SUBMARINES, strangely enough, are most vital to the nation as stealthy maritime defence vessels. To defend our island nation we would be best served by the most efficient and effective submarines we can procure in keeping with our timing demands and capability requirements. It is worth making these seemingly obvious points because for far too long too many have seen our submarines, not as vehicles for delivering missiles or deterrence to our strategic rivals but as delivery systems for industry assistance or political favours to domestic allies.For three decades politicians have climbed all over the Collins Class subs. Since the decision to build six diesel-electric vessels at Port Adelaide was taken by the Hawke Labor government in the late 1980s, the Australian Submarine Corporation has hosted a procession of state and federal MPs from both major parties looking for picture opportunities and political advantage. The manufacturing states of South Australia and Victoria have relied heavily on this and other defence projects to underpin an ailing sector and give state and federal MPs something to boast about.
But the boats are substandard. Dodgy periscopes, troubled software, wonky weapon systems, noisy engines, cost blowouts and maintenance delays have dogged the subs, keeping them out of the water too often and limiting their effectiveness. The navy has had trouble recruiting and retaining submariners and the vessels are at serious risk of developing even more worrisome deficiencies as they approach the end of their working life over the next decade. For all these reasons, we believe the Abbott government must ignore the parochial posturing of SA Independent Senator, Nick Xenophon, the SA and Victorian Labor governments and the pressure from its own SA MPs and make the right decision for the defence of the nation. Now that Japan, Germany and France will bid for the right to build at least eight submarines (and possibly 12) the Coalition must ensure the project is not deployed as a $50 billion boondoggle. It must learn from the tortured history of the Collins Class subs and put defence imperatives at the forefront. The purchase of proven off-the-shelf vessels will ensure the best capability is delivered for the best price. And it is already clear that ASC will receive enormous local benefits over the medium term, at least in sub maintenance, and most likely also in aspects of construction.
Former defence minister David Johnston erred with a silly pre-election promise to build the subs in Adelaide. He told South Australians what they wanted to hear even though the Coalition had gone out of its way not to lumber itself with that pledge. Now he’s been dumped the focus can return to the best outcome. This means ignoring the xenophobic opportunism of Bill Shorten who claimed Labor would build subs here because “we love this country” when fronting a union rally last year. “Last time we had Jap subs,” yelled an interjector, sinking lower than a Collins Class, “they were in bloody Sydney Harbour.” With the next submarine fleet, Australia must do better.