Parliamentary Secretary for Defence – Speech to the Submarine Institute of Australia Biennial Conference – Canberra

In late 1910 the then Australian Government ignored the advice of the Department of Defence, and Admiralty, by purchasing two E class Submarines. Determined politicians with a keen strategic eye led the RAN towards establishing a submarine arm. A submarine arm that proved to be an invaluable asset to Australia and its allies during the First World War. A world war that placed considerable demands upon the Royal Australian Navy, demands that, as history tells us, the Navy had foreseen and was well designed to confront.

Today submarines continue this legacy by conducting some of the most important work done by the ADF. They do this on a daily basis, and they do it, by necessity, under a shroud of secrecy. I think it is essential, therefore, that when given opportunities such as these, that we offer praise and support to our submariners, the men and women serving in our submarines.

I would like to thank the Submarine Institute of Australia for asking me to come and speak at their 6th Biennial Conference. The SIA has been tireless in its mission to inform and support debate surrounding submarines. This mission has never been more important – or more demanding. I sincerely appreciate the opportunity to contribute to this debate.

I have long looked forward to giving this speech, for the sheer challenge of speaking on the subject of submarines to a room full of people who will forget more about them than I will ever learn. But it is my conceit that there are two important aspects on this important subject where I can make a contribution, and this is with respect to the strategic guidance from government concerning our nation’s submarine capability, and concerning the politics of this capability.

STRATEGIC GUIDANCE

As many of you will be aware, I am very passionate about Australia’s submarine capability. This passion is driven by firmly held views about the unique attributes of Australia’s POE, and the best force structure choices that flow from our obligation to deter and defeat attacks on Australia.

In the 2009 Defence White Paper, Defending Australia in the Asia Pacific Century: Force 2030, the Government established that the ADF must be a military force that can deter and defeat attacks on Australia.

Importantly, we resolved that this requirement is best achieved through the ADF adopting a maritime strategy. Australia has resolved to possess an ADF that can operate with decisive effect throughout our northern maritime and littoral approaches. This means a military strategy that must achieve air superiority and sea control, as well as encompass the more traditional (and better understood) requirements of sea denial, and the protection of sea lines of communication (SLOCs).

It is worth dwelling for a moment on the term ‘sea control’. This is a precise term that must be used precisely. The value of maritime operations comes from the use of the sea for movement, and not from possession of the sea itself. Sea control is a means to an end, not an end itself. Sea control is limited in time and space. Sea control must necessarily include the airspace above the sea’s surface, together with the water mass and seabed below.

Because Australia is an island continent fundamentally dependent upon the sea for communications, and because we exist in an Asia-Pacific region equally dependent upon the sea, it is control rather than denial which most closely bears upon our national situation. Denial retains a place, but sea control operations ensure that Australian response options are not constrained and our freedom of action is not threatened.

This was made clear in the Government’s 2009 Defence White Paper (p. 53): ‘Our military strategic aim in establishing and maintaining sea and air control is to enable the manoeuvre and employment of the ADF elements in our primary operational environment, and particularly in the maritime and littoral approaches to the continent.’

Australia’s maritime strategy necessarily requires the joint effect of many networked components – new and old. The acquisition of AWDs, the focus in building the ADF capability to project force in our maritime environment, the investment in strategic sea-lift and air-lift capabilities, offshore sustainment capabilities, air-to-air refuelling aircraft, AEW&C aircraft, all of these, for example, are vital components in achieving Australia’s maritime strategy.

So are submarines.

It is inconceivable that Australia can achieve sea control – a requirement for successful maritime power projection – without submarines.

AUSTRALIA’S PRIMARY OPERATING ENVIRONMENT (POE)

The Government often makes the point that our capability requirements for submarines are unique. Jason Clare made this point again yesterday. It is a fundamental truth. Australia is different.

Our geography shapes the sort of submarine we need. Australia’s Primary Operating Environment (POE) comprises 12 percent of the Earth’s surface. It reaches south, into the Great Southern Ocean and north into the tropics and the archipelagic Pacific.

The Australian POE obviously sits in the Asia-Pacific; a region which is home to just over 4.2 billion people, nearly two thirds of the Earth’s population. The vast majority live in growing and dynamic Asia-Pacific powers: India, China, and Indonesia.  The maritime footprint of these powers matches their economic size, and they, too, share Australia’s reliance on crucial maritime shipping lanes, and interest in the continuing security and safety of the ‘global commons’.

For Australia the free flow of shipping traffic through our maritime “global commons” is an enduring requirement, a cornerstone to the prosperity of a trading nation such as us.

As a middle power, with a liberal democratic moral compass, we seek to strengthen multi-lateral and international laws and agreements, especially frameworks for the governance of the sea – UNCLOS being the exemplar. The ADF gets this: RAN has an outstanding record of sustaining a high tempo of exercises with all of our many Asia-Pacific partners: the US, China, India, Indonesia, NZ, Japan, South Korea, PNG, France, the kingdom of Tonga, and many more. This tempo is driven by the fact that the safety and security of our ‘global commons’ is best achieved by navies that know each other well and that are readily interoperable.

SUBMARINES IN OUR MARITIME STRATEGY

The combination of cutting edge technology, and an extremely adept crew, has made the Collins submarine unmatched in our region. The Collins submarine provides Australia with a leading anti-surface and anti-submarine asset possessing a marked technical advantage over any potentially hostile submarine deployed in the region.

The Collins Class submarine – with its qualities of stealth and endurance – make RAN boats:

  • primary strike and deterrence assets
  • important intelligence gathering, surveillance and reconnaissance platforms
  • delivery, support and extraction platforms for special forces
  • key assets in undersea and surface warfare (esp. ASW)
  • able to undertake sea denial missions, such as blockades (MIW)
  • operate in a hostile air, undersea or surface environment
  • complicate any potential adversary’s planning, increasing the size and capability of any force hoping to successfully attack Australia.

These capabilities ensure that the Collins boats can protect Australian interests offshore effectively, either alone, or as part of a coordinated Task Force.

The Future Submarines must offer Government the same capabilities.

Further, Government is resolved that the Future Submarine will have greater range, longer endurance on patrol, and expanded capabilities (i.e. communications) as compared to the current Collins Class submarine. The Future Submarine must be able to carry different mission payloads such as uninhabited underwater vehicles (UUVs).

It will require the capability to conduct strike operations against military targets, including an adversary’s operating bases, staging areas and critical military infrastructure.

Our Future Submarine will be required to achieve its goals in a much more competitive environment. The Asia-Pacific is now home to 14 nations operating modern submarines (i.e. China, Taiwan, Japan, North Korea, South Korea, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, India, Pakistan, Russia, US and Australia). Others have signalled their intention to acquire modern submarines for the first time (i.e. Philippines and Thailand). The regional market is estimated to be worth US$44 billion between now and 2021. By 2025 the region could host as many as 150 diesel-electric boats.

This means our seas are becoming more crowded with modern submarines. These evolving military relativities mean that the Future Submarine must be significantly more advanced than our existing Collins boats.

The Future Submarine will need to be able to travel long distances and stay there to be effective. It will need to have a payload commensurate with its mission. It must provide habitability for extended periods for its crew (and to attract and retain submariners). To do these things, the Future Submarine needs to be large.

Relative to other nations that operate diesel-electric submarines, the Future Submarine must operate across exceptionally vast distances. You simply have to lay a map of Europe over Australia to gain a concept of this. A submarine designed for the Baltic, North Sea or Mediterranean environments will not be able to deliver Australia’s capability requirements in terms of range and endurance.

This is why the Collins Class is one of the largest conventional submarines in the world.

Remember, the Asia-Pacific possesses numerous critical maritime nodes – notably the Malacca Strait, Sunda Strait, and Lombok Strait– all of which are critical to the global economy. These nodes are 2,000 or even 3,000 nm from HMAS Stirling.

Jason Clare made clear yesterday the resolve of this Government to deliver the Future Submarine, and to deliver an Australian build. This resolve was seen in our most recent budget, where we committed $214 million to the Future Submarine project; money to enable design studies, modelling, and the deep analysis required for an initial pass decision. 

This resolve means creating thousands of jobs, work for hundreds of Australian companies, and establishing a new Australian industry.

An indigenous industry capable of designing, developing, building and maintaining submarines able to meet our unique capability requirements would be an enormous strategic strength for our nation. 

And I can’t help but suspect that in building such an industry, we would be most effectively exploiting the considerable experience Australia has acquired from the Collins submarine.

A CAPABILITY UNDER FIRE

I would like to finish up by briefly addressing the issue of politics and Australia’s submarine capability.

One of the key lessons from the Collins submarine is that we must work to avoid Australia’s submarine capability evolving into a political football.

Projects such as the Future Submarine – spanning around 25 years and involving the investment of many billions of taxpayer dollars – must enjoy commitment from both sides of politics.

For too long, and on too many occasions, politicians have sought to ‘game’ the Collins rather than understand it. It has become a lazy target of opportunity in the Defence debate (such as it is). The label ‘Dud sub’ was all too easy for too many politicians and media commentators. Today still, we witness questions and questioners in Senate Estimates that foster ignorance about this vital capability in search of easy media coverage: cheap shots concerning ‘ready days’ and the encouragement of unrealistic readiness and availability expectations (‘6 boats owned = 6 boats available’).

The fact that Australia achieved an extraordinary engineering feat, building six large diesel-electric submarines – comparable to building a spaceship – is rarely acknowledged. The achievement of Australian research and development, of a full-scale industrial program in delivering a type of submarine with a range, endurance and speed that cannot be matched by any other diesel-electric submarine is remarkable. The scale of this accomplishment and the magnitude of the undertaking are little understood. The strategic effect of the submarine is all too rarely unappreciated and unremarked upon.

And nowhere else and in no other context is the work of elite military personnel so routinely underestimated, and even denigrated, by our media and politicians.

The CEO of DMO, Mr Warren King, recently commented: “good news stories about Defence don’t sell papers”. At the supplementary estimates in mid October 2012, the Chief of the Defence Force, General David Hurley explained that one particular journalist – who had had an extremely positive experience on the HMAS Farncomb during its successful efforts at RIMPAC – filed a good news story on Collins and was told by his editor that “it was unpublishable” (p.58 – Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee Estimates, 17 October 2012). 

The Collins Class submarine knows this all too well, as did the Oberon Class before it. We must make a concerted effort – all of us, politicians, Defence commentators, ADF men and women – to ensure that the Future Submarine enjoys a better fate. The debate must be informed, it must be robust, and the Future Submarine must be a project that survives and thrives amongst successive Australian governments.

Particularly because this bi-partisan support for the Australian submarine arm is a relatively novel concept. Peter Yule and Derek Woolner were able to write an entire book about the persistent controversy that surrounded the development, acquisition and construction of the Collins Class boats.

We need a Future Submarine; it is a requirement of any strategy seeking to accomplish sea control and denial. Its success must not be a Labor success, or a Coalition success, but rather, it must be an Australian success. One attracting the enthusiasm and the pride of all Australians.

Our elite submariners deserve nothing less.


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