Junk Explained: Why Is Everyone Suddenly Talking About Submarines?


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I’m willing to bet you haven’t thought about submarines since the last time The Hunt For Red October was on TV, but their necessity in modern defence is a big concern for our government, and big business for industry in South Australia. Just how big is a little staggering.

Our ageing Collins class submarines need to be replaced and the government is on the market for twelve new ones. Estimates have put the cost anywhere between $20 and $30 billion, making this the biggest Defense procurement in Australia’s history. But massive question marks hang over the details. Are the submarines going to be built in Australia? Or will the monumental project be shipped overseas?

Just before the federal election in 2013, the Coalition made a promise that, if elected, the project would indeed be given to ASC, a shipyard in Adelaide. The deal would create thousands of jobs in the area and give a much needed boost to the state’s economy — but pre-election promises for Abbott’s government tend not to eventuate, and this submarine debacle is shaping up to be more of the same mirage.

After coming into power in 2013, Abbott and his cabinet have become increasingly vague about the plans for these “spaceships of the ocean“, now refusing to confirm or deny the project for ASC, let alone any other Australian company. Liberal Senator Sean Edwards claims Abbott called him prior to the spill vote and promised him Adelaide would be involved via the open tender process. Abbott, finding himself relatively unscathed after the vote, followed up on the conversation with the term “competitive evaluation process.”

The phrase left experts from Defence and international trade scratching their heads over what exactly he meant – but based on previous tactics employed by the government, one might be able to translate the term as “Fuck Your Open Tender.” As of this Tuesday, after all of the infantile rhetorical aerobics, it seems the government is willing to put the matter up to a two-stage tender process, according to The Guardian. This would, in theory, at least let ASC vie for the project. While this gesture may help stifle infuriation on the homefront, the international situation is shaping up to be one hell of a diplomatic nightmare.

Don’t Mention The War

The insanity began with an interview back in May 2013. Then opposition defence spokesman, David Johnston, told reporters, “The coalition today is committed to building 12 new submarines here in Adelaide, we will get that task done. It’s a really important task not just for Navy, but for the nation.” However, only 11 months (and an election win) later, this surefire deal for Adelaide seemed to be wavering.

Johnston’s wording suddenly became doughy. At an industry conference in April he was quoted as saying, “certainly it is desirable that the new submarine would be built in Australia but it is not a blank cheque … the Japanese is the nearest design that comes towards what our requirements are. Obviously, we must be talking to them, and we are, as to what assistance they can provide us with our program going forward and it would be foolish not to ask them,” — assumedly in a tone akin to someone trying to find an excuse not to visit the in-laws. Then, the following June, Julie Bishop seemed to back this sentiment up with a cooking metaphor, revealing that Japanese interest in the project was increasing, adding “a different flavour to the discussions.”

So far, the extent of Japan’s involvement is unclear and can only be assessed as “co-operative,” although Sky News has reported that yes, they are very much interested. But in an interview with ABC RN, former professor of modern Japanese political history, Rikki Kersten, speculated that the combination of a rapid strengthening of ties between Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe and Tony Abbott — and a military exchange between the two countries — could mean an almost unimaginable overturning of Japan’s self-imposed post-war pacifism. Abe has been looking to increase Japan’s development and spending on defence, but, bound by the country’s import and export conventions borne of the misery of World War II, he’s been forced to engage with the issue in tiny, incremental steps. A submarine deal with Australia, according to Professor Kersten, would be “the first substantial indication that Japan was going to engage in the export of weapons-related technology and defence-related technology.”

In what can only be described as cosmically awkward timing, 2015 also happens to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, making the diplomatic situation for Abe a potential career-ender, to say the least.

The Chinese Connection

Abe doesn’t only have the looming spectre of WWII on his mind. These developments are coming amid rising tensions with China, and the growth of their massive military capabilities. The two countries have been plagued by territorial disputes and, according to defence economics analyst with Australian Strategic Policy Institute, Mark Thomson, “while a deal would mean ties between two close U.S. allies would strengthen, it would be seen in China as a dark cloud.”

At an ASPI-hosted conference aptly named ‘The Submarine Choice’, Admiral Harry B Harris Jr, commander of the US Pacific Fleet, shed some light on the current interest in submarines. “Australia does indeed have a choice, and that choice is to be a relevant maritime power or not. I’m concerned by the aggressive growth of the Chinese military, their lack of transparency and a pattern of increasingly assertive behaviour in the region,” he says, in a quote within a piece by The Monthly’s Claire Corbett. Corbett goes on to point out that the reliance on submarines in the oceans between Australian and China has seen a spike in naval acquisition. “There is a sub-buying frenzy going on in the Asia-Pacific, and Vietnam, Thailand and even Bangladesh are among the countries involved,” she says. “More than half the world’s submarines operate in the region through which all of Australia’s maritime trade passes.” From a military standpoint, the situation seems to necessitate a show of naval strength and a fortifying of Australia’s capabilities at sea.

Put another way, Harris Jr thinks we need to start asserting ourselves by getting involved in a bit of maritime-themed political dick-swinging.

They Belong In A Museum!

For the rest of humanity, however, submarines are looking increasingly archaic in the face of technological advancement.

New techniques in noise detection are developing at a much faster and cheaper rate than in noise reduction technology, according to a report written by Bryan Clark of the US Centre for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. Continuing advancement in data processing will soon enable advanced navies to “see small changes in the environment caused by a quiet submarine,” he says in a piece for The National Interest, leaving even the most covert submarine maneuvers open to detection. Considering the US has recently spent trillions of dollars on advanced submarines, which are soon to become ill-equipped to traverse certain stretches of coastal waters undetected, Australia’s own leap into the fray seems like a short-sighted investment for all the money involved. As more and more countries adopt the techniques created in the burgeoning field of noise detection, submarines may become less useful in naval maneuvers than in decades past.

Submarines, like a live-in grandparent, may find themselves put to odd jobs here and there, but their long-term outlook looks a little sedentary. On Earth, that is. CNN are reporting that NASA is actually looking to deploy a submarine to Saturn’s moon, Titan, in an effort to explore its methane seas. It sounds incredible. Couldn’t we just funnel the $20 billion into this instead?”

Sean Sebastian is a freelance writer based in Melbourne. He tweets irregularly from @ssebast90