Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Australia's submarines

It has just been announced that Australia plans to build "the world's most lethal conventional submarine fleet". That curious expression is an example of the propensity to exaggerate whenever Australians talk about Australia. It's a little like referring, say, to "the world's most powerful horse-cavalry division". If foreign navies throughout the world were to reach a gentlemen's agreement with Australia to the effect that only classic diesel-powered submersible vessels would be employed in future underwater conflicts with the Royal Australian Navy, then we would probably be in a relatively comfortable situation. But, if an uncouth enemy were to ignore the rules of the game by using attack submarines of the nuclear-powered SSN class (not to be confused with submarines that actually launch nuclear missiles), then Australia's antiquated SSG models might not be nearly as "deadly" as claimed.

Australia's recent history in the submarine domain, dating from the Bob Hawke era and culminating in the existence of six faulty Australian-made Collins-class vessels, has been catastrophic, from both a financial and a technological viewpoint. Will the situation be better when these old-fashioned mediocre submarines (whose computer systems are off-the-shelf products from Raytheon) are replaced around 2025 by the newer models, to be manufactured by the same shipbuilder?

As an outside observer knowing little about defense strategies in general and submarines in particular, I have the impression that the decision that has just been announced has been largely inspired by the cogitations of an Australian think tank named Kokoda.

For $22 you can even purchase a paper signed by Ross Babbage, dated April 2007, entitled Australia's Future Underwater Operations and System Requirements. Although I haven't yet invested in a copy of this report (and no doubt never will, because I've got more exciting stuff to read), I'm convinced that the decision of the Royal Australian Navy reflects intimately the thinking of the above-named author. So, it would appear to be a blatant case of one-man thinking. What a tank for submarines! Incidentally, at the Kokoda website, the summary of Babbage's report is accompanied by a quaint drawing:

Don't you agree with me that this rudimentary sketch looks like an illustration from an old volume by Jules Verne? If you look closely, you can even see a midget robot submarine that has emerged from the entrails of the mother vessel. Believe it or not, this is an authentic aspect of Australia's future submarine fleet. Vicious little unmanned tadpoles will be expected to do all the dirty work while the host vessel sits quietly on the seabed, trying to remain undetected.

Recently, I got into a discussion with an Australian friend concerning the antiquated nature of the transport infrastructure in New South Wales. I was thinking primarily of roads, bridges and railway lines. He reacted simplistically by claiming that the volume of tax revenues in Australia is insufficient to cover expenditure in this domain. Now, that sounds to me like naive bullshit. In Australia, the land is composed of metaphorical gold. Theoretically, there are more than enough riches in Australia's soil to build the world's greatest roads, bridges, railway lines and nuclear-powered submarines. There's enough uranium in Australia to power all the nuclear vessels of all the navies of the globe. The only vital natural resource that is totally lacking in Australia is political consciousness. The concept of statesmanship is unknown in Australia. Politicians get elected because they promise, say, to lower interest rates for wage-earners paying mortgages on their suburban houses. Australians voters simply don't comprehend the notion of electing an individual with political wisdom, vision, imagination and profound humanitarian moral principles (as distinct from the candidate's uninteresting personal beliefs of a religious kind). For loud-mouthed snake-oil candidates, seeking to be elected, mythical Australia is the richest land on Earth... and I agree with them a priori. But, for elected representatives of the nation, there's never enough cash in the coffers to build a safe road, a modern bridge, a decent train service or a self-respecting nuclear-powered submarine.

An article in this morning's The Australian says: Although Defence has not yet ruled out the possibility of Australia acquiring nuclear-powered submarines, this option is considered highly unlikely on strategic, practical and political grounds.

Note the final adjective: political. That's what I was saying a moment ago: Australia is simply not mature enough, politically, to own a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines. As the old saying goes, or might have gone: Every nation has the submarines it deserves.

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