The criticism of Australia’s $50 billion project to replace the Collins-class submarines came as a surprise to no one, least of all the Prime Minister, Defence Minister, and Minister for (South Australian) Industry, gathered, as they were for the fantastical announcement. That the nation’s twitterati and talkback radio audience became, overnight, experts in matters strategic and fiscal is mildly amusing. Among the talkback listeners’ outrage, the canoe jokes, the French jokes (my favourite was that the French subs will come equipped with a white flag that can be raised like a periscope), and the sensible commentary there is an aweful lot of misinformation. The vast differences between Australian government press releases and French ones suggest that even the ministers and bureaucrats, and certainly the backbenchers, are all pretty confused. But I’m here to help…
Firstly, it’s important to recognise that, as one defence science insider told me, ‘the Shortfin Barracuda submarines were easily the best option… of the three options the government allowed onto the table.’ More on the tabled options in a moment, but on paper the French design is excellent, arguably the best design available to Australia, and possibly the best non-nuclear design in the world. Virtually no one in the Navy or the Defence Industrial Complex thinks otherwise.
Secondly, if this whole expensive business was about defence or strategy or submarines, there would only be one option on the table: the nuclear-powered Virginia class. American designed, and built in Rhode Island, the Virginia-class is the US Navy’s current fast attack sub. It is more reliable and cost efficient than our Collins class boats, although that’s a ridiculously low bar. Leasing them would easily come in tens of billions of dollars cheaper than the Barracuda estimates, and save a similar amount on maintenance. The Virginia has a proven track record – including a proven nuclear safety record – and the US Navy could easily integrate Australian maintenance, upgrade, and disposal requirements into its existing shipyard schedules.
But of course, this whole expensive business isn’t about defence or strategy or submarines; it’s about jobs, South Australian votes, and perhaps to a lesser extent, keeping Australia nuclear free. But none of these objectives even make sense. For starters, the Frogs want at least the first two boats to be built in France, contrary to Turnbull’s announcement. French media are reporting that about 30 per cent of the total expenditure will be spent in that country, with around 4,000 jobs to be created at the Cherbourg shipbuilding facilities. Let’s put that into context: it’s about 1,000 more than the expected total Australian workforce! The announcement and its attendant misinformation may well enable Messrs Pyne and Briggs to keep their seats on 2 July, but its François Hollande’s Socialist Party, and the mostly nuclear French sub industry, that will benefit the most.
Speaking of nuclear, why is it again that the Virginia wasn’t even considered? American nuclear subs are the safest in the world, with many visiting our ports every year without incident. But of course it all comes down to ideology. If only we had a PM who was a little more right wing – say, Hollande or Bob Hawke – at least then we could have the discussion.
Thirdly, when I say that ‘on paper, the French design is excellent,’ I mean ‘on the paper we currently have access to.’ Keep in mind that not only is the Shortfin variant of the Barracuda a new and untested model; it is hitherto an un-designed model. And even if a completed design was in existence, the tender process would hardly give us the full specs, with both commercial and national security considerations coming into play. So while I’m happy to defend the government’s decision on the basis of available knowledge (of the artificially limited options), the truth is we don’t know what we’re getting. Such a risk would be lessened with the proven, known American design.
And finally, because we don’t know precisely what we’re getting, we can’t know precisely what it will cost. In fact, forget ‘precisely’ – we don’t have a clue about what this will look like in the long run, except to say that the likelihood of it remaining $50 billion (even in future dollars) is nil. Not that $50 billion is a good deal to begin with. RAND Corporation estimates the premium for any Australian ship build to be 30-40 per cent, and that is before the inevitable budget overruns inherent in any Australian ship building exercise, and the curious details that are beginning to emerge about the tendering process.
Despite the superiority of the Barracuda over the German and Japanese proposals, this project will do little to secure Australia strategically, SA financially, or the Libs electorally. It is a craven exercise in pork-barrelling, expensive smoke-and-mirror ‘job creation’, and appeasement of protectionist industrial attitudes and deranged environmental instincts that is likely to be more embarrassing than the decades-long Collins fiasco.
I only hope some Australian naval pride and dignity can be salvaged in the choices of ship names. In keeping with the RAN’s present and patent commitments to diversity, the first will naturally be the HMAS Mona Shindy. Like Emirates planes, it will have an omnipresent arrow to indicate the direction of Mecca. In the spirit of inter-service co-operation, the second of the class could be named for our distinguished Aussie of the Year, the General David Morrison, with an all female crew, to ensure that the standard the submariners walk past is the standard they accept.
Now we’re building twelve subs, which is a lot of military heroes to recognise, but not to worry. The Defence headquarters in Russell is now teaming with right-thinking PR specialists, diversity officers, transgender liaison personnel, events planners, Greens voters, and bed wetters, many if not all of whom would be well-deserving of such a high honour.
Oh, and speechwriters. Don’t anyone forget this elite corps of officers which, unsurprisingly, includes one of Australia’s best-known military identities. And best of all (and in keeping with the navel tradition that all ships are officially ‘female’, even ones named for a man), we can even get two ships named after one Lieutenant Colonel McGregor!
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