How does a Middle Power like Australia defend itself from attack by a superpower?

Kosta Tsipis wrote in ‘The Future of the Sea-based deterrent’ in 1974[1]:

“No sector of a superpower’s defense system is quite so invulnerable against a preemptive attack as its fleet of highly mobile, deep-diving, long-ranging missile-bearing submarines”.

Middle powers can have submarines too.

Submarines are significant operational assets. They can contribute significantly in all three areas of maritime operational warfare; sea control, sea denial and maritime power projection. They are a vital element in any serious naval power’s order of battle and, noting the fact that surface forces opposing a submarine threat need to build up a defensive frame that is complicated, expensive and vulnerable, they are increasingly being acquired by medium and small navies“[11].

The key, core feature of a submarine is stealth. It is stealth that makes submarines an equaliser:

The operational characteristics of submarines are operational stealth, endurance, freedom of movement, flexibility and lethality. When packaged together they provide mission advantage and potency at sea, even against an enemy that is, at least in theory, superior.

Operational Stealth is afforded to the submarine because it operates below the sea surface in a medium generally unfavourable to counter-detecting sensors. Once fully submerged, a submarine remains virtually invisible to all but the most capable Anti Submarine Warfare (ASW) forces[11].

In July 2014, PM Tony Abbott announced that Australia would purchase off-the-shelf submarines from Japan[2]:

“AUSTRALIA would have been the first country to benefit from Japan’s new constitution which permitted arms production. The Soryu Class boat is the world’s largest conventionally powered submarine and it is fitted with the latest Swedish designed air independent propulsion system that allows it to remain submerged for extended periods. Most diesel-powered boats have to come close to the surface to “snorkel” for air to run the engines so they can charge the batteries. Nuclear boats have no such requirement and can remain submerged indefinitely”.

And whilst there was talk about local production, experienced commentators[5] rejected that option:

Home-built subs too costly, risky

“BUILDING a new fleet of submarines in Australia would be too risky and too expensive, the Abbott government has concluded. Instead, the government is considering buying “off-the-shelf” options from Japan and Germany, with Japan’s Soryu- class boat the frontrunner.

On 14 September 2015, Malcolm Turnbull deposed Tony Abbott as Liberal party leader and hence as PM[3].

In December 2016, Malcolm Turnbull cancelled the Japanese deal and announced an agreement to build 12 French submarines in a $50 billion project[4]. The first submarine would theoretically be delivered in 15 years.

Political commentators[5] believed that the French submarine deal was signed to save Christopher Pyne’s seat in South Australia:

Submarines, a deal powered by politics

“THERE’S a desperation about the $50 billion submarine deal that warns our economic leadership is weak and our money about to be wasted. Worse, our national security seems to have been sacrificed for political advantage”.

There is a strong argument for diesel subs for defence (the cost is one tenth of a nuclear sub) and another strong argument for defence in depth, supporting the US defending Japan or Taiwan say, using nuclear subs, but there is no argument for taking a nuclear sub and turning it into a diesel noise source – it is the worst of both worlds: both expensive and not stealthy.

“Diesel subs have to surface periodically to snorkel, taking in air to help power their engines. They’re exposed to radar detection while snorkeling. Soryu-class boats, however, sport “air-independent propulsion” that lets them stay submerged for up to two weeks”[9].

And he removed the nuclear requirement, taking away the key attribute of submarines which makes them an equaliser.

Was this his reason[4]?

Turnbull: “This $50 billion investment will directly sustain around 1,100 Australian jobs and a further 1,700 Australian jobs through the supply chain”.

That’s $18m per job – and those jobs do not add to exports, do not increase our income or our wealth. Or was he saving one job?

Would you employ Chris Pyne for $24.5bn?
“…everything is wrong about the Turnbull government’s decision to build 12 extremely large submarines in Adelaide.
…The government’s refusal to go with an off-the-shelf design will cost more billions, because the first of new submarines won’t be operational until after 2030 and the last until almost 2060.
“This means the decrepit Collins class submarines will [need] new capital spending and very high maintenance and operating costs that will soon pass $1 billion a year.
Bizarrely, the Turnbull government … trusts this shipyard to build submarines costing $50 billion and frigates about $35 billion.
Where were Scott Morrison and Mathias Cormann when this decision was taken? The government’s estimates of the added costs of local construction shows it will take more than $20 billion more simply to try to win a couple of Coalition seats in Adelaide.
Even The Australian is choking on the pork[9].

And ten years away. If we’re lucky.

Submarine deal taking on water
“LAST April, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced he’d spend billions to bribe voters in Adelaide seats he looked like losing. He didn’t put it like that, of course.”[19]

“Above all else, we must recognise that we now face the prospect—for the first time since the Second World War—of a potential major power adversary, with whom we do not share fundamental values, operating in our neighbourhood and capable of threatening us with high intensity conflict. To counter this eventuality, we must develop a stronger defence force capable of denying our approaches to a well-armed adversary” – Paul Dibb[16]

So now China is banging the drums and we have no credible submarine defence and we cannot support our allies either.

The current program is to build a fleet of “Attack class” submarines. Shouldn’t we also be building a “Defence class”?

Actually, “Attack class” should be renamed to “Shipyard class”, because that’s where it will be for 10 years. Who will own the shipyard? China?

Apparently Mr Turnbull is very good at managing his own money but not so good at managing ours.

Say we accept the (highly doubtful) conclusion that the French submarine (modified for our needs) is the superior solution, it won’t be available for another 10 years at least. What do we do in the meantime? Prostrate ourselves in front of an increasingly belligerent, imperialistic “People’s” Republic?

Scott Morrison signs a document with Christopher Pyne and Florence Parly sitting alongside him. Naval officers stand behind them

We could have purchased off-the-shelf submarines, nuclear or diesel, whilst waiting for Mr Turnbull’s theoretically superior solution. Tell the French to setup operation in Adelaide, meanwhile we’ll buy and operate the Japanese submarines, thank you. They’re not 100% ideal but 95% is better than zero percent for the next 10 years.

“The last boat in the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force’s (JMSDF) Soryu class—a class widely acclaimed the world’s finest of its kind—ran Japanese taxpayers $540 million. Let’s use that as a benchmark for discussion. Meanwhile, each Virginia-class nuclear-powered attack boat sets back American taxpayers a cool $2.688 billion. That’s five for the price of one—a low, low price by any standard!”[15]

Apparently Mr Turnbull is very good at managing his own money but not so good at managing ours.

But that’s all in the past. Now it’s Mr Morrison’s opportunity to do what’s necessary:

  1. Tell the French to set up shop in Adelaide. Create a joint design-and-build facility in Adelaide, then we will buy their submarines.
  2. Make the submarines nuclear – nuclear subs can carry a lifetime of fuel – 33 years.
  3. Buy off-the-shelf subs in the meantime. 95% suitable is better than zero percent suitable.

What are you afraid of Mr Morrison? Twitter?

Maybe we need 2 submarine fleets:
1. Attack class: large stealthy nuclear subs to support our allies in the Pacific
2. Defence class: small, agile cheap diesel subs to defend Australia.

Whatever. But clearly, the current Turnbull solution is inferior. Sink it!


  1. The Future of the Sea-Based Deterrent (1974)
  2. July 2014: Australia to sign new submarines deal with Japan as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visits Tony Abbott in Canberra
  3. Tony Abbott
  4. April 2016: Future Submarine Program press announcement by Turnbull
  5. December 2016: DCNS Future Submarines deal officially signed by Malcolm Turnbull and French Defence Minister
  6. Nicholson & Wallace, Home-built submarines deemed too expensive, too risky (paywall)
  7. Attack-class submarine
  8. July 2019: Tony Abbott ‘regrets’ not finalising submarine deal with Japan
  9. Would you employ Chris Pyne for $24.5bn?
  10. Christopher Pyne unconcerned over submarine documents leak
  11. The role of submarines in Warfare
  12. March 2020: French submarine program ‘dangerously off track’
  13. Attack Class Submarine Program
  14. $80bn future submarine program runs aground, again
  15. Diesel Submarines: The Best Weapon against China’s Rising Naval Power?
  16. Second Rate Leadership: immense Defence spend unlikely to secure Australia in new world order
  17. Russian Submarines: Still a Relevant Threat
  18. January 2020: Defence Department considered walking away from $50 billion French submarine deal
  19. Submarine deal taking on water

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