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Australia's Submarine Choice

10 Apr 2014
Liz Placanica

This week the Australian Strategic Policy Institute hosted a landmark conference The Submarine Choice bringing together academics, policymakers and government officials to discuss what some consider to be one of Australia’s most vital strategic capabilities.

Defence Minister David Johnston emphasised that submarines are an important asymmetric capability and that the rapidly changing Asia-Pacific environment means that such a capability is likely to grow rather than abate in strategic importance. Johnston further explained that the Government wants “both low risk and high levels of capability.” While such aspirations are admirable, the actual task of balancing these competing priorities is difficult.

Coverage of discussions has been dominated by speculation over the total number and cost of the submarine fleet. Minister Johnston said that his primary focus was not on the number of the fleet, but instead on capability and availability to meet tasks required. Yet, as Graeme Dobell rightly rebuts, capability and costs are explicitly tied to and dependent on the number chosen. Andrew Davies and Benjamin Schreer detail the staggering cost difference between 6 and 12 subs. Peter Jennings similarly noted that “submarines aren’t worth having if they impose too high and opportunity cost.”

Generally, such big ticket defence items are acquired through an off-the-shelf purchase. The previous government, however, had ambitiously promised to deliver and design 12 new submarines in Australia, which was expected to set the government back to the tune of $40 billion. This week it was speculated that the Government may now be leaning towards the revival of purchasing off the shelf designs from overseas. These speculations come off the back of the recently agreed free-trade deal with Japan which includes technology exchange, thus potentially opening the door to buy Japanese-designed conventional submarines.

The justifications for building submarines in Australia were discussed, including support of the ship-building industry and job promotion. Mark Thompson found these unpersuasive and observes that the acquisition of naval hardware should be a matter reserved explicitly for strategy.

Andrew Davies and Mark Thompson, in another piece, go even further, questioning whether submarines will be a wise investment at all or only offer diminishing returns. Davies argues that in the future there is no guarantee that such a capability will deliver the ‘stealthy edge’ which was key to their popularity in the first place. In ‘the Unmanned underwater future’ Rosalyn Turner suggests an alternative investment in the form of unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVS). This capability, largely neglected from public discussion, would complement the operational challenges facing the Navy and deliver more strategic value in the future.

The submarine issue will also have important repercussions for the Defence Materiel Organisation, which has been facing an onslaught of criticisms over the past few weeks. The organisation’s Chief Executive, Warren King, gave a heated response to allegations of cost blowouts, inefficiency and high operating costs as the organisation faces a landmark review into its operational future and almost certain job cuts.

Perhaps one answer to prevailing money woes could be found in the high stakes ‘submarine choice.’ As Peter Jennings astutely observes, the sheer cost of building 12 subs in Australia crowds out other defence aspirations, raising the danger of the ADF becoming a ‘one trick pony.’

Liz Placanica is an intern at the Australian Institute of International Affairs National Office and post-graduate student at the Australian National University. She can be reached at