Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Questions for sub happy Australia



Last week Frank O'Shea pointed out that part of the reason that the $50 billion submarine deal passes underneath our intellectual sonar without being challenged is the brain-boggling amount of money which it represents.

Cartoon Australia shaped submarine by Chris JohnstonFor me, as an international lawyer, another klaxon which it sets off is the fact that defence spending goes relatively unchallenged despite the fact that it says much about a country's diplomatic priorities.

As the great military strategist Carl von Clausewitz put it in Vom Kriege (On War) 'war is merely the continuation of policy by other means'.

In this age of the terror of terrorism, however, we have unfortunately reached the position where, like a stage hypnotist, all a government (any government) needs to do is to say 'national security' and our collective eyes glaze over and our brain switches off.

The new budget has allocated $32.3 billion to defence to pay for everything from submarines to maritime patrol aircraft, air tankers and training aircraft, and promised to grow the whole defence budget to 2 per cent of GDP (from its present 1.92 per cent) by 2020. Some of these increases may be vital and it is impractical for an average citizen to do a line by line check of the accounts.

However, while we may not be able to challenge the books in detail, we should be asking basic questions like: who are we defending against, how will our big ticket spending items advance this and will they work?

Only then can we sensibly ask whether the money could be better spent elsewhere — especially at a time when the Abbott-Turnbull government has been preaching austerity and a reduction, or at best flat-lining, of government spending in most non-military areas.

Let us take the sub spend, for example. We are told by the Navy in its 2005 book, The Navy Contribution to Australian Maritime Operations, that the roles of the submarine fleet include: intelligence collection and surveillance; maritime strike and interdiction; barrier operations; advanced force operations; layered defence; interdiction of shipping; containment by distraction; and support to operations on land.


"If Australia is buying such offensive weapons, against whom does it anticipate using them?"


It will immediately be seen that these categories are not only very broad but (with the exception of layered defence) generally offensive in nature. Subs are not much use in policing or peace-keeping roles either. The Navy's book observes laconically that '[t]he modern submarine generally has limited utility in undertaking constabulary or benign diplomatic tasks'.

Indeed, as expected, the examples of effective submarine warfare cited in the book all date from active wars (World Wars I and II and the Falklands War). That raises the obvious question: if Australia is buying such offensive weapons, against whom does it anticipate using them?

In the last 50 years or so, Australia has been engaged in offensive operations mostly at the behest of the United States (Viet Nam, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria). The US' main rival in Australia's neighbourhood is China. Unsurprisingly therefore, Australia's 2009 Defence White Paper appeared to suggest that China would likely be Australia's main challenge in the region (and that the US might be unable to assist Australia in its defence).

That, however, would be awkward to say the least since China also happens not only to be Australia's largest trading partner but also to have a vast submarine fleet (80 in service and ten under construction) against which 12 submarines would seem fairly insignificant.

Even leaving aside such sobering considerations, the government has already announced that the first craft of the new fleet is only likely to be operational in 2030. That makes it quite a hostage to fortune. Not only does this assume that a boat with 14-year-old technology will not be completely outclassed by its enemies by then but also that the enemies against whom it is designed to be employed (whoever they may be) will still be relevant.

The purchase of submarines raises diplomatic questions, too. If Australia knows who its enemies are, presumably these putative enemies have a fairly good idea who they are as well. How are they likely to respond to a purchase of submarines? By initiating military countermeasures? By exacting trade sanctions? By diplomatic reprisals? (In this regard, it is noteworthy that China is currently reported to be upgrading its anti-submarine warfare capability.)

These questions are vital, not just for military planners but also for anyone who is likely to be affected by Australian foreign policy (sadly, usually a poor cousin when it comes to electioneering) as well as those who want to know more generally how their tax dollars are to be spent.

Let me be clear: there may be good answers to these questions. However, the questions themselves have not even been raised in most media outlets. Answering them, however, would scarcely reveal state secrets (given that both the Defence White Paper and the Navy Contribution to Australian Maritime Operations are public documents). It would also make for a much more informed public — especially with an election due.


Justin GlynJustin Glyn SJ is studying for the priesthood. Previously he practised law in South Africa and New Zealand and has a PhD in administrative and international law.

Topic tags: Justin Glyn, submarines, Budget



submit a comment

Existing comments

One of the most balanced questioning articles I've seen on the submarines so good work. Why we need them? Worst case scenario really, Better to have them and not need them then need them and not have them. Number's vs China? While China will have more they also have other nations they have angered and thus need to keep forces set aside for, When you account for Vietnam, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Taiwan, Japan, SouthKorea and Australia there is a combined fleet of 78 current or planned Submarines so any conflict with China is more likely to be on a one for one basis in regards to Submarines. As for the tech you make the mistake (common) of assuming we will be using the tech of today in the future subamrines, that is incorrect. Tech is constanctly advancing and we will be advancing the tech our selves while sorting out designs and contract's, More likely the tech we start using in the first boat will be from 2025-26 rather then 2016, And with each successive batch of submarines new and updated tech will be incorporated. While it seem's like a long time the time frame is actually the norm. regards, Matthew.

Matthew E | 06 May 2016  

All grown-up maritime countries have submarines, just as all grown-up kids have cars. If you want to be treated seriously, fit in.

Roy Chen Yee | 07 May 2016  

Spending $50 000 000 000 dollars! For what purpose? While making subs might save some Coalition politician's seats in South Australia, it could turn out to be largely a waste of a massive sum of money. How many enemy ships did our last submarines sink? NONE! But they did help to sink our nation's finances. The submarine order will help bolster the Coalition's fear campaign - even the fear of allowing desperate asylum seekers to settle here. Then there's the fear our borders might be threatened. We no longer have just a Department of Immigration. We now have a BORDER FORCE that isn't permitted to comment on ON-WATER MATTERS. It reminds me of the fear that many Australians once had of FINDING A COMMO UNDER EVERY BED, after a political beat up of the threat posed by Communism. One touted positive of building subs is the spin-off that results from upgrading technical skills. But such spin-off could happen in other ways too. Australia was the fourth nation to build a satellite, and a resurgence in the field of space technology, as Canada is doing, could be more advantageous, and far cheaper, than building subs, with huge spin-off for industry.

Grant Allen | 07 May 2016  

Whilst disagreeing with any sub purchase, why France? Japan is a regional partner, facing the same local issues; intentionally involved in diplomatic confrontation with China over disputed marine areas... why France?

Louis van Laar | 09 May 2016  

Some good questions raised by Glyn but while he quotes from history he has learned little about warfare from it. All weapons by definition are "offensive." If they weren't they wouldn't be so classified. I dare say he has heard the analogy of the rough men with spears standing on the wall at night prepared to do nasty and violent things so that soft citizens could sleep safely in their beds at night. Well submarines are a sharp edge of those spears, and the better the submarine, the more effective the spear. That our current submarines have not been in combat really shows how effective they are as a weapons system. As for buying French, we now have access to advanced European sensor and combat systems as well as American. We also have the potential to purchase nuclear power plants at a later date. As another writer commenting on this has implied, better to be ready now than sorry later. Remember that only "civilised" countries produce noisy Green tree huggers. The rest of the world is pretty rough.

Zednik | 09 May 2016  

And one more question: if we can't find enough sailors for the current Collins class submarines (only two are in effective operation, partly due to a lack of personnel), how are we going to manage with 12?

ErikH | 09 May 2016  

If we do need submarines like "all grown-up maritime countries" (as referred to by others) - why 12? Why not 24 or why not 1? $50 billion is ah ah a lot...

John Tobin | 09 May 2016  

The Arms Race (in whatever form of weaponry and weapon delivery) will continue as long as the system of nation-states remains the way The World has organised itself. Once the Arms Race is on, there is no stopping it. The production of weapons is a growth industry. Even if some countries never go to war, they can use their military power to keep their own population under control. If some citizens object to the money spent on weaponry, they are told it is necessary for National Security. No further discussion will be entered into. We saw this in the government policy that it does not comment on On Water Matters (See Grant Allen's comment ES 7.5.16). Soon we will be told the government doesn't comment on Under Water Matters. Governments want a situation where its subjects go about their daily lives like mice on a treadmill in a dark room of ignorance.

Uncle Pat | 09 May 2016  

The most obvious thing is that underwater detection and weapons delivery technology via drones will shortly negate the subs ability to 'hide.' Who would want to volunteer for submarine service with that obvious threat hanging over their lives?

Mike Hammond | 09 May 2016  

Thanks Justin, but we've been through and answered all these arguments leading up to the Collins class. The difference now is that with all the underwater technology being developed to continue searching for the Malaysian airline disappearance, the proposed subs will be easily detected and destroyed.

Willy van Bruen | 09 May 2016  

The starting point in reflecting on this article is the heading 'sub-happy Australia'. The heading is worthy of analytical thought. My first reflection is that it indicates an article that is not a balanced examination. What does 'sub-happy' mean? The purchase of submarines does not imply any sense of happiness for anyone. Such a purchase reflects an acceptance of a necessity for the wellbing of the nation. Does the author imply that a government does not have a moral obligation to ensure the safety and wellbeing of the community. Is the author an expert in the type of defence requirements to ensure the safety of family and the community at large? Does the author know why China is now rapidly expanding and modernising its overall military hardware? The substance of the article does not give demonstrate any such knowledge. Defence is not just one purchase item or items. It is part of a whole framework of interconnected positions. The promotion of Gospel values and the wellbeing of our nation and neighbours is definitely a topic to be discussed, explored and actions taken. A reasoned defence posture does not exclude looking for peaceful alternatives.

Kevin | 09 May 2016  

Look, it should win votes in South Australia and save a couple of Coalition seats. That's what Defence is all about. And before you have a shot, Labor has rolled out its own barrels of pork in the past.

Brett | 09 May 2016  

Good article Justin, Simple answer - Votes count. A very dumb decision and a waste of sparse revenue and resources. End comment!

Gavin | 09 May 2016  

Defence planning needs more than consulting Madam Zelda's crystal ball. I think, given all factors involved, the decision on our next submarine purchase was probably wise. Whether all our submarines were built in South Australia was a political rather than economic decision. The whole project will need to be carefully monitored from all angles. It would be nice having peace all round and no need to protect ourselves in a volatile world but we don't live in Cloud Cuckoo Land.

Edward Fido | 10 May 2016  

Thanks for the article Justin. Equally I would also have thought that the best strategy for defence is a responsible Aid budget which builds good relationships with other nations enables us to be seen as responsible world citizens. As Angela Merkel remarked this is outdated thinking.

Harry Lucas | 14 May 2016  

Similar Articles

Engaging with Dutton's rhetoric is a slippery slope

  • Somayra Ismailjee
  • 20 May 2016

The irony of trying to negate these stereotypes is that in doing so, we are still cheapening asylum seekers to political tools, stripping them of their humanity and multiplicity. Aiming to counter such rhetoric as Dutton's with stories of high-achieving refugees plays into a toxic game that legitimises the same negative stereotypes by engaging with them. Just as invisibility dehumanises asylum seekers, so does the hypervisibility we attribute to a select few stories.


Recognition or treaty ... Why not both?

  • Kate Galloway
  • 18 May 2016

Newly appointed Senator for Western Australia, Pat Dodson, in his first week on the job, raised the thorny political question of treaty. I see the need for both treaty and constitutional reform, which support each other in promoting justice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians. But the limitations of my understanding are both that I am a lawyer, and that I am not an Indigenous Australian. I need to heed the diverse voices of Indigenous Australia in understanding what is truly at stake.