, than any previous submarines in Australian history.
The new subs are actually looking very good in terms of specifications. They are a new generation type of submarine, with a big job ahead of them. Australian submarines are in a unique position in terms of operational requirements. Our submarines have to cover the Pacific, the Indian Ocean, and the Asian coastline.
That is a vast area for any type of submarine to cover. Historically, Australian submarines have a long history of operations around the world, but for defence purposes, covering a gigantic coastline is no joke either. The new submarines will have their work cut out for them, particularly as they are supposed to be "regionally superior" submarines.
That's no trivial task. China has a very large fleet of submarines of various vintages, from older models to the very latest. Elsewhere in the region, other countries have a miscellaneous range of submarines and antisubmarine capabilities. Our submarines have to be able to deliver in multiple environments, with excellent stamina and performance.
That, of course, is one of the reasons that these submarines are so controversial. The technical issues involved, from types of batteries to future technologies are very much matters of dispute. The Royal Australian Navy, the lucky custodians of problems and solutions, seems to be getting the best and worst of both worlds when it comes to the various arguments.
The Attack class submarines are conventionally powered submarines with a good range of capabilities. The most critical factors in conventional operations are stealth and endurance, and these submarines do seem to fit the bill pretty well.
One of the reasons for choosing a conventional submarine rather than a nuclear submarine is that Australia won't have to pay for a long logistics tail that goes with nuclear submarine operations. This is one of the few cases in recent history where the infamous Australian defence budget miserliness is not a factor; it's a practical consideration.
Stealth is not just a buzzword. In this case, the subs will have to travel a baffling range of different types of marine environments, from tectonically and volcanically active areas to marine deserts, and be able to hide and fight. Everyone seems very happy with stealth capabilities. (I remember talking to some Australian submariners and listening to how happy they were about some of their achievements on manoeuvres with the Americans. It seems there's quite a lot of rivalry between the two navies, and the Aussies don't mind winning. Stealth is very much a part of that scenario.)
On a technical level, however, the disputes are long, tedious, and need a more critical and decisive look. The battery issue is not quite a crisis issue, but it is relevant and does need to be looked at. Criticism currently includes the fact that different batteries, notably the difference between acid batteries and lithium ion batteries, deliver different performance. These batteries equate to the other major issue, endurance, which means that they are very much important systems.
"Obsolete"? No.
One of the less justifiable criticisms, however, is decidedly unfunny and more than likely wrong. The old story of "obsolete before it gets off the drawing board" is well past its expiry date. It's not like marine engineers and designers haven't noticed problems.
it is now common practice to build in provision for upgrades, and even generational transition. This criticism also sells the French designers and builders rather short. France is one of the leading manufacturers of military equipment. There is something remotely unlikely to say the least about the idea that they would just ignore such basic issues. Other contractors include Lockheed Martin, also not famous for their lack of interest in their own designs.
… And now the babble
arguably one of the least impressive bits of information regarding the new Australian subs is a series of stage whispers on the subject on whether or not Australia should have, or was thinking of, pulling out of the whole contract.
One doesn't expect much from military gossip. History is full of absolute drivel, passed off as gospel fact. In this case, however, the sheer clumsiness of the gossip is inexcusable. Given the fact that this submarine contract started off with a truly monumental clanger, leaving Japan guessing whether or not we want to divide their submarines instead, more babble is not exactly welcome.
The sheer tactlessness of Australia failing to inform Japan that the decision had been made was monumentally idiotic. Basic courtesy, let alone any practical considerations, should not have been left at issue in doubt for a second. As it was, a Japanese submarine sailed a long way from Japan to Sydney, apparently after the decision had been already made.
So, when it comes to seemingly deranged information that defence was seriously thinking of pulling out of French contract, it seems that somebody has not been doing Australia's international image many favours.
Reassuringly, if not very, it seems that there were discussions about alternatives to the French contract in 2018. Spectacularly unimpressive is the fact that the ditching the French contract, after our clodhopping exercise with the Japanese would not look good. Add to this the fact that a further decision would have had to be made, presumably with the same level of intellect, having already completely antagonised to of our three possible suppliers.
The other possible supplier at the time was Germany, who by now I would think would be far less than enthusiastic about supplying us with the time of day, let alone submarines. Meanwhile back at the cluster hatchery, "deep concerns have been raised". Interesting turn of phrase regarding submarines, but those concerned should be going a little deeper.
On what basis are we chopping and changing and not dealing with these concerns? Is it now some sort of tradition that we can’t make up our minds will get anything done on the subject of submarines?
Frankly, I would say that the possible concern is the fact that we don't seem to be able to get the act together and make decisions. The only people who should be talking about "concerns" over Navy guys. The long established and very functional Australian military position is that the operational people make the decisions.
When the F111s were purchased in the 1960s, it was specifically on RAAF recommendation. RAAF was quite happy with the planes operationally, and that was the major issue. At the time that was the biggest monthly purchases ever made by Australia, and despite political bickering, everything worked out reasonably well.
So – Tell me, bunnies, who knows what they’re talking about – Our submarine people, or anyone and anything in Canberra with access to a press release? It is well and truly said that war has become just another mucking middle-class trade. The problem with that is that wars are not fought by mucking middle-class idiots who can't put enough brain cells together to even understand the need to get decent equipment.
Defence should take note of this almost total dysfunction and lack of coherence at all stages of the submarine contract. This is not a raffle. I have no doubt that the many geniuses with which the Australian military forces are blessed will find some way of stuffing up many things to come, but not this one. It's too important, and the sheer scale of embarrassment to the nation is utterly unforgivable. Now, do what you are paid for, for once.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
More about ATtack Class submarines, French made Australian submarines, Royal Austraian Navy, French military industry, Japanese subarmine contract
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