Defence News

Australia's submarines: More magical thinking

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Barracuda-class submarine (Image courtesy

The submarine decision demonstrates our thinking is still mired in a passing world despite the magical thinking inherent in the government’s statements. James O’Neill reports.

THE ANNOUNCEMENT last week that the Australian government had decided to spend more than $50 billion on purchasing a fleet of submarines added yet another surreal element to what passes for Australia’s foreign policy in the 21st century.

Very few relevant details of the contract have been released. That at least some of the construction will occur in South and Western Australia owes more to the government’s political imperatives in those States than it does to economic sense. 

Some opinion suggests that the final cost of each submarine may be as much as one third extra because of the decision to divide construction between France and as many as three widely separated geographical locations in Australia. The Defence Minister Marise Payne has tacitly admitted as much.

The French media have treated the decision as a triumph for France, but the jubilation seems misplaced if in fact all that the French are providing is the design and the technology, both of which already exists in French submarines. Quite where their financial bonanza lies is therefore unclear, unless of course a significant part of the construction will take place in France. That is a detail unlikely to be released this side of the likely July election.

But there are more serious issues that need to be addressed than Coalition seat-saving initiatives that the local media have tended to focus upon.

The first question is, what is the military point of this vast expenditure? The government’s carefully orchestrated announcement extolling job creation or preservation, technology, local industrial development etc., avoided any discussion about what the point of the purchase was.

The same benefits for example, could be achieved with alternative infrastructure expenditure, for example in health, education and technological investments without the follies attendant upon the submarine policy.

The clue to the government’s thinking in this matter (to use a generous adjective) is found in the recent Defence White Paper 2016, itself a mishmash of poorly thought through polices.

1. The White Paper clearly implied that the “threat” we need to protect ourselves from is China.

That cannot be said too loudly and clearly of course, when the same China is also the main source of Australia’s prosperity over the past four decades. And despite doing its best to annoy the Chinese, including ill-considered forays into the South China Sea arguments.


2. The recent refusal to allow a land purchase deal by Chinese interests to proceed,

Australia clearly hopes that China will continue to be a major source of wealth generation for Australia.

The first submarine delivery will not occur before 2030. If the Australian military planners believe that the geopolitical world in general and the Asian component in particular will not be radically different in 2030 than what it is now, they are in serious need of a strategic rethink.

How will Australia counter this presumed threat?  Some of the more fanciful mainstream media writers seem to think that in the event of an outbreak of hostilities, (for which they offer no plausible scenario) one of these Australian submarines will sail undetected into the South China Sea and fire off some missiles at the Chinese mainland.

Even if such a fantastical scenario were remotely plausible, with or without our most dangerous ally, do the military planners seriously believe that the Chinese will not respond? When they respond, as they most assuredly will, it will not be with a repeat of Japan’s quixotic foray into Sydney Harbour in World War 2. The response will come in the form of hypersonic ICBMs with multiple independently targeted warheads.

The recently tested Chinese Dongfeng-41 ICBM has a range of 12,000km, which it covers in less than 30 minutes. Each missile carries between 6 and 10 nuclear warheads. That is more than enough to eliminate Pine Gap, HMAS Stirling, and all the mainland capital cities. Australia’s participation in such a foolhardy war exercise would be over in less than an hour.

If attacking China is such a suicidal option, what are the alternative uses for these expensive pieces of hardware? It is difficult to conceive of a single point that does not collapse under the weight of its own absurdities and inherent contradictions.

What is really missing from the government’s policy announcements and the media commentary thereon, is a serious consideration of real policy alternatives. That does not preclude making proper provision for Australia’s defence. The debate should be about the most appropriate form and policy objectives of such a defence strategy.

But making such provision would include recognition that one is least likely to be attacked by one’s friends than by one’s enemies. Australia has no real enemies in our region, although our arrogant and ham-fisted treatment of our neighbours, from tiny East Timor to super power China is the antithesis of Dale Carnegie’s sage advice about winning friends and influencing people.


A rational Australian defence and foreign policy would also be one that divested itself from involvement in the endless, self-serving, and devastating wars of others, particularly when no national interest of Australia is at stake. Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria are only some of the more recent examples.

To formulate such policies however, would require a rejection of the old certainties that places Anglo-American ideologies front and centre of our strategic thinking.  It would also require an acknowledgment of the fundamental realignments taking place in Eurasia.

Australia has a fundamental choice to make.

Are we to be part of this exciting new Eurasian based world manifest in the New Silk Roads developments and to benefit therefrom, or do we slide into the irrelevant periphery that Halford Mackinder forecast more than a century ago?

3. The time available for making such a choice is rapidly running out.

The submarine decision demonstrates very clearly our thinking is still mired in a world that is passing and all the magical thinking inherent in the government’s statements does not detract from that central reality.

James O’Neill is a Barrister at Law. He may be contacted at

This article was originally published in Gumshoe News and is republished with permission.

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