Features Australia Thawley Prize

2019 Thawley Essay

Runner-up: ‘Sink the subs’

7 November 2020

9:00 AM

7 November 2020

9:00 AM

From where I sit in Darwin, the greatest Australian defence scandal of the 20th century was the lack of Spitfires in Darwin when the Japanese arrived. But it is surely going to be matched in the 21st century by the lack of submarines in Australian waters when the next need for efficient combat vessels gets here.

For the next decade, this growing debacle will dominate Australia’s defence: the lack of submarines will only be matched by a steady stream of disasters as they are built. The concept of choosing an existing design in France and changing the propulsion system from nuclear to diesel has never been done in the world before.

That should probably be if they’re built. For not a metre of steel has been cut yet. It is not yet too late to stop this scandalous situation. What will you say in twelve (or fifteen?) years time when the initial disastrous diesel boat limps our way. It could have been, you will think to yourself, nuclear. It should have been. Will you say something now, or will you forever hold your peace?

The Japanese arrived over Darwin on 19 February 1942 to the sound of the thunder of 188 aircraft. Launched from four aircraft carriers, they were high level and dive bombers, and fighter aircraft. What rose to meet them were ten P-40 Kittyhawk fighters of the United States Army Air Forces. Ten? American? Yes indeed, for despite the Battle of Britain having been fought two years previously in 1940, there was not one modern fighter aircraft such as the Spitfire flying in defence of Darwin. Not one.

If the 1930s and the onset of war saw inept planning, or the lack of it, characterise Australian defence thinking, then so too is the disaster of a replacement submarine for the Collins class dogging Australian defence planning, or the lack of it. The ineptness of this imbecility is manifold.

About the only thing we’ve got right is replacing six submarines with twelve. The advantages of a submarine fleet for Australia are obvious, and correct. When these vessels leave port and submerge, they are one of the best deterrents to be had. Where are they? A potential enemy is faced with a circle, growing by the hour, of where that submarine has gone. He is faced with the fact it could be making for his own ports, to lay mines, torpedo his vessels, or launch cruise missiles against his land targets. He is forced to defend, and every hour and every dollar he spends on defence is the less he spends on attack.


In 1940 the Australian government could have had the Spitfire, but instead it did nothing. It could have built them here, but instead it had built the Boomerang, a fighter so spectacularly bad it shot down no enemy aircraft at all in the war.

In 2020 the Australian government could have nuclear submarines, but instead it is doing nothing. It signed up for the worst possible option. We chose a perfectly good nuclear submarine, built by the French, and we have demanded they take out the nuclear engine and replace it with a diesel. And instead of taking the car out of the showroom for a test drive, we didn’t. The submarine we chose doesn’t exist; can’t be test-driven, and in fact won’t exist for over a decade. Yet we will pay for it up front.

In fact, there were, and still are, alternatives to this folly. We could have bought into the perfect solution: the French, or indeed, closer allies, the British and the USA, all build nuclear-driven submarines. It’s as if, when presented with Spitfires in 1940, we insisted instead of their Merlin V12 engine they be replaced with a rotary powerplant from a World War I Sopwith Camel. Around half the range, and one-third the speed. We doubtless would have demanded the enclosed heated cockpit of the Spitfire be swapped for an open-air cockpit, given our present-day thinking.

The objections that have been thrown up in the face of the modern nuclear solution are ridiculous. But they are formidable obstacles, for the general public and our politicians, seem not to understand submarines.

‘We don’t have a nuclear industry,’ is one complaint. Well hello! Neither did the British when they decided to go nuclear in the 1960s with their Polaris boats. The nuclear engines were supplied by the US Navy and even serviced by them, too, in the beginning.

‘The general public won’t wear it,’ is another. No one has asked the general public, who seem far more sane than many think. Faced with proposals for a 50 per cent electric car fleet in early 2019, the public had a ponder about the costs and reality of this folly and quietly said no at a federal election. What is so unthinkable about twelve large sealed nuclear batteries operating our submarines?

‘We’ve never done it before,’ seems to be another straw man, with all of the capacity for resistance. There are many things the Royal Australian Navy never did before and each time it stepped up with alacrity. In the early years of its existence prior to the Great War it acquired submarines, and operated them efficiently – until in another exhibition of folly, it was made to get out of them. So when we were attacked in the second world war the RAN had none. Would the greatest loss in our Navy’s history – the sinking of HMAS Sydney and the loss of 645 lives by the German raider Kormoran – have been prevented by having a submarine fleet in 1941?

In the 1950s the RAN was asked to begin operating aircraft carriers and it did so with distinction. In 1982 it was about to acquire a new generation of carriers and was denied on the basis of cost, therefore denuding itself of a skill set – the ability to operate aircraft off flight decks that rolled and pitched. Is this how our ability to acquire weapon systems is decided – for reasons other than effectiveness? Apparently so – much of what consumes the present submarine debate is related to jobs. Yet none of the presumed positions in South Australia have materialised yet, and it looks as if few will.

It was a long year in 1942, with the United States our only fighter presence across northern Australia, where we faced air raids, week after week. Over 200 enemy air missions were recorded, many of them of fleets of bombers. The relentless Japanese killed thousands of people across northern Australia. The Australian public seem in equal ignorance about what is needed for us to be defended now.

We need nuclear submarines, preferably built by the USA, and acquired, leased, or loaned into our Navy within five years. We should recruit several hundred submariners from overseas as well.

We need to walk away from the French contract now. We have paid some small billions already. Pay some more small billions to leave it. For the project has been cited as around a quarter of a trillion dollars already – around $250 billion. We have had few defence projects in our history that came in, around 15-20 years after they were decided, on cost and on time and on capacity.

This defence disaster will run and run. You, the taxpayer, can have as much money wasted as you want to spend. Instead, you need to speak up, to your MPs, to yourselves, and to each other. You need to debate this and get a better answer. Will you cancel our submarine project, or will you forever hold your peace?

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