Australia's French Submarine Exit-Bad news for Beijing

Australia's French Submarine Exit-Bad news for Beijing

Thu, 09/23/2021 - 11:02
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By Rakesh Krishnan Simha

Australia's decision to scuttle a $66 billion contract to jointly build diesel-electric submarines with France and sign a new deal with the US and Britain to buy eight nuclear-powered subs has nearly torpedoed relations between the Western allies. With France describing it as a stab in the back and recalling its ambassadors from Washington and Canberra, some observers are turning this into an Anglosphere versus Europe moment. But the truth is that it makes perfect strategic sense for Australia to cancel the contract.

Australia's geography dictates its choice of submarines. Diesel-electric submarines simply do not have the capacity to carry out missions further than 2,400 km without surfacing for air. The country's only submarine base, in Perth, is located virtually on the bottom of the planet and is approximately 7,000 km from the South China Sea where Australian submarines would have to be for them to pose any credible threat to China.

Diesel-electric submarines are not suitable for long-range missions because they have to surface frequently to clear the exhaust from their diesel generators. This not only slows them down but also increases the risk of detection, thereby cancelling the submarine's main capability – stealth. Also, these submarines have limited speed. This is the reason why the US, which has a forward-deployed navy, does not build conventional submarines and is a 100 per cent nuclear-powered fleet.

Nuclear powered submarines can remain submerged practically indefinitely and only need to surface when the food runs out. They also operate at speeds of over 30 knots while submerged which is unmatched by any diesel-electric sub. According to a US Naval Institute report, "Superior speed, range, stealth, and endurance make the nuclear submarine a very effective offensive weapon, capable of projecting power and taking the fight to the enemy."

Similar signatures

The new submarines being built for the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) are likely to be based on Virginia class nuclear attack submarines in the US Navy. Because of having similar subs in their respective fleets, the US and Australia are set to engage China's PLA Navy in a game of undersea hide and seek.

Chasing nuclear submarines is how major navies earn their keep. They track each other's subs on a 24/7 basis by listening to the acoustic signatures – a combination of noise emissions – that are unique to each type of submarine.

Unlike surface ships and aircraft, submarines do not have markings or IFF (Identify Friend/Foe) codes that can reveal their identity. The only way to identify a sub is through its acoustics. This aspect works to the advantage of the US and Australia if both have the same class of submarines.

The signature of an Australian submarine would be indistinguishable from the acoustics of a similar submarine in the US Navy, making it difficult or perhaps impossible for the Chinese to tell one from the other. As more American nuclear submarines join the RAN's undersea fleet, it will keep adding to the complexity of tracking these submarines.The PLA Navy will have to divert more time, effort, vessels, aircraft and personnel to this increasingly complex job.

Since secrecy is paramount for the survival of submarines – which generally lack self-defence weapons – Australia cannot risk any country knowing the whereabouts of its undersea fleet. The wise option is to achieve submarine synergies between the US, Australian and British navies and blindside any adversary who is tracking their fleets.

During most of the Cold War, the Americans built the quietest submarines on the planet. However, the Russians closed the gap by the mid-1980s and today their submarines have got the inside track on the US Navy. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, cash strapped Russia passed on the crown jewels of its submarine technology to the Chinese, allowing the PLA Navy to build increasingly sophisticated and quieter vessels. The net result is the undersea contest has become more intense now and the stakes are a lot higher too.

Australia is only the second country, after the UK, which will be privy to American nuclear submarine technology. As the lynchpin of the newly formed AUKUS (Australia-UK-US) defence bloc, which will be based in the Indo-Pacific and focused on containing Chinese adventurism in the region, Canberra can expect more economic and military windfalls.

Australia's China gambit

With a population of just over 25 million people, Australia on its own cannot stop a Chinese military invasion. But it reckons it can raise the cost of that invasion with its 'Beowulf Option'. A 2008 defence white paper titled "Learning to Walk Amongst Giants" set out that Australia needs the military strength to "rip an arm off any major Asian power that sought to attack Australia". The reference is to a medieval British legend, in which the hero Beowulf literally tears a limb off a much larger enemy, the marauding monster Grendel.

So how will the Australian Beowulf gnaw on China's limb? The white paper says Australia should be able to "do serious damage to the Chinese leadership's primary interests" and that it develop "the capability to stir serious internal disruptions and even revolts in the event that the Chinese threatened Australia's vital interests". It goes on to say the country should acquire 12 nuclear attack submarines, ballistic missile defences, arsenal ships armed with cruise missiles and 300-400 fifth-generation aircraft.

According to a report by the Sydney-based Lowy Institute, the PLA is not only developing the military capability to put at risk Australia's territorial integrity, but it is also on track to gain the ability to threaten Australia's access to international markets and energy sources and thus obtain direct coercive power over Australia's economic well being. "As a result of the wide moat of the Pacific Ocean, the PLA has historically been something that most Australians could safely ignore. Protected by distance and by its alliance with the greatest naval power in history, Australia's vital interests or territorial integrity have never been threatened by the PLA. But that situation is changing."

Clearly, after years of honeymooning under the feckless Prime Minister Kevin Rudd – who was notoriously pro-China and famously anti-India –, Australians are finally realising the dragon has a very dark side.

Fortress Australia

The decision to go in for nuclear-powered submarines neatly dovetails with Australia's larger rearmament goals. It "reflects growing concern in the government about China's military build-up, future intentions in the region and willingness to use coercion", Asia Society Policy Institute senior fellow Richard Maude said to the media.

Under current Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who has virtually declared Beijing as enemy number one, Australia has decided to acquire major weapons systems with an eye on containing China. Big money is to be splashed out on cyber warfare, underwater surveillance systems, space communication networks and high-powered strike missiles.

At the heart of Morrison's big spend is $800 million for the AGM-158C Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM). Fast and relatively manoeuvrable, it can be fired from the land or air and has a range greater than 370 km. The missile's primary target will be Chinese aircraft carrier flotillas which are set to become a permanent presence in the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

While the LRASM is primarily a defensive weapon, Australia will enhance its long-range strike capability with Tomahawk cruise missiles deployed on naval destroyers. The country also plans to go in for hypersonic weapons – missiles which can travel thousands of kilometres in minutes. These missiles will help provide a military deterrent during the current decade while Australia waits for its nuclear submarines to be built. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute estimates Australia would need to spend $72 billion over the next 20 years on buying missiles and guided weapons.

Nearly $11 billion would be spent on cyber warfare tools, which according to Morrison "says a lot about where the threats are coming from". He also warns that Australian institutions and businesses were being targeted by cyber-attacks from a "sophisticated state actor". The remarks can be broadly interpreted as aimed at China.

Another China-focused project is a $4.8 billion underwater surveillance network to detect submarines approaching Australian shores. Most likely it will focus on the island "choke points" around Indonesia and Papua New Guinea – the Malacca, Sunda, Lombok, Torres Straits and the Solomon Sea. This is likely to include fixed high-tech sensors reporting any unusual sounds, movement or magnetic anomalies. The money could also be spent on a fleet of autonomous robotic submarines.

All these weapons systems are in addition to the high-octane military hardware the US has been concentrating in its permanent military presence at the Robertson Army Barracks in the northern city of Darwin. A major Australian Army base, it is reported to be a future site of a United States Indo-Pacific Command, Marine Rotational Force-Darwin (MRF-D). America has signalled it would eventually station up to 2,500 troops, in addition to bombers, fighters, tankers and spy planes, followed by navy ships and submarines to be based in Perth.

Impact on India

Unlike the QUAD (US, Japan, India, Australia), AUKUS is a military alliance with a clear cut strategy – the containment of China. The communist nation is cranking out submarines, aircraft carriers and warships at an unprecedented rate, reminiscent of the Soviet Union which had gone down the same path in the 1980s, eventually building a 600-ship navy. But unlike the Russians, whose strategic overreach and military overspending brought down their empire, the Chinese are flush with cash and have the industrial might to back up their military. Beijing's goal is to develop a truly global navy by 2050. AUKUS, therefore, is a much-needed balancing force that will take on China in the Indo-Pacific region.

AUKUS – along with the presence of Australian nuclear submarines – will increase the pressure on China. It will have to dedicate the vast majority of its sea, land, airborne and rocket forces concentrated on its eastern seaboard facing the navies of the US and its allies, including the powerful Japanese undersea fleet. This makes it difficult for the PLA to permanently station large forces against India.

Lessons for India: Sunk-cost fallacy

Having invested several billion dollars since 2016 in the French submarine programme, Australia did a commendable job of resisting what is known as the sunk cost fallacy. The sunk cost fallacy reasoning states that further investments or commitments are justified because the resources already invested will be lost otherwise.

Therefore, the sunk cost fallacy is a mistake in reasoning in which the sunk costs of an activity are considered when deciding whether to continue with the activity. This is also often known as throwing good money after bad. 

A famous example of the sunk cost fallacy impacting large-scale decisions is the Concorde project. In 1956, the French and British governments were involved in the project that was estimated to cost almost $100 million. Long before a single Concorde took off, it was clear the financial gains from operating the plane would not offset the development costs. However, the manufactures and governments kept investing more because they had already made significant investments. The Concorde operated for less than 30 years and airlines never made a profit on its routes.

It has an important lesson for India's defence procurement and manufacturing sector which has continued to pursue white elephants and unworkable projects. The Arjun main battle tank is the best – or rather the worst – example of a project that should have been abandoned decades ago but continues to nibble away at the country's defence budget. The INSAS rifle is yet another failed programme that not only gobbled up thousands of crores of rupees but also saddled the Indian and Nepalese Armies with dud rifles.

Like the Australians, India's defence planners need to keep in mind that there's nothing you can do to regain the money that's lost. Pursuing a dud project is the equivalent of digging a deeper hole.

* Author is a New Zealand based defence analyst. His work has been published by the Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi; US Air Force Center for Unconventional Weapons Studies, Alabama; Russia Beyond, Moscow; Hindustan Times and Financial Express, among others. His articles have been cited extensively in books on diplomacy, counter terrorism, warfare and economic development.