Inside Story

Dealing with China

Building Australian submarines would compound the defence white paper’s mistaken view of the threats Australia faces, writes Brian Toohey

Brian Toohey 7 April 2010 2159 words

Unreliable: the Collins Class submarine. NSW Maritime/Flickr

RESOURCES MINISTER Martin Ferguson could hardly have chosen a more soporific way to open a speech in Beijing on 24 March when he said, “It gives me great pleasure to be with you…” There is every reason to believe, however, that Ferguson was genuinely pleased. After all, he was in Beijing to witness the signing of Australia’s biggest ever export contract, under which a Chinese group will pay $60 billion for coal seam gas from Queensland. The figure pips another Chinese company’s agreement last August to pay $50 billion for natural gas from Western Australia. Staggering quantities of iron ore and other minerals are also being shipped to China and other Asian customers, making it much easier for the federal government to boast about its credentials as a good economic manager.

Shortly before his visit to Beijing, Ferguson spoke at what the Australia–China Business Council candidly called its “Canberra Networking Day at Parliament House.” Referring to a development that neither he nor his high-powered audience wants to jeopardise, Ferguson said, “China is now our largest two-way trading partner. Mineral and energy exports to China were worth more than $33 billion last financial year. In 2008–09, more than $26 billion of Chinese investment was approved in the Australian resources sector.” The treasurer, Wayne Swan, also has a lot riding on the China-led boom as he works to restore the budget surplus earlier than anticipated. His officials even operate on the premise that the boom will underpin Australian prosperity for decades to come.

It’s a different story over in Defence, where a new breed of senior officials, with Kevin Rudd’s blessing, see little but trouble in a bonanza that has Australia’s corporate giants salivating for more. Although rapid growth helps rescue tens of millions of Chinese citizens from a future of unrelenting poverty, these officials fear that it will also let the country significantly expand its military power. In response, they are finalising plans to design and build the world’s largest conventionally powered submarines so Australia will be able to fire Tomahawk cruise missiles at its biggest customer. The planning envisages that Australia would be willing to launch the missiles at targets in the Chinese homeland, even if the United States were not at war with China.

At first glance, this may seem a prudent response to the rise of China – an insurance policy in case things turn sour later on. But there are good reasons to regard it as the worst example of defence planning in decades, overturning forty years of careful bipartisan thinking about how best to defend Australia.

The government’s 2009 defence white paper offers no better justification for designing and constructing twelve giant submarines than the claim that the rise of China creates a strategic “risk.” Apart from the outrageous cost – probably over $40 billion – the go-ahead for the big new submarines would make it harder for Australia to defend itself if the need arose. There is a much better case for buying proven medium-sized submarines equipped with torpedoes that greatly increase the costs for any potential adversary thinking about invading territory that Australia is defending.

Land-attack cruise missiles are not particularly potent weapons. During the first Gulf war, the United States fired twenty-three Tomahawks at a single target in Baghdad but only partly destroyed it. Nor can submarines engage in the sustained, high-tempo missile attack required to support an assault on the Chinese mainland of the kind that would ultimately require vast numbers of ground troops – a horrific prospect that not even the United States is prepared to contemplate.

Once a new Australian submarine fired all its missiles (probably about thirty) it would have to return to its base to reload. Almost two months could then pass before it was back in position to fire the next salvo of its subsonic missiles. If we assume that the first salvo managed to avoid China’s defences, including its formidable electronic jamming capacity, then what, asks a former deputy head of Defence, Paul Dibb, would we expect our nuclear-armed adversary to do in response to our attack on its homeland? Dibb’s implicit answer is that we should not assume that China would merely wait for the next salvo to arrive in two months’ time.

There is a very good reason Australia has never designed and built a jet fighter. It would be much too hard to do. Yet designing and building a submarine is even harder. Not surprisingly, building the six existing Collins Class submarines to a unique Australian design has proved a disaster. At times, a succession of serious defects has left only one of them available for operational service. Despite offering large bonuses, the navy is often unable to crew more than two of these unreliable boats.

The lesson should be clear: scrap the proposal to replace the 3050-tonne Collins Class with twelve bigger, even more complex boats that rely on another unique Australian design. The case is all the more compelling after a program director at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, Andrew Davies, and a former submariner, Sean Costello, conservatively estimated that the cost of the twelve new 4000-tonne submarines in 2020 will be $36.5 billion in 2009 dollars. Off the record, Defence officials say that they envisage their unique new submarine will displace 4500–5000 tonnes, which would bring the cost to around $40 billion for twelve. This compares to their estimate of $8.8 billion for the equivalent cost of twelve upgraded versions of the highly regarded German Type 214 submarines.

The main alternatives to a big Australian-designed submarine are follow-on versions of two medium-sized submarines, the Type 214 and the 2400-tonne Spanish S-80. Although the Type 214 only displaces 1700 tonnes, its range and speed is as good as for the Collins (not that the latter goes anywhere much these days at any speed). Unlike the Collins, both the Type 214 and the S-80 have “air independent” hydrogen fuel cells that let them operate extremely quietly without using their diesel engines. The Type 214 has a crew of only twenty-seven compared to thirty for the S-80 and forty-five for the Collins.

Apart from costing a lot less than what one ex-submariner has dubbed the “son of Collins on steroids,” medium-sized submarines are harder to detect, more manoeuvrable and able to operate in shallower water. This helps make them more potent at their core job of sinking ships – a role that has a far more powerful deterrent effect than an ability to fire cruise missiles into the Chinese land mass. Because these submarines are so hard to detect, a potential adversary could be deterred by the formidable task of trying to neutralise them. During the Falklands war, the Royal Navy reportedly allocated one aircraft carrier, eleven destroyers, five submarines and over twenty-five helicopters to try to locate a single 1200-tonne Argentine submarine, the ARA San Luis.

The Type 214 or the S-80 would also be well suited to gathering intelligence in distant waters, laying mines and dropping off special forces. If a threat eventually emerged, their relatively low cost compared to the “Son of Collins” would allow more of them to be deployed, greatly complicating the task of any potential aggressor. Given Australia’s benign strategic outlook, however, six new medium submarines costing less than $5 billion are all that are needed to replace the six Collins Class at this stage.

So why does Rudd support the proposal to spend around $40 billion on twelve unique submarines that will almost certainly be inferior to cheaper, proven off-the-shelf designs? One political explanation is that he wants to show that he is “strong on defence” and not in thrall to the Chinese simply because he speaks their language. To do so, he relies on the white paper’s attempt to look thirty or forty years into a future in which it sees China’s power rising on the Pacific at the expense of the United States.

But this need not be a cause for alarm. Both the Pentagon and the CIA assess China’s military posture as a defensive response to the strong US military presence close to its borders. So do Australian intelligence agencies, as well as two of Australia’s most eminent strategic thinkers, a former defence department head, Bill Pritchett, and a former head of the Office of National Assessments, Bob Furlonger.

Hugh White, a former deputy head of Defence, has written on the Lowy Institute’s blog that the main objective should be to draw China into a constructive regional role. “China’s aspiration to a larger regional role as its power grows is not illegitimate,” writes White. “Our best hope to avoid US–China confrontation and build a stable future in Asia is a collective leadership of Asia’s major powers. That won’t work unless the US takes part, but it needs to do so as a partner with the other members, not as the leader.”

No one knows for sure what will happen. Apart from becoming an expansionist power, China might collapse or gradually evolve into a prosperous democracy that behaves as an impeccable international citizen. Nor does anyone know whether bellicose religious and racial extremists will gain power in the United States, or whether its great tradition of cultural vibrancy, economic innovation and liberal ideals will predominate.

Given that the Congressional Budget Office is forecasting budget deficits – funded in large measure by China – to continue well past 2020, the United States should certainly cut its military spending. But it is starting from such a high base that it is likely to remain the world’s dominant military power for many decades, even if spending is reduced. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s budget specialist, Mark Thomson, recently noted that the United States spends more on defence than the next thirty-four highest spending countries combined. The United States produces a quarter of global GDP but accounts for 45 per cent of global defence spending.

The Chinese government released a new budget on 4 March containing the lowest increase in defence spending in over two decades. The government claims its military spending is 1.4 per cent of GDP, but many observers believe it is double this. Even so, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s well-regarded figures show that China accounts for 6 per cent of global military spending – about one-seventh the share taken by the United States.

In any event, US military planners see no evidence that China has any desire to attack Australia, let alone pay for the hugely expensive build-up of its military forces needed to project power for sustained periods over the long distances involved in an invasion. And there would be ample warning of any changes requiring Australia to deploy a formidable array of defensive forces. If China, or any other potential invaders, were after Australia’s raw materials, it would be much cheaper to buy them. Additionally, India, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Indonesia and Singapore would have an interest in counter-balancing any signs of growing Chinese hostility, regardless of whether the United States helped.

Rudd’s white paper represents a partial reversion to the doctrine of forward defence that Coalition governments began to move away from in the late 1960s in order to emphasise the direct defence of Australia, with some forces still available for deployment overseas. A series of white papers, including the Howard government’s, concentrated on developing a force structure primarily designed to deter or defeat an attack across the air and sea approaches to Australia. Under Rudd, Australia’s new forward deployment will made with heavily armed naval forces, especially big submarines.

Until Rudd’s white paper, defence planners from 1970 onwards did not attempt to foresee what threats would emerge in twenty or thirty years and immediately start buying weapons platforms in response to what could be no more than a guess. The idea was that Australia should develop forces suited to deterring or, if necessary, defeating hostile intrusions into its neighbourhood. In the highly unlikely event of a major threat emerging, there would be ample warning time for the choice of defensive weapons to be refined and expanded. As the Fraser government’s 1976 white paper put it, “Major threats (requiring both military capability and political motivation) are unlikely to develop without preceding and perceptible indicators. The final emergence of a military threat to Australia would be a late stage in a series of developments.”

Rudd has got it badly wrong. The plan to proceed with the Australian submarines, suited to firing small batches of cruise missiles into China every couple of months, should be junked. Meanwhile, our biggest customer should be encouraged to keep on buying as much of our raw materials as it wants. •