‘Costly’ errors leave Australia exposed
Australia's decision to buy 12 of the "most lethal conventional submarines ever contemplated" may actually leave it exposed to attack, according to an expert.
When the Shortfin Barracuda was unveiled as the design for Australia's new submarine fleet in 2016, there was excitement about its capabilities and the decision to build the vessel in South Australia.
But one expert has now analysed the challenges facing Australia's military amid the changing power dynamic in the region and believes Australia has invested billions in the wrong weaponry.
Professor Hugh White's book How to Defend Australia looks at the strategic risks Australia faces as China seeks to take its place as the dominant player in East Asia.
He believes America will eventually withdraw from the region, which could leave Australia exposed and without the right technology to defend itself against rising powers including China, Indonesia and India.
While America has suggested it is "here to stay" in the region, Prof White told news.com.au it had not done anything to push back against China.
"We need to think about how Australia can stand up for itself in an Asia that is not dominated by America," he said.
China has put a massive amount of money into its air and naval forces and now has nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles and submarine-launched ballistic missiles. Its nuclear weapons could threaten American cities if war broke out.
"In a new Cold War, Americans would have to ask whether saving Taiwan from China - and preserving US leadership in Asia - would be worth losing Los Angeles and Seattle," Prof White's book notes.
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"America's own security does not depend on preventing China from dominating East Asia. Why then would America accept the costs and risks of trying to do that?"
The professor of strategic studies at Australian National University, who was also a former senior official in the Department of Defence and senior adviser to former defence minister Kim Beazley and former prime minister Bob Hawke, argues that Australia needs to change focus.
"Neither side of politics is taking China's challenge seriously, and even if they do, they are saying we should cling more tightly to the US," Prof White said.
"My argument is I don't think US support is a durable solution. I think it's likely the US will eventually withdraw from Asia."
In his book, Prof White looks at whether Australia can defend itself without help from a powerful ally like the United States. He believes it is possible but will require a lot more money and for Australia to change the military assets it's investing in.
WAR AT SEA IS OUR BIGGEST PRIORITY
The army has been the focus of Australia's military in the past, with many of its key contributions to previous conflicts focused around sending troops and other equipment to help allies overseas.
However, going into the future, Prof White believes the army should play a secondary role in the country's defence.
When it comes to protecting itself from an attack from a major Asian power, Prof White believes Australia's geography means maritime warfare will instead be central to its defence.
Prof White believes the most efficient way to defend Australia from an attack would be through a tactic of "sea denial".
Sea denial involves a focus on finding and sinking enemy ships. This tactic would also protect against a land attack on Australian shores because ships are the only way an adversary can transport the huge amount of equipment necessary for a major land campaign.
"A military strategy of maritime denial will call for a navy very different from the one we have today and different too from the navy we are now building," the book states.
AUSTRALIA'S 'BIG AND COSTLY' MISTAKES
Most of Australia's current investment in the navy is going towards delivering large warships, which can move cargo and transport large numbers of soldiers and help get assistance to our allies.
Australia has a plan for 12 new warships as part of the Future Frigate project, at a cost of $35 billion, but Prof White said there were "real questions" about what these warships were supposed to do.
Previously, you needed warships to attack other warships, but new technology has made warships much easier to find and target. Prof White suggests the Royal Australian Navy has not adapted to the realities of contemporary warfare.
He believes warships are still valuable for operations in safe waters but their roles in maritime conflicts will disappear.
"Instead, war at sea will be dominated by submarines, aircraft, drones, missiles and satellites," the books states.
The warships won't help much in protecting Australia's own shores, and the demography of Australia also means it will always have a small army compared to other countries.
Prof White believes Australia should cancel the Future Frigate project, get rid of its three air warfare destroyers and abandon plans to build 12 offshore patrol vessels.
"We'd lose a lot of money doing that but we'd avoid wasting more by operating ships we do not need," he said.
He also thinks two 27,000-tonne amphibious assault ships, HMAS Canberra and Adelaide, each costing about $1.5 billion, should be sold and replaced with smaller versions.
Prof White argues that the decision to buy these ships was a "big and costly mistake".
"There seems to be no coherent strategic or operational rationale for the massive investments we have been making in the navy's surface fleet for over the past decade," he wrote.
Australia should instead put more money into building lots of new submarines.
Even here, Prof White believes Australia erred in choosing the Shortfin Barracuda at an estimated cost of $50 billion for 12 vessels, making it the most expensive conventional submarines ever built.
The technical difficulty and cost of delivering these submarines could leave Australia without any operating submarines at all in the 2030s when the country's six Collins-class submarines may need to be retired. The last of the 12 new submarines won't be delivered until 2050.
Prof White believes Australia needs a lot more submarines more quickly to pose a serious threat to an adversary's ships. A fleet of about 32 submarines would be needed if Australia wanted to be able to attack enemy ships as they passed through choke points near islands around the country.
He believes the most affordable option would be to develop a new, updated version of the Collins design, which could probably be built for about $2 billion, less than half the current estimate for the Shortfin Barracuda.
"We need a lot more submarines a lot sooner than the current plans allow," the book states.
Prof White also argues for changes to Australia's army and more investment in the air force, and he raises the question of whether Australia should consider developing its own nuclear weapons to stop China from using the threat of a nuclear attack as a tactic for Australia's surrender.
IT WILL COST US
Prof White acknowledges that the changes he is proposing would cost Australia a lot of money.
Australia's defence budget has not reached 2 per cent of GDP since 1994, but he believes this needs to be increased substantially, closer to 3.5 per cent if Australia wants to be an independent power.
This would mean finding another $70 billion per year, about three times the cost of the National Disability Insurance Scheme.
The cost would be even higher if Australia decided to pursue its own nuclear weapons program.
However, he believes action needs to be taken now if Australia wants a chance of defending itself.
"Even with an exceptional effort, it would take until 2030 at least to build the absolute minimum force we would need as a middle power and perhaps until 2040 to finish the job," he said.
"These will be very risky decades, and our strategic exposure will increase the longer we delay."