The Royal Australian Navy's HMAS Waller (SSG 75), a Collins-class diesel-electric submarine, is seen in Sydney Harbour. Photo: AFP

At a joint press briefing with French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris last Sunday, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull hailed his country’s acquisition of French-designed submarines as “the largest and most ambitious military project in Australia’s history”. Canberra’s US$38.5 billion Future Submarine Program continues to prove a contentious issue domestically, however, all the more so after Tony Abbott – Turnbull’s predecessor – called for the Royal Australian Navy to be equipped with an underwater nuclear deterrent.

Speaking at the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney on June 29, Abbott said the current Australian submarine program – which he had contributed to launching when in office as prime minister – needed a revision. He believes Turnbull’s cabinet should shift the focus away from in-country construction of diesel-electric submarines to the purchase of off-the-shelf nuclear vessels from US, British or French manufacturers.

In April 2016, French shipbuilder DCNS (rebranded as Naval Group last month) won the tender to design and build 12 diesel-electric submarines for Australia. The Shortfin Barracuda will be a completely new platform based on the French defense company’s nuclear-powered Barracuda class.

Intra-party politicking was probably behind Abbott’s attack on the submarine policy of the Turnbull administration. But despite all the political posturing within the country’s liberal-conservative ruling majority, his tirade has ended up reviving the debate on the modernization of Australia’s underwater forces.

Lagging behind in submarine warfare

According to Abbott, the pace of Australia’s naval buildup is too slow, with the first Shortfin Barracuda not expected to enter service until the early 2030s. In his view, the country needs nuclear-powered submarines that do not require large modifications and can be commissioned swiftly.

Abbott’s suggestion derives from the assumption that while the security environment in the western Pacific is rapidly deteriorating, the Australian navy is not ready – and will not be for more than a decade – to compete with the naval power of potential enemies such as China and Russia.

The navy now has six Collins-class conventional submarines with a cruising speed of just 10 knots, while the new Shortfin Barracuda could reach 20 knots at most. Abbott pointed out that a nuclear-powered vessel could travel at nearly 40 knots underwater and reach geopolitical hot spots like the South China Sea – through which more than 50% of Australia’s trade passes – more quickly.

In Abbott’s opinion, Australia is being left behind in submarine warfare in the Indo-Pacific region. The Chinese navy can operate 67 submarines, of which nine are nuclear-powered, and the Russian Pacific Fleet has 24 subs, including 11 nuclear vessels. What’s more, Indonesia, Singapore, India and Vietnam are all expanding their underwater forces, while South Korea has 14 submarines and Japan 19.

Further, Naval Group’s recent declaration that it will not stick to the original pledge of doing 90% of the Shortfin Barracuda production work in South Australia has raised further doubts over Canberra’s submarine program. Abbott is particularly critical of the government’s decision to subordinate the country’s naval reinforcement to the inclusion of Australian companies in the process.

Improving interoperability with Washington

Naval Group and Canberra have never talked about nuclear submarines, Brent Clark, chief executive of the French defense producer’s Australian branch, told the Defence Connect website last week.

In the wake of Abbott’s speech in Sidney, Australian Defense Minister Marise Payne said her country did not have the hardware and personnel required to realize nuclear submarines. She added that Canberra did not have the competences and infrastructure to operate, sustain and maintain nuclear vessels.

To deal with the country’s logistical and technical gap in the nuclear sector, Abbott had proposed buying nuclear submarines from foreign suppliers and stationing them in Guam. Payne rejected that idea, stressing that such a move would put Australia’s sovereignty at risk.

Abbott argues that Australia’s naval forces cannot operate without nuclear submarines. In contrast, the government in Canberra is persuaded that 12 modified Barracuda submarines would be sufficient to boost the navy’s ability to deter potential foreign intrusions and foster combined military deterrence with the United States, Japan and South Korea in the western Pacific.

The bottom line is that a bunch of nuclear vessels would not turn Canberra into a maritime challenger of Beijing. Turnbull and his cabinet appear to understand this while trying to improve naval interoperability with Washington and other allies in the region. Shortfin Barracuda submarines supplied with the Lockheed Martin combat system will doubtless serve this purpose.

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Emanuele Scimia

Emanuele Scimia is a journalist and foreign policy analyst. He has written for Asia Times since 2011. His articles have also appeared in the South China Morning Post, the Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor, The National Interest, Deutsche Welle, World Politics Review and The Jerusalem Post, among others.