Despite what Crikey politics editor Bernard Keane asserts, Australia risks buying the submarine equivalent of a lemon and we will be the poorer for it. The Coalition government’s obsession with cost-cutting is coming at the cost of common sense.
Imagine, for a moment, that you have bought a new car. It was a hard decision to secure the best price, and a Japanese model seemed safest. But this car is no Toyota — its manufacturer has never exported cars before. Every time it needs a service or something goes wrong, your precious vehicle has to be shipped back to Japan.
This sad scenario doesn’t apply to car owners in Australia — but for our navy it might soon apply to our submarines. The Australian government looks certain to buy subs “off the shelf” from Japan. This could prove a multibillion-dollar mistake. The know-how around the air independent propulsion system resides in Sweden, and the know-how around the diesels may well reside in Germany. The Germans and the Swedes may or may not be willing for that to be exported out of Japan.
There are other shortcomings. For example, naval experts flagged last month with Defence Minister David Johnston that off-the-shelf submarines would place us in a dependency role vis-a-vis Japan. They said in a letter to him that “the effectiveness of the new submarines will always be reliant on the relationship with the overseas parent navy and its industry base”.
Japan has never exported submarines, and it holds a lot of the intellectual property and the know-how to maintain the fleet. If the economic blow to Australia’s shipbuilding industry were not enough, the risk of damage to our sovereign capability is unquestionable. Losing the ability to maintain an effective naval defence force could severely undermine our national security, as well as our economy.
No matter what submarine is selected, we will never have total control. But maintaining sovereign capability includes mitigating risks by ensuring we have access to data necessary for maintenance, adaptation, modification, upgrading and exploitation within our Australian environment. As a nation, we need control of our defence assets and freedom to engage in military operations without relying on help from overseas. To achieve that, we need the expertise and the supply chains to equip and defend ourselves.
The role of local industry in the maintenance of sovereign capability is vital. While buying off-the-shelf from overseas may appear a cheaper option, we risk losing our ability to maintain and operate our fleet.
Lessons have been learnt in Australia’s shipbuilding. As Johnston has acknowledged, ASC (formerly the Australian Submarine Corporation) has made remarkable progress. Australian industry is ready, willing and able to play a significant role in submarine sustainment — but only with the right partner.
If we must buy from overseas, the only solution is to work with an overseas partner willing to establish a design office here, transfer its intellectual property and engage with Australian industry. Value for money must be balanced with sovereign capability.
If we fail to defend that capability, we fail our defence force, risking lives as well as national security.
In the Vietnam War, Australia’s plans to deploy French Mirage aircraft were undermined by the unwillingness of the French to provide spare parts. During both Gulf wars, there was a lack of spares for our Black Hawk helicopters (American orders took priority).
All of these problems would have been avoided, had we defended our sovereign capability.
It may look like a good deal from Japan. But a deeper look suggests we will be making another defence mistake. Buying our next generation of submarines from Japan does not represent value for money.