Between 1960 and 2000, Australia operated six Oberon class diesel-electric submarines. One of them, HMAS Onslow, is preserved at the Maritime Museum in Sydney’s Darling Harbour.
Shortly before being decommissioned, this boat was involved in joint war games near Hawaii with the US Navy. After the exercise the Australians were able to present their American allies with periscope photos of the supercarrier USS Carl Vinson. They had scored a virtual kill without the Yanks even being aware of their presence.
This anecdote underscores the supreme advantage of such vessels – they are extremely quiet. They are the ultimate stealth weapons. Admittedly, nuclear-powered subs can stay underwater virtually indefinitely, but they are relatively noisy. A nuclear reactor with its pumps and heat transfer systems cannot help but make noise continuously. There is only so much that can be done to muffle or quieten them down. In contrast, a submerged conventional submarine can switch off all its motors, and survive on battery power. Provided the crew don’t fart or sneeze, they can be very quiet indeed. And contemporary subs equipped with fuel cells as well as batteries can operate submerged for up to three weeks.
In the next few months we will hear a lot about how superior nuclear-powered submarines are. Vice Admiral Mike Noonan is even claiming superior stealth characteristics – which is simply not true. Yes, they tend to be faster. This is great if you want to go thousands of kilometres in a matter of days. But they are also much more expensive.
A conventionally powered sub like the German-Italian Type 212 costs between €280 and €560 million. Even allowing for Australia paying mug’s prices, we could acquire and run one for far less than a billion dollars. Contrast that with the proposed boats, each of which will probably cost ten times that much. The money we could save could be used to preserve an Australia worth defending – a fleet of firefighting aircraft, stopping the erosion of our health care system, free university education… you fill in the rest.
So, why nuclear subs?
Elements of the Federal coalition and the media are very keen on Australia getting more involved in the nuclear fuel cycle. The Financial Review has jumped straight in lobbying for nuclear power. On July 29 there was kite-flying in the West Australian newspaper about building a nuclear reactor in WA (with UK involvement). This would probably be sited in a remote location (to avoid the NIMBYs) – maybe the Kimberley – and primarily tasked with producing hydrogen. Expect an announcement if the Morrison government is returned at the next election.
Meanwhile the planned nuclear waste dump in SA could very profitably be expanded. High-level N-waste could be taken, not just from military sources. Countries like the UK and Germany (and I dare say France) could solve their dilemma of N-waste by exporting it to a remote location in the third world (Aboriginal land in Australia). So the move to N-powered ships can be seen as a slip into the whole nuclear cycle.
Meanwhile Defence Minister Dutton beats the drums of war, trying to terrify us regarding China’s ‘huge military buildup’ (China is spending less than one-third what the US does). Our own military bill is huge and increasing – $45 billion this year. The recent announcement of AUKUS, a strategic partnership obviously aimed at China, identifies an enemy, and offers a strategic excuse for this expenditure. It is about this country playing a minor role in a US-led game of brinkmanship and global hegemony. We would base our nuclear subs at HMAS Stirling near Fremantle and play the role of Deputy Sheriff in the Indian Ocean, targeting Chinese assets in the Horn of Africa, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Burma. Then there is Dutton talking about more US weapons and GIs being based in Australia. This is AUKUS.
The alternative scenario is that Australia protects itself. In 1986 the Hawke Government received the Dibb Report, which proposed such an approach, but gained little traction. This might include conventionally powered attack submarines that would be far better equipped to deal with any seaborne invasion. Unmanned Undersea Vehicles are a rapidly emerging technology that could also play a role. (Such drones may render crewed subs obsolete anyway).
But rather than preparing for war, we could enhance the prospects for peace.
Above all, Australia is desperately in need of an independent foreign policy and a competent diplomatic service. Building trust and friendship with neighbours to the near north and in the Pacific would be a good start.
♦ Richard Staples is a bamboo grower and craftsman, former Byron Shire Councillor (1995–2012) and activist (water, energy, forests, defence and disarmament). He lives near Bangalow with his wife, Devi and young daughter, Emily.