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The Case for Nuclear Submarines

On Thursday Tony Abbott delivered a speech to the Centre for Independent Studies which was reported by the media through the prism of the ongoing political conflict between the former Prime Minister and the current one.

No one appeared to give Mr Abbott’s thoughtful intervention serious consideration.

Regardless of his own history with regard to the commissioning of submarines, Mr Abbott made some very valid points.

He said that, at the moment, Australia was basically unprotected.

He made the point that: “When a Russian naval task force appeared to our north at the time of the Brisbane G20, I was told that neither of our two deployed submarines could shadow it. They simply couldn’t get there in time. It was a stark reminder of the limitations of a strategic deterrent comprising just six conventional submarines of which two are in deep maintenance, two are in training, with only two available at any one time – and limited by an underwater cruising speed of just 10 knots.”

He maintains that it will take between 16 and 20 years before the first of the new submarines becomes operational which leaves Australia vulnerable for an extended period of time.

He argues that the risk is enhanced because defence policy has become a vehicle for industry policy rather than focusing on national security.

“We’ve based our proposed sub on an existing design, but one that will need to be so extensively reworked that it’s effectively a brand new submarine and our intention is to build it entirely in Australia.

Although surface ships can be cost-effectively produced here on a continuous-build basis, the primary object of defence procurement has to be the most effective armed forces, not domestic job creation.

We don’t build our jet fighters here, for instance, (although we do build parts for them), so why insist on a local build especially if there’s a big cost penalty?” he said.

“A unique Australian boat is precisely what we wanted to avoid; but it’s exactly what we now face because of our insistence on a submarine that, as well as being large and long-range, was also conventionally powered. The competitive evaluation process conclusively showed that there’s no such thing currently in existence.”

The former Prime Minister said that no government, including his, had ruled out nuclear submarines; they had simply avoided confronting the issue.

He’s arguing that nuclear submarines should be considered as a stop gap over the two decades it will take to produce our first conventional submarine.

He made the point that the Asia Pacific region was replete with submarines, with 146 foreign vessels operating in our strategic waters.

He contends that, in this changing environment, Australia should not scrap the DCNS project to build a conventionally powered submarine but that we should give consideration to acquiring nuclear submarines in the short term.

The response to Abbott’s suggestions is couched in real politik.

Defence Minister Marise Payne “torpedoed” the idea from Europe saying that Australia lacked the physical and intellectual infrastructure to maintain and service nuclear submarines.

What she did not say is that, even if these could be acquired, the project would be unsustainable without bipartisan support.

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