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Boondoggle of the century – so far

At a family wedding earlier this year, I sat down with my uncle-in-law at the pre-reception drinks. As a retired career navy officer, he seemed the perfect person to ask whether Australia needed 12 new submarines. 

The reply: “No. The Navy apparently has trouble getting crew for the current six Collins Class submarines, even taking into account the maintenance roster of the submarines, and one or two are usually not operational at any given time. Seems personnel aren’t keen to spend months under the ocean in a cold metal tube. Finding and training enough crew for 12 submarines would seem an impossible task.” 

So what would the Navy do with 12 submarines? Would they be used to patrol Australia’s coastline? 

He answered by explaining that the shallow continental shelf surrounding Australia makes patrolling close to the coastline unfeasible. That means they have to patrol past the continental shelf, plus the relatively shallow Timor Sea is also an issue. Surface vessels will always be required to patrol for refugee vessels coming from Indonesia.  

The other function of a submarine is covert surveillance.Does that mean one these new submarines will park off the coast of China and spy on Beijing, or monitor shipping in the disputed waters of the South China Sea for example?, I asked. 

“No,” was the answer to that question too. The military super powers spearhead those types of active operations, not Australia. We act in a supporting role to the military of the USA, so it is not in our interests to independently loiter off the coast of North Korea or Russia. 

Three months after that conversation, and after an “exhaustive competitive evaluation process” of several years to find the constructor, and an “independent and rigorous process” to see how a submarine fits our unique national security requirements (overseen by an Expert Advisory Panel chaired by a former Secretary of the US Navy and peer reviewed by two retired US Navy Admirals), the Federal Government has finally announced it has awarded a $50 billion contract to French company, DCNS, for the construction of the 12 submarines. 

The press conference announcing the building of the submarines was a festival of self congratulation, wrapped in patriotic fervour. Prime Minister Turnbull, Defence Minister Payne and Industry Minister Pyne were all singing from the same song book – Australian jobs building Australian submarines using Australian steel. 

South Australian Premier Weatherill and Senator Xenophon also joined in the chorus of support for what is described as the “largest and most complex defence acquisition Australia has ever made.”

A cynical person such as me, especially after discussions with uncle-in-law, might be given to thinking “why?” It seems very obvious submarines are not exactly a necessary part of our National Defence Capability so why purchase them at all?

And of course it would also be obvious to point out this colossal amount of money could be spent on health and education to the benefit of all. 

The Future Submarine Program is about securing votes in South Australia. 

South Australia has traditionally been a manufacturing state. With the collapse of the car building industry and the declining steel industry South Australian jobs are declining. 

Steel producer Arrium recently went into administration and all motor vehicle manufacturing will cease by the end of 2017. 

With the employment future of tens of thousands of voters, and subsequently perhaps up to five Coalition MP’s in doubt, for the sake of self preservation the Government accepted the bid that will use the most input from local workers and steel suppliers. 

The Defence Minister’s own media release states that DCNS is our “preferred international partner” and the commencement of the design of the submarine is “subject to discussions on commercial matters.” The government will “work closely with DCNS to identify opportunities for local businesses to integrate into the supply chain.” 

Translated, this means it is many years before construction begins, but please wait around until a small number of you can be given jobs. And by the way please vote for us in the meantime because as Minister Pyne said “we have worked tirelessly to have the submarines built in South Australia.” It also means the South Australian economy is a major player in the military industrial complex whether South Australians voted to be or not.   

Several important elements of the Future Submarine Program did not receive any fanfare during this vote buying exercise. 

Firstly, the first submarine is unlikely to enter service until 2030, and technology will have advanced further on by then. 

Secondly, twelve submarines can’t be built and delivered at once, and the staggered deliveries will result in the last being completed closer to 2050. By then not only will the technology be antiquated, our fleet of manned submarines will be rendered obsolete by drone-type unmanned submarines. 

Thirdly, you can guarantee the $50 billion price tag being quoted is merely a round number guesstimate, and will be a fraction of the total cost by the time 2050 rolls around. 

Which prompts the question: why spend so much government largesse on this epic boondoggle, when just a couple of years ago the government claimed subsidising the existing car manufacturing industry with existing jobs was government welfare that we couldn’t afford?

It seems incredible how the Australian Government treats On Water and Below Water matters as vote buying exercises, and we just go along for the voyage. 

As an unknown tweeter wrote last week - Never has so much been spent for the political benefit of so few. 

Greg Smart

By his own admission, Greg Smart was born 40 years old and is in training to be a cranky old man. He spends his time avoiding commercial television and bad coffee.