Royal Australian Navy Collins-class submarines during an international naval exercise. The US Armed Services Committee recently heard that by 2020, China is likely to have 82 submarines in the Asia-Pacific area.
By Nicholas Stuart/Sydney Morning Herald
30 March 2015

Royal Australian Navy Collins-class submarines during an international naval exercise. The US Armed Services Committee recently heard that by 2020, China is likely to have 82 submarines in the Asia-Pacific area. Photo: Petty Officer Damian Pawlenko
The newly-minted admiral strode decisively to the lectern. He was wearing a crisp white uniform. "This slide," he said, "shows our trade links to the world." A large map sprang to life on the screen behind him. On it a dense network of tight umbilical cords appeared to be holding Australia, binding it across the oceans to the dense land masses of the north. "It's the navy's role to defend and secure these trade routes," he asserted.
It was the moment that should have imbued me with confidence. The commander in control. Confident, capable, and certain. Nevertheless this was the moment I began to question some of his fundamental assumptions. Defend from whom, I wondered? It isn't difficult to see our most critical shipping links are with China. Are we really concerned the United States or Japan would interdict these sea routes to prevent us trading with our major export market? Surely not. Yet the admiral was, if very new, obviously very smart as well. I knew he must be on to something. Then suddenly it hit me. Oil!
According to some reports we no longer have fuel reserves for more than 11  days. Cut off our oil and the country would, quite literally, splutter to a halt. This is resource we depend on. It's vital. After a month without fuel, the cities would begin to empty; after two, people would begin to starve. Three months without oil and we'd be reduced to struggling groups battling for survival, with authority wielded locally by those holding weapons and controlling food stocks. The country would fall to its knees. The admiral was utterly right. Preserving the flow of this thick, treacly liquid that powers Australia is critical: without it, civilisation would vanish.
But then he lost me again. He began talking about ships and submarines, as if these are somehow relevant to the equation. He seemed to be insisting our navy will actually be able to defend the slow container ships and oil tankers as they plough through the waves. Maybe today; but tomorrow, against fast missiles? I think not. Missile technology is developing too fast. Peer five years or so in the future and things look very different. Yet that's the ramifications of today's equipment decisions will count. Particularly the pivotal one about the new submarine.
Let's begin with two inevitable, but disruptive, trends. One strategic, the other technical.
It's almost certain that China's economic trajectory won't continue at its current pace, but look at it now. We "um" and "ah" about building six subs to replace our current fleet. The US Armed Services Committee recently heard, however, that by 2020, Beijing's likely to have 82 submarines in the Asia-Pacific area with more hulls being laid down each week. The US will only have 32 to 34.
Economic power isn't static; except, perhaps, in Japan where last month's inflation figure was zero and there are 115 jobs for every hundred workers. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's stimulus plans have proved unable to re-ignite a flaccid economy. The possibility of Tokyo making up the numerical deficit is nil. The strategic calculus is rocking on its axis. So too has the tactical one.
Every now and then big technical breakthroughs change the dynamic of war. Think of the invention of the first iron-clad monitor. Suddenly the wooden fleets driven by the wind were useless. They couldn't challenge the powered vessels that could sail where they chose. Later it was the dreadnought; then the advent of carrier-based airpower that changed the face of naval warfare. Today it's all about the increasing range, accuracy and lethality of missiles.
Long-range, precision weapons are challenging our understandings of naval warfare. Offensive swarms of cheap missiles will, eventually, overwhelm any fragile protective bubble cast by air-warfare destroyers attempting to escort ships over the ocean, yet that's not the point.
Why bother destroying freighters if missiles can to destroy critical shore infrastructure, such as the specialist tanks and equipment needed to unload fuel? Destroy the ability to offload the cargo and the ships are useless. Conventional missiles now have the range and accuracy to destroy this vulnerable link in the supply chain. Eliminate these critical logistics and even the ships will run out of fuel.
The discussions about our new submarine have been taking place in an intellectual vacuum.  We are talking about replacing like for like rather than examining the sort of capability we'd be acquiring. There's no point buying subs to stop an invasion fleet or interdict (our own) trade. The only purpose of such a force is to complicate any potential enemy's strategic calculations. The subs aren't being bought so they can return to port to refuel and rearm, because there'll be no wharf to return too. They are our own, sea-based independent deterrent.
Nobody will ever admit this, of course, but this is the real reason we're even discussing buying subs. It's not possible to develop intercontinental ballistic missiles; they'd be too expensive. Short-range submarine-launched cruise missiles are, however, a different thing entirely. A supersonic, long-range, stealthy missile  is currently being developed by Lockheed for use from subs; the proposed land attack variant apparently has a range of 1600km. The payload is less than half that of a serious thermonuclear bomb, but with a nuclear warhead this weapon would still be large enough to make a mess of a city. Or to destroy a particular target. It would certainly be enough to make any potential invader think twice.
It's very difficult, otherwise, to see any point in possessing an enormously expensive, tiny fleet of submarines. This is particularly the case if we don't even make the boats ourselves. We'd be better off without them. If we want to control the seas we should be developing our own home-grown missile industry.