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Thursday 22 Feb 2018 | 14:30 | SYDNEY

A strategic perspective on submarines



4 April 2012 09:53

Richard Brabin-Smith is a Visiting Fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre of the Australian National University. He was formerly Deputy Secretary of Defence and Chief Defence Scientist.

I was puzzled by Stephen Grenville's reference in his post of 26 March to an article that Paul Dibb and I wrote earlier this year for the Australian. Grenville's post argues against building the proposed future submarines in Australia – or building much else for Defence, I infer. In contrast, Dibb's and my article focused almost entirely on the arguments against Australia's acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines from the US, for what we regarded as compelling strategic reasons. 

It would have been more relevant for Grenville to refer instead to a piece Dibb and I had in the AFR last year (subscription required) where we argued, in effect, that taking a strategic perspective on priorities would allow useful progress to be made in the historically-vexed area of defence policy for industry. 

Taking a strategic perspective does not mean adopting a policy of 'anything goes'. Rather, it means developing a conceptual framework that gives centrality to enduring concepts and experience, such as independent sovereign action, the priority for the defence of Australia, self-reliance (not self-sufficiency, in case anyone needs to be reminded), the characteristics of likely operating areas, allies' reluctance from time to time to give us access to information (including software) we need, recognition that modern weapons and sensors all too often have weaknesses as well as strengths, and the importance of through-life support and upgrades. 

Such a framework would not supply the answers but it would foster a consistent approach to the issues and the setting of priorities (ie. what would get funded and why, and what would not). 

The difficult part, however, is applying such principles in practice, and in bringing judgment to bear on what if any premium should be paid, or extra project risk carried, for a higher level of strategic reassurance. At this stage of the game, with respect to the new submarines, it's anyone's guess.  (Many questions remain, at least in the public sphere and one gathers within Defence too: why are we doubling the number of submarines but not changing much else? What's the relationship between strategic drivers and project timescale? Does this proposed expenditure of many billions of dollars really increase defence capability in the most appropriate way? What is the trade-off between submarine capability, cost and risk [in the sense of marginal analysis]? Where will the crews come from? And so on.)

My colleague Derek Woolner makes some good points in his response to Stephen Grenville's post, not least on the matter of the high levels of security that apply to submarines, especially the closer they are to the leading edge.

All the same, I should record that I don't see the Collins experience in quite the same positive light that Woolner does, as to my mind some of the problems they have experienced really shouldn't have arisen in the first place. It is indeed ironic that, as best I can recall, we did not have the same problems with the availability of the foreign-built Oberon boats as we are now having with the Australian-built Collins class, even though the challenge of overseas support was one of the reasons for deciding to build locally.

All in all, I suspect Stephen Grenville and I would have a lot in common in asking for greater clarity of argument in the allocation of defence resources. But unless I have misunderstood him, I really can't agree with his inveighing against the 'strategic drivers argument'. Without a sound appreciation of strategic factors and their application even to industry policy, Defence risks getting a lot of things seriously wrong.

Photo by Flickr user thievingjoker.

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