Australian Commentary (52)

To show partiality is not good, because for a piece of bread a man will transgress (Prov.28:21).

 Lost at Sea: Our Submarine Procurement Process

Anyone responsible for purchasing equipment has to be governed by two basic fundamentals: you need items of the right quality, at an appropriate price. You want bang for your buck, and military hardware is no different. But Malcolm Turnbull’s announcement this week that Australia will employ a French company to build 12 submarines in South Australia for $50 billion, (which we won’t begin to get till around 2030), only shows that those two fundamentals got lost at sea.

Why?

We’re due for an election in July, so the PM wants to ensure his party gets the maximum number of South Australian votes. That hasn’t got to be wrong. But too bad these subs will be diesel powered, inferior and expensive, and an albatross around the neck of successive Australian Treasurers and hapless taxpayers now, for 30 years. What matters is we get the votes, right?

Let’s assume Australia needs some new submarines. Take a look at a map of the world at Australia’s surroundings; we have vast tracts of ocean to our West, East and South. If you want a quality, truly ocean going competitive submarine, you have to go with the nuclear version. Today, “nuclear” means high class, because you get unlimited underwater range;  no need to keep coming to the surface to re-charge batteries, which conventional, diesel powered submarines have to do. In my view, this is a major flaw. If you are in a shooting war at sea, this becomes a critical factor, so you can stay under water for as long as you like, doing what you want, till your food runs out.

The Americans know how to produce a quality nuclear, ocean-going submarine, at the right price. Their current version is the Virginia class, possibly the best in the world: 12 built and in service, 5 under construction, expected to be in service beyond 2060. The first was the “Virginia,” commissioned in 2004. These are 115 metres long, have an unlimited range, can dive to over 240 metres, travel at over 25 knots underwater indefinitely, and are being produced every 2 years, for about $4 billion Australian. If I had to spend a week underwater, especially in the midst of a war, I’d be in that boat like a rat down a drain.

As Defence writer Brendon Nicholson says,

The best way to destroy a submarine is with a better submarine.

In 1935 when the British realised that Germany under Hitler was rapidly re-arming, they realised this might present a serious challenge to Britain before long. They quickly got serious about the design and build of world-class fighters, such as the Hurricane, which were being produced in Britain by 1937. So in 1940 when the Luftwaffe was in the skies over England, what were they met by? Hurricanes, and later Spitfires, both of which could successfully match the German fighters.

The fact is that technological advantage in war is critical to winning. And if you have lost it, you’re in trouble. You can’t re-gain it, overnight. The Poles and the French found that out the hard way, in 1939 and 1940.

When others are responsible to build submarines, we are not. That’s a massive difference in every possible way. We place the order for 5-6, have them built in the US, progressively train the crews, bring a boat to Australia every 2-3 years, progressively pay, get a warranty on purchase, spare parts, back-up and a manual. Done.

No problems with having to build massive infrastructure to start the process, find and train the staff, quality of construction, plans that don’t work, boats that leak, lack of build experience, flaws, welding rods of the wrong kind, engine problems, unions, contractors, cost overruns. These are all problems the Americans have dealt with, in producing the 12 that are in the water, today. And one more thing: the versions have steadily improved as they’ve gone along.

Wouldn’t you think that would be the way to go?

No, because we’ve got an election coming, it’s looking tight, and the PM and his Party want to get over the line. Too bad if we’re in a shooting war in 15 years’ time, and you’re a submariner. Rest assured, our PM won’t be down there with you.

And if your son’s in a boat that had to come to the surface to charge its batteries (with technology that’s hardly improved since World War II), and it gets ambushed, torpedoed and is sunk with all hands? Perhaps our PM might send a bouquet to throw on the water, in memory. Oh well.

Cynical? Of course. Who wouldn’t be?

Australian political leaders continue to treat us with contempt. They don’t want an intelligent, well-educated, discerning electorate. That kind of electorate would throw them out. When the PM treats the electorate this way, having no consideration for the quality of the product or the costs we are now committed to, but only considers his own political future, you know we’re in trouble.

The Psalmist spoke of a similar scenario:

Be gracious to us, O Lord, be gracious to us, for we are greatly filled with contempt. Our soul is greatly filled with the scoffing of those who are at ease, and with the contempt of the proud (Ps.123:3-4).

Judith Sloan from “The Australian” put it well.

This is a classic case of crass political opportunism, and the Prime Minister knows it. We are all the poorer for this decision, even South Australians.[1]

 

 

 

[1] “Submarine Contract: Inefficiency Premium of $4 million per Job,” 27/4/2016.

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